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Nobel invents dynamite, starts Nobel Prizes

On this day (Dec. 10) in 1896, Swedish engineer, chemist and inventor Alfred Bernhard Nobel died at age 66 of a massive stroke in San Remo, Italy.

Known today primarily for being the inventor of dynamite and for establishing the prestigious Nobel Prize, Alfred was in fact one of the most innovative inventors, chemists, engineers and philanthropists of the 19th century.

Born Oct. 21, 1833, the fourth of engineer and inventor Immanuel and wife Caroline Nobel’s eight children, the precocious young Alfred was taught by private tutors with whom he quickly, at an early age, studied chemistry and engineering, and gained fluency in five languages (English, French, German, Russian and, of course, Swedish).

As a young man, Alfred moved frequently, living with his parents in Russia, traveling and studying in the United States, studying in Paris, and finally moving back to Sweden, where his father established a factory making military equipment (primarily explosives).

In 1864, the 29-year-old Alfred witnessed a huge explosion in his father’s factory, which killed five workers, including his younger brother, Emil.

Two years later, Alfred had invented what he called “dynamite” – a mixture of three parts nitroglycerin, one part diatomaceous earth, and a small dose of sodium carbonate.

Patented in 1867, dynamite, along with several other lucrative inventions, provided the basis for the enormous fortune Alfred used to establish the Nobel Prizes, which were to be awarded to honor men and women for noteworthy, beneficial achievements in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature, and especially for working toward world peace.

Upon his death, Alfred Nobel, after taxes and bequests to family, friends and favorite charities, left 31,225,000 Swedish kronor (approximately $250 million dollars) to fund the Nobel Prizes.

Coincidently, on this day (Dec. 10) in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt became the first American (and therefore, obviously, the first American president) to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, set up just 10 years earlier on this very same day (i.e., Dec. 10) for his famous, widely reported brokering of the Treaty of Portsmouth, ending the Russo-Japanese War.

In 1906, the Nobel Peace Prize consisted of a large gold medal, a diploma, and a sizeable cash award. Upon learning of his winning the esteemed prize, Roosevelt wrote to the Nobel Prize Committee: “The medal and diploma will be prized by me throughout my life, and by my children after my death. I have turned over the money to a committee ... to be used ... to promote ... peace” in the world.

Roosevelt did not actually pick up the prize until May 5, 1910, when he traveled to Christiania, Norway, where, in his acceptance speech, he proclaimed that the Nobel Prize was much needed to help “curb greed and violence” in the world and to “check a cruel and unhealthy militarism in International relationships.”

Since 1906, three other U.S. presidents have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Woodrow Wilson in 1919, James (Jimmy) Carter Jr. in 2002, and Barack Obama in 2009.

• Crystal Lake resident Joseph C. Morton is professor emeritus at Northeastern Illinois University and author of “The American Revolution” and “Shapers of the Great Debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787.” Email him at demjcm@comcast.net.

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