Sunday, March 10, 2024

Alfred Nobel—Man of War or Peace?

I was surprised to learn that Alfred Nobel, the creator of the Nobel Prizes, including the Peace Prize, made his fortune on dynamite and weapons. My husband, a mining engineer, uses dynamite for peaceful purposes. He knew of Mr. Nobel’s contribution to his industry.

Still, the Peace Prize seems at odds with the manufacture of implements of war. In his will, Mr. Nobel established awards in five categories: physical science, chemistry, medical science (or physiology), literature, and peace.

Alfred’s first three categories make sense, as the man was a brilliant chemist. The literature award wouldn’t have surprised those close to him since he had considered ambitions of becoming a writer. He enjoyed literature and even wrote some poetry and fiction.

To understand the Peace Prize, let’s consider his life. Born in Stockholm, Sweden, on October 21, 1833, Alfred was a descendant of Olof Rudbeck, a technical genius of the seventeenth century. His was a family of inventors.

His father created and manufactured tools for war— iron, steel, cannons, and other armaments. The family’s fortunes rose and fell with various wars. They prospered when conflict raged and occasionally filed for bankruptcy with the declaration of a truce.

Educated mainly through private tutors, Alfred excelled in chemistry and became fluent in six languages. Over his lifetime, he earned 355 patents. He traveled the world and worked with notable scholars of his day.

One such scholar, Ascanio Sobrero, invented nitroglycerine, a particularly unstable explosive material. It would detonate with the slightest provocation. Its dangers often outweighed its benefits.

Alfred found a way to stabilize it by incorporating an absorbent material. He considered naming the new substance “Nobel's Safety Powder.” Instead, he called it dynamite, based on the Greek word for power.

The name “safety powder” could speak to Nobel’s honorable intentions. It was—and is—used extensively in mining and construction. Large infrastructure projects, like roads, railroads, and building projects rely on the use of the explosive.

Many of Nobel’s patents, such as blasting caps, support the use of dynamite. The market grew quickly, and he built factories around the world.

However, many of his patents and factories supported weapons technology. He went into the family business and made a lot of money.

The man had few friends despite a massive business network. He once said, “My home is where I work, and I work everywhere.” He never married but maintained a couple of long-term friendships with women.

Bertha von Suttner, one of these women, worked briefly as his secretary. Then, she left to marry a baron. Nobel corresponded with her regularly for the rest of his life.

She became an activist for peace and likely greatly influenced his ideas about war and peace. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, nearly ten years after his death.

Alfred joined the Austrian Peace Association with her influence and donated money to their cause. However, he never really thought they could achieve lasting peace.

He believed that the power of dynamite could end all war. “Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilized nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.”

Maybe the most significant factor in creating the Peace Prize was an erroneous newspaper article about his supposed death. It called him “the Merchant of Death.” Rumor has it that when one of his brothers died, the newspaper thought he had died. The obituary didn’t paint him in a favorable light. This didn’t sit well with Alfred.

Sometime later, he wrote a new will, establishing the Nobel Prizes and endowing them with 94% of his fortune. The will was, of course, contested by his relatives. Eventually, the annual prizes were awarded according to his wishes.

Was Alfred Nobel a man of war or a man of peace?

I don’t think even he knew the answer to that question. I do know that his legacy will live on through his inventions and the coveted Nobel Prizes.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection

Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.

Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884

Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?


Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst, and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class.



  1. Thank you for posting today. It was very interesting to learn the history of the Nobel Prize.