In the 18th century America needed to unite a continent by blasting tunnels through mountains of rock.
But there was a problem.
The most powerful explosive was nitro-glycerine.
It came in a liquid form and it was incredibly unstable.
Any sudden shock could detonate it.
It was so powerful it could save months of backbreaking digging.
So it was used by gold-miners, oil-well drillers, rock tunnellers.
But the conditions were never ideal.
It might be steep, or dark, or wet.
And that meant someone might slip and drop the nitro-glycerine.
That wasn’t good news.
As well as the deaths in the mines and tunnels, there were the larger tragedies in the towns.
In 1866, a crate of nitro-glycerine was shipped via Wells Fargo.
The crate was found to be leaking.
The clerks thought they’d better open it and check the contents.
They tried to open the crate with a hammer and chisel.
The blast killed fifteen people.
Windows were blown out half a mile away.
The local newspaper reported a human arm stuck on a third floor ledge and a human vertebra found on the next street.
In San Francisco, a nitro-glycerine factory exploded.
Fifteen people were killed and the blast was heard forty miles away.
Locals thought it was an earthquake.
Papers reported human remains scattered along the road for a mile.
In 1864, Alfred Nobel’s younger brother was killed in an explosion.
Alfred Nobel was a scientist and a pacifist.
He decided to make nitro-glycerine safe.
He discovered he could mix it with a certain earth to create a paste.
The paste was stable and wouldn’t explode until ignited.
He called his invention Dynamite.
Dynamite could be made into sausage-shapes that could be packed into holes for blasting.
It could be transported or dropped without exploding.
Dynamite saved a lot of lives, and it made Nobel a rich man.
As a pacifist, he felt he’d helped make the world a better place.
Until his older brother died of an illness.
A French newspaper confused the brothers and reported the death as if it was Alfred Nobel himself.
The headline said “NOBEL, THE MERCHANT OF DEATH, IS DEAD”.
He was shocked.
The paper went on to describe him as “The man who got rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before”.
He couldn’t believe it.
In his reality he was a humanitarian for inventing Dynamite.
In their reality he was a monster for inventing Dynamite.
That wasn’t how he wanted to be remembered.
Nobel decided he would dictate the way he’d be remembered, not the newspapers.
So he founded the Nobel Awards.
Each year, a prize is awarded for Science, Chemistry, Medicine, Literature, and a special ‘Nobel Peace Prize’.
It is seen as the ulitimate prize, the one every scientist and statesman really wants to win.
The award that can define a career.
And the name Nobel is now remembered just the way he wanted.
For the most prestigious humanitarian prize in the world.
Not the way the newspapers wanted, as ‘the merchant of death’.