I am fully aware of the macabre in having an entire article centered around death, but if one can see beyond the melancholy and sadness of death, there is a great deal to learn from it.
Obviously, we cannot learn from our death, but life has given us the privilege of learning from the demise of others. Although that might still be hard to internalize. So, what if you were able to read the announcement of your death, while you’re still alive. To see what people really think about you? What legacy did you leave behind and how it is perceived ? Such is the story I am about to share with you. The story of Alfred Nobel. The man who gave us the Nobel Prize, and precisely because of an experience he had after he read about his death in the newspapers.
Alfred Nobel was a Swedish Chemist in the late 1800s. In the formative years of his life, Alfred suffered from various illnesses, including one that had him at a 50/50 chance of survival. Furthermore, he was epileptic and had severe migraine headaches. These illnesses kept him indoors most of the time, while his mother home-schooled him in his early years. His illness eventually abated and Alfred grew up to pursue his dreams. He was an extremely gifted child with an excellent memory and superior command of language. It is said that as a teenager, he was fluent in five languages. His father, Immanuel Nobel, was a chemist himself. And in fact, was the inventor of what we call plywood today.
Apples don’t fall far from their trees indeed, because while Immanuel had a modest career as a chemist, his son, Alfred, upped the ante. He made several breakthrough discoveries, including the Dynamite. 19th century history, (and indeed even current events), prove that making explosives and war machines is a sure way of making money. Alfred was a benefactor of this. Although in his defense, Alfred argued that his invention of these powerful explosives would act as war deterrents – similar to the discourse around nuclear deterrent today. He once said:
“…My dynamite will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.”
As it turns out, this was wishful thinking on his part.
Alfred’s invention of the dynamite, which he had patented, made him so much money. Companies from around the world rushed to purchase the dynamite. We do not know exactly how much he made from these explosives, but we can guesstimate from an anecdotal report of one of his workers.
His housemaid was getting married, and Alfred asked what she wanted as a gift. She replied, “As much as you make in a day”. The next day, Alfred gave her a cheque of $100,000 (that is ₦ 41,000,000 in CBN rate). Even more money came into his coffers when he invented the Dynamite 2.0 – the gelignite, which was far deadlier than the original dynamite. He established the United States Blasting Oil Company and the British Dynamite Company, amongst many other explosive companies.
In 1888, Alfred’s brother, Ludwig, died. And the news spread like wildfire, albeit with a twist. The newspapers wrongly inferred that it was Alfred that had passed away. As such, Alfred was able to read about his obituary in the newspapers. There are many letters from friends of Alfred, who wrote to him in joy that he was alive. And there are many reports from public that was unflattering, to say the least. One of the newspapers’ headlines allegedly read: “The Merchant of Death, is Dead”, another read “The mutilator who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.”
Nicholas Halasz, wrote in his book “A biography of Alfred Nobel“, that Alfred reflecting on the announcement of his premature obituary, was shaken to his core. He dedicated the rest of his days to leaving a befitting legacy. Alfred Nobel bequeathed 94% of his total wealth (more than $285 million in today’s money) to the Nobel Prize. The annual award is to be given to the person who has conferred the greatest contributions for the benefit of mankind. This has become perhaps the most prestigious award in the academic world. Every year, a person (or a maximum of three) is/are awarded for their contribution to the world in the fields of Physics, Medicine, Chemistry, Economy, Literature and Peace.
In 1896, Alfred Nobel died at the age of 63. His legacy today, is that of an inventor, and a philanthropist. He hoped that his philanthropy will serve as a penance for the destructive force his explosives had unleashed upon the world.
This week, the Nobel committee will be announcing this year’s Nobel Prize winners. Who do you think has pioneered the greatest breakthrough for the benefit of mankind in 2021 ? What do you think about the inventions of the recipients?