A young boy was born in Sweden in 1833, the son of an engineer, fourth of eight children. The boy was sickly as a child and learned the fundamentals of his father’s trade. He had intellectual curiosity and, like many other little boys, an intense interest in blowing things up. But this boy was different. Alfred Nobel continued to study explosives and military equipment, which his father’s factory manufactured during the Crimean War. When the war ended and they tried to switch to peaceful purposes, they went bankrupt.
Alfred began experimenting with explosives and managed to find a way to explode a volatile but until then unusable substance called nitroglycerin. He created the detonator that became the blasting cap, the beginning of modern explosives. It was a dangerous profession, and in 1864, his entire factory blew up from an accident, killing his younger brother and several others.
In 1867, Nobel invented dynamite, which was much safer and easier to handle, and Nobel became a rich man. Many people of his day saw him as a war-monger and a merchant of destruction. Nobel himself hoped humanity would one day see the futility of such destructive powers and become peaceful.
Nobel never married and when he died in 1895, he left a vast fortune. At the opening of his will there was a great shock to family and friends. He left the bulk of his fortune to establish what have become known as the Nobel Prizes, the most highly regarded of international awards in the sciences and humanities, and one most highly prized, the Nobel Peace prize, given to that person who most advances the cause of world peace.
What would cause a man whose own life was spent in the pursuit of wealth and the development of destructive forces to make his legacy be that of such noble ends?
There has been speculation about this, but the most likely may be traced to a bizarre incident in 1888. That year, his brother Ludwig died in France. French newspapers, mistaking him for Alfred, printed pre-prepared obituaries about his life, announcing that “the merchant of death is dead” in a big headline. What he may have read there could have caused dismay. The world saw a millionaire who was “the dynamite king” and a trafficker in blood and war for profit.
It may have been lost on his detractors that Nobel himself invented other things and even in his explosive work hoped it would be turned to good ends—construction, for example. Because of dynamite, we can now literally and quite easily fulfill Jesus’ statement: “If you have faith, you can move mountains.” But what the world seemed to see of his life was something more sinister.
Perhaps, after that rare gift of the opportunity to see oneself from the vantage point of death, Nobel determined to leave something greater as his legacy, one that would bring the world better things.
But as we barely raised the flag back to its place, we had to lower it once more. Another crazy and irrational outburst of weaponry in an ordinary grocery store. People were waiting to get vaccines and buy laundry detergent. A heroic policeman, father of seven, rushed in to his death to try to stop the killer. Now his children will grow up without a father. We’ll send money for the kids, call our Congress people, and that’ll be the end of it.
Spare me the talking points. I’m too weary to listen to the tired arguments again, only to disappear with the next news cycle. We need something utterly unexpected, a bequest for peace from one of the harbingers of death, perhaps, to cry, “Enough. Let’s spend every breath and dollar trying to make peace with each other. We’ve had enough death, enough anger, enough rage. Enough. My fortune to someone who can find a solution.” Now THAT would be news, and not too soon. It will have to start in a troubled conscience somewhere, maybe tonight….