On dynamite and peace

When I was a youngster in the mid-1950s, we lived on a small farm that had a high rocky hill behind our house and pasture field. A mining company asked if they could drill some holes and then blow the rock up with dynamite to see if there were valuable metals down there. The day of the blast, they told my father to board up the windows of the house on the blast side in case of wayward flying rocks.

We had to stay in the house during the blast. This was exciting stuff for a kid, but not for my parents who had seen a lot of destruction during the war years caused by explosives. No rocks came near the house but I remember we found jagged pieces of rock in the pasture and the hay field.

Nothing of value was found but that word, dynamite, made quite the impression on me. Since then, I’ve watched many documentaries on how big building projects like the Hoover Dam and the Panama Canal were blasted out of solid rock hundreds of feet deep.

A few years ago I was in Stockholm, Sweden, taking a bus tour of the city. Our Swedish tour guide pointed out many of the famous landmarks. Our guide pointed to Stortorget Square, home of the Stock Exchange, where the Swedish Academy meets each year to decide the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Parliament building, the Royal Opera and the King’s Garden (Kungstradgarden) are all in the vicinity of the Old Town.

Then our guide wanted us to see the house where a famous man grew up: Alfred Nobel, the Swede who invented dynamite in 1867. Now that had me excited. The guide said Alfred wasn’t popular with his neighbours. In fact, as a young man he was asked to move away from the neighbourhood because he was always trying to blow things up.

Alfred Nobel (1833-96) was born in Stockholm. He was a chemist, inventor and philanthropist. After receiving an education in St. Petersburg, Russia and in the United States, where he studied mechanical engineering, he returned to St. Petersburg to work under his father, developing mines, torpedoes and other explosives.

In a family-owned factory he produced the formula for dynamite. Its name was coined by Nobel from the Ancient Greek word δύναμις (dýnamis), meaning “power.” Dynamite consists of a mixture of nitroglycerin or nitrostarch, sodium nitrate and an absorbent, such as wood, flour, sawdust or charcoal, to cushion the nitroglycerine from shock. Nobel used diatomaceous earth for the absorbent. He later produced ballistite, one of the first smokeless powders.

New direction

At the time of his death he controlled factories for the manufacturing of explosives in many parts of the world. He had amassed a great personal fortune from his inventions and from oil explorations.

He felt that he had unleashed a product with terrible destructive powers and his conscience bothered him. His will requested that the major portion of his $9.2 million estate be set up as a fund to establish yearly prizes for merit in physics, chemistry, medicine and physiology, literature and world peace.

Nobel wanted the peace prize to be decided by a committee of five persons to be elected by the Norwegian Storting. It was Nobel’s wish that in the awarding of prizes, no consideration whatsoever be paid to the nationality of the candidates; the most deserving person will be given the prize, whether of Scandinavian origin or not.

The first Nobel prizes were awarded on Dec. 10, 1901. Looking down the list I see five U.S. presidents: Barack Obama in 2009. Jimmy Carter in 2002, Thomas Woodrow Wilson in 1919, and Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Only one Canadian is on that list – Lester B. Pearson in 1957 for his role in trying to end the Suez Canal conflict. (Twenty Canadians have won other Nobels, most recently Alice Munro for literature.)

As of 2014, the Peace Prize has been awarded to 103 individuals and 22 organizations. Sixteen women have won the Nobel Peace Prize, more than any other Nobel Prize. 


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