Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Obituary That Changed The World

Just over a 100 years ago, a successful chemist was reading the obituaries listed in a French newspaper.  He had learned that his brother, Ludvig, died while visiting France and wanted to read what the French newspaper was saying about his brother.  Much to his surprise, he was shocked to see his name, not his brother's name, listed in the obituary.  The French reporter had gotten it wrong and the newspaper reported his death instead of his younger brother’s.

Upon seeing his name, his first response was shock and disbelief; however, once he regained his composure, his thoughts became somber and he wanted to see what the people of France were reading about him.  The obituary read: "Merchant of Death Passes Away - The man who killed more people in the world than anyone else is now dead."

"Is this how I will be remembered?" he asked himself.  Once he got his emotions under control, he decided this was not the way he wanted to be remembered, so in 1895, he had his last will and testament rewritten.   He made it clear that the bulk of his great fortune (approximately $250 million in today's dollars) was to be placed in a special foundation and from that day forward, he started working toward world peace.

He established five awards he wanted bestowed annually. The five categories of the awards he created were for eminence in the fields of Physical Science, Chemistry, Medical Science or Physiology, Literary Works, and the last award - to the person who best promoted the cause of International Fraternity.

His name, which you probably have already guessed, was Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and the creator of the Nobel Prize.  

But what impressed me was not the awards Nobel created, but how Alfred generated his huge fortune.

Nobel discovered that if he mixed nitroglycerin with an inert absorbent substance it became less volatile.  This discovery made nitroglycerin safe and convenient for the average man to handle.  He patented his new mixture in 1867.   He planned to call his invention "Nobel's Safety Powder".   However, his financial backers pressured him to change the name.  They wanted it called "Dynamite", the Greek word for power.
Alfred then went on to experiment with other volatile compounds to create other new explosives.   His second invention was a transparent, jelly-like substance, which was even more powerful than dynamite and was called "Blastin".   Blastin was patented in 1876 and marketed as "Gelignite".   Gelignite, like dynamite, was very stable and easily transportable.  However, instead of being packed in sticks, it could be conveniently formed into almost any shape, such as to fit into the long narrow holes bored in mine shafts.

Finally, as an off-shoot of his research with Blastin, he created a third invention - Ballistite.  Ballistite, the precursor of modern day "smokeless powder explosives", was ideally suited for high-powered {bullet} cartridges and rocket propellants.
So the question we need to ask is, how should Alfred Nobel be remembered?  As the "Merchant of Death" or was he a harbinger of world peace?