Alfred Nobel held his breath as a workman delicately lifted the glass bottle of nitroglycerin from its packing crate of wood shavings soaked in water. It was a cool morning, and he had to work fast before heat from the sun caused the temperature to rise above eighty degrees Fahrenheit.
The workman gently carried the bottle by the tips of his fingers. He could not clutch it in his hands because even his body heat would raise the temperature above the danger level. Nitroglycerin was the most powerful explosive known in 1860, and one bottle could destroy anything or anyone within a radius of one hundred feet.
Alfred Nobel was a Swedish chemist and engineer who traveled to the United States as a young man. What he saw there convinced him of the need for a safe and dependable explosive in that vast country that needed a great deal of work done—bridges built, tunnels cut, canals dug. Why, plans were already being made for one of the greatest construction projects of all time—a transcontinental railway system to connect California with the eastern states! To make that possible, a way would have to be carved through the great Rocky Mountains by the daily toil of human muscle power so that tracks could be laid. There must be a better way, Alfred decided.
Returning to Sweden, the young scientist eventually perfected nitroglycerin. He believed that a single explosion of nitroglycerin could do work that required days if men just dug with picks and shovels.
He went out on construction sites to make sure that the workmen handled the new explosive properly. On most occasions they did, but some were not as careful as they should have been. Each year a score of men were killed because they failed to follow the directions that Alfred Nobel, who manufactured the explosive, packed with each shipment.
As time went on, increasing numbers of workmen failed to handle it as directed. One man greased the axle of his wagon with it. Others threw unused amounts of it into the fire. Some simply did not understand nitroglycerin’s great power and stood too close when it exploded.
Soon people began pointing a finger at Nobel, blaming him for the deaths of careless workers. And in 1864 Nobel’s own factory exploded, killing his brother. Immediately production was suspended until Nobel had a floating laboratory built in the middle of a lake to prevent any unintentional explosion from injuring anyone but himself. Some substance that could be safely substituted for nitroglycerin had to be found.
In 1867, after nearly four years of experimentation, Nobel solved the problem. When nitroglycerin was absorbed by sticks of compressed diatomaceous earth (a porous material made of the skeletons of tiny one-celled sea animals), the result was a safe, dependable explosive.
He tested the sticks and was delighted to see that the explosive force remained but that the sticks were practically impossible to set off unintentionally. He called the new invention dynamite, from a Greek word meaning abundant power.
Nobel could hardly wait for his discovery to be put to use. It was safe, and it would save lives. Soon dynamite was being shipped all over the world.
In the United States the West was largely tamed by railroads that required large amounts of dynamite to clear the way for solid railbeds. Bridges, foundations for buildings, tunnels, mines, canals, and dams were all constructed with the help of this new and safer explosive.
But Nobel’s jubilation turned to horror when he learned that the new explosive was also being used by nations at war. He was heartsick. People began to think of him as a mad scientist who made his fortune by manufacturing death for warring nations. Newspapers called him a murderer.
Nobel became a millionaire, then a multimillionaire. But he was not seeking money, and above all else he dreaded to be remembered as a merchant of destruction.
Will my name be forever connected with death and war? he wondered.
In 1896 a saddened Nobel prepared a handwritten will that provided for the awarding of large cash prizes to humanitarians who worked toward peace and to people who made outstanding contributions in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature. In 1969 an additional prize was established in the field of economic science.
Today, the world listens when the winners of the Nobel prizes are announced. It is a great honor for one who, as Nobel stated in his will, “during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.”
Some Nobel prizewinners have been: Wilhelm Roentgen in 1901 for the discovery of X rays; Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, the peace prize; Albert Schweitzer in 1952, the peace prize; Sir Winston Churchill in 1953 for literature; John Enders, Thomas Weller, and Frederick Robbins in 1954 for developing tissue culture for polio viruses; John Bardeen for his work with transistors. Marie Curie, who was awarded Nobel prizes in both physics and chemistry, was the first person to receive honors in more than one field.
Today few people remember Nobel as the inventor of dynamite. Instead, they eagerly await the announcement of Nobel prizewinners, especially the one for peace.