The paradox of Alfred Nobel

From the ashes of destruction to the Nobel Peace Center

Nobel Peace Center

Photo courtesy of the Nobel Peace Center
The Nobel Peace Center is located in the old Vestbane building on Oslo’s City Hall Square.

CYNTHIA ELYCE RUBIN
Travel Editor
The Norwegian American

Alfred Nobel

Photo: Riksarkivet / public domain
Portrait of Alfred Nobel, taken before 1896, exact date unknown.

This article begins and ends with the story of one man. Alfred Bernhard Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish chemist, engineer, inventor, entrepreneur, poet, and finally, a philanthropist. 

Born in Stockholm in 1833, Nobel was descended from a long line of inventors, including Olof Rudbeck the Elder, a well-known technical genius of 17th-century Sweden’s golden age and professor of medicine at Uppsala University. Soon after Nobel’s birth, his father moved to St. Petersburg, Russia, leaving the family in Sweden. He landed a contract with a Russian general who was interested in his designs for sea and land mines and experimented with explosives in construction, eventually to build a successful engineering company. 

When Nobel was 9, he moved to Russia to be privately educated. Later, his father sent him to study in Sweden, France, Germany, and the United States, where he spent time with John Ericsson, inventor of the screw propeller and builder of the first ironclad warship, the Monitor. In Paris, Nobel, met chemist Ascanio Sobrero, who had invented nitroglycerine, a material so dangerous it was believed to have little practical value.

In 1852, Nobel returned to Russia to join the family business. He soon was awarded his first patent for “blasting oil,” a mixture of nitroglycerine and black powder that was more reliable than earlier versions. Soon afterward, he received a patent for a blasting cap to detonate the blasting oil. Nobel’s career had begun.

Forging ahead, Nobel had factories in Germany and Scotland. He lost workers and even his brother in blasts, but he persevered. In 1867, he discovered dynamite. The developments of the diamond bit and pneumatic drill made dynamite a commercial success, propelling him into the lucrative arms business. 

Nobel died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1896 in San Remo, Italy.

Nobel Peace Center

Photo courtesy of the Nobel Peace Center
The facade of the Nobel Peace Center, in the old Vestbane building on Oslo’s City Hall Square.

By the time Nobel died, he had plants and laboratories at 90 locations in 20 countries. His health was never good; depression took hold of him. He traveled extensively, but he had no permanent home. At the end of his life, he acquired AB Bofors in Sweden. At Björkborn, a property on the Bofors estate in Karlskoga, Björkborn Manor became his last home in Sweden. It is now a museum with permanent displays offering a unique insight into Nobel; there is also his laboratory, where Nobel continued experiments on artificial silk, synthetic rubber, and varnish. For more information, visit nobelkarlskoga.se. 

Nobel said, “My home is where I work, and I work everywhere.”  As an inventor, he was brilliant. As a business owner, he made lots of money. But as a human being, he was introverted, lonely, and suffered from health problems. On the other hand, he wrote poetry and drama and spoke several languages. Enticed by peace activities, he contributed money but never became directly involved.

Albert Einstein, in a 1945 speech, declared that Nobel invented a powerful explosive, an “effective means of destruction” but that he atoned for that with his award for “the promotion of peace.” We do know that in 1895 Nobel made a will providing for the establishment of the Nobel Prizes.  Certainly these awards reflect Nobel’s interests in science, inventions, literature and peace. He gave the bulk of his huge fortune to annual prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace. An economics prize was added later. The first Peace Prize was awarded in 1901. Barack Obama received it in 2009.

Barack Obama

Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix
President Barack Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

According to the Nobel Foundation, a private institution established in 1900, its ultimate responsibility is fulfilling the intentions in Alfred Nobel’s will. The main mission of the Nobel Foundation is to manage Alfred Nobel’s fortune in a manner that ensures a secure financial standing for the Nobel Prize over the long term and guaranteeing independence for the prize-awarding institutions in their work of selecting recipients. 

The foundation is also tasked with strengthening the Nobel Prize’s position by administering and developing the brands and intangible assets that have been built up during the Nobel Prize’s 100-year history. The Nobel Foundation also strives to safeguard the prize-awarding institutions’ common interests and to represent the Nobel organization as a whole.

The Nobel Peace Center in Norway, located in the former 1872 Vestbane train station close to Oslo City Hall and overlooking the harbor, is an independent foundation, financed through a combination of private donations and government grants. It tells the remarkable history of Alfred Nobel and “serves as a meeting place where exhibitions, discussions and reflections related to war, peace, conflict resolution and important social issues are in focus.”

Nobel

Photo: Heiko Junge / NTB scanpix
The face on the medal of the Norwegian Nobel Committee shows Alfred Nobel.

On its website, we learn that Nobel could be tough and cynical in business, but at the same time, he was both a misanthrope and a “superidealist.” He loved literature, wrote poems and a play, and gathered a large book collection, establishing the basis for his decision to set up a literature prize—to be awarded to the author of the best work “of an idealistic tendency.” But his idealism had a political aspect. Nobel supported those who spoke against militarism and war and wanted to make a contribution to work for disarmament and the peaceful solution of international conflicts.

Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute in the early 1990s, initiated the idea for the Nobel Peace Center. He felt a museum that presented the Nobel Peace Prize and the Prize laureates was missing. The idea was not as welcomed as he had originally thought, and working to make it a reality was difficult. Nonetheless, in 2005, he eventually succeeded. In a 2015 interview by journalist Ingvill Bryn Rambøl, Lundestad was asked why the new museum was named a center and not a museum. He answered, “We had jettisoned the musty museum image. My biggest fear was, and still is, that people will think of the Nobel Peace Center as something rather dull.”

Conflict resolution and international peace brokering reflect the fearless Viking spirit of searching for the unknown. The Vikings were not afraid of other cultures. They had a thirst for knowledge and were bold innovators. Although, they hold a reputation as brutal raiders, the Vikings also left behind peaceful settlements. In addition, the purpose of their assembly known as the Thing was to solve disputes. 

Nobel Peace Center

Photo courtesy of the Nobel Peace Center
Photo artist Aida Muluneh has created a unique photo essay on food and war at the Nobel Peace Center.

In my opinion, the Nobel Peace Center, a meeting place where conflict resolution is a topic is a continuation of the Viking spirit. Today, because of the pandemic, the current exhibition at the Nobel Peace Center (until Dec. 1, 2021) is digital, as is the awarding of the Nobel Prizes and the Peace Prize to the World Food Program. The photo series, “Road of Glory,” illustrates how food and hunger are used as weapons in war and conflict. Go to nobelpeacecenter.org to read more and plan to visit there on your next visit to Oslo.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Cynthia Elyce Rubin

Cynthia Elyce Rubin, PhD, travel editor, is a visual culture specialist, travel writer, and author of articles and books on decorative arts, folk art, and postcard history, who collects postcards, ephemera, and early photography. See www.cynthiaelycerubin.com.

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