UW News

October 6, 2015

Documents that Changed the World: Alfred Nobel’s will, 1895

UW News

Alfred Nobel (1801 - 1872).

Alfred Nobel (1833 – 1896)Wikipedia

Alfred Nobel is remembered as the Swedish fellow behind the annual international prizes for peace, chemistry, literature, physics and medicine, given now for more than a century.

But had it not been for his confused and incomplete last will and testament, Nobel’s name might be remembered differently — because he was also the inventor of dynamite, and grew rich on the development of lethal explosives.

That will, thrice written and sorely lacking key details, is the latest installment of University of Washington Information School professor Joe Janes‘ Documents that Changed the World podcast.

In the podcasts, Janes explores the origin and often evolving meaning of historical documents, both famous and less known. UW Today presents these occasionally, and all of the podcasts are available online at the Information School website.

“I started with Nobel and the origin of the prizes, and discovered it’s yet another example of something everybody knows about — just not very much,” Janes said. He already knew the key detail that Nobel held the patent for dynamite and that his fortune came from developing various forms of it as well as gunpowder and nitroglycerine.

Documents that Changed the World:
Alfred Nobel’s will, 1895

Along the way, Janes found a Nobel story that is persuasive but likely more myth than truth. It goes that when Nobel’s brother was killed in an explosives accident (the second brother lost to that fate) in 1888, a French newspaper thought Nobel himself had perished, and ran an obituary under the headline “The merchant of death is dead.”

This is said to have upset Nobel and prompt him to leave his money to good causes, which he stated in the third and final version of his will, though a 2013 article at Smithsonian.com argues that the newspaper does not exist and that the story is apocryphal.

Regardless of his motivation for writing it, Nobel’s rambling, four-page third and final will ultimately set the annual prizes into motion by stating the bulk of his money be invested in a fund the interest of which “shall be annual distributed in the form of prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.”

“Frankly, it’s a mess,” Janes said of the will. “It was a complete surprise to everybody, contested by the family, and not well planned or thought through, and yet somehow, it was made to work.”

In his podcast, Janes discusses wills in general before moving to the specifics of Nobel prizes both good and ill, including one in 1949 for development of the pre-frontal lobotomy.

He also notes Nobel’s will — and the prizes in his name that followed — “likely kicked off, or at least fostered, the idea of prizes for great achievement in general — and helped to reinvent Nobel’s reputation for generations to come.”

Nobel’s will, Janes said, “in firm black ink, doing just about everything wrong and constructed so poorly that it should never have been honored, nevertheless changed the fortunes of nearly a thousand beneficiaries its author could never have imagined, and of their benefactor as well.”

  • The Documents that Changed the World podcast series is also available on iTunes, and is approaching a quarter of a million downloads so far
  • For more about this or any of the Documents that Changed the World podcasts, contact Janes at jwj@uw.edu.

Previous installments of the “Documents that Changed the World” series