19th Century Innovator – The Nobel legacy

“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.” – Alfred Nobel

“I intend to leave after my death a large fund for the promotion of the peace idea, but I am skeptical as to its results.” – Alfred Nobel

Villa NobelI have been living in the vicinity of San Remo for 15 years and I often drive to the Standa supermarket there on Sundays to do grocery shopping. Italian groceries are fresh and there are many exclusive but yet not expensive products that can only be bought in Italy. The Italian Riviera coastline in the Imperia province is also a very nice area to go for lunch or dinner with friends and family.

For several years I drove by the palatial villa on Corso Cavallotti 116, admiring it for its beauty without knowing what it was. Then twelve years ago I read Kenne Fant´s book Alfred Nobel A Biography and I found out that the villa, which is placed in a privileged position close to the sea and submerged in a luxuriant park, used to be the residence of Alfred Nobel.

Alfred Nobel was one of the giants of the 19th century, and what a period of giants it was. The invention of useable electricity, steel, and petroleum products during the 19th century lead to a second industrial revolution (1865–1900), that led to railways and steam ships, faster and wider means of communication, and inventions with names we all know today.

Industrial revolutionThe 19th century was also the age of machine tools, tools that made tools, machines that made parts for other machines, including interchangeable parts. The assembly line was invented, speeding up the factory production of consumer goods and the century gave birth to the professional scientist. The word scientist was first used in 1833 by William Whewell.

Inventors began to design practical internal combustion engines. The lightbulb, telephone, typewriter, sewing machine, all came of age during the 19th century. It was also the century of he first machines of mass destruction and warfare, terror and extermination on a scale never seen before. 

There is something profound in visiting a place where such an inventor and industrialist as Nobel lived out his days, but it is important to remember that during his own time he was highly controversial.

Alfred Nobel’s discoveries are characteristic; powerful explosives can help men perform admirable tasks. They are also a means to terrible destruction in the hands of the great criminals who lead peoples to war.
– Pierre Curie

Alfred NobelAs most of us know, Alfred Nobel was a Swedish scientist and innovator who invented dynamite and built a multinational conglomerate based on petroleum, explosives,  cannons and other arms.

Nobel held 350 different patents, dynamite being the most famous. He spent the last years of his life in San Remo, still experimenting, writing, reflecting, contemplating his life and the inventions he had made that had enabled the terrible scale and destruction of the American Civil War and would later enable the First World War, already possible to foresee by European intellectuals. He was born 1833 in Stockholm and died in San Remo in 1896.

For those of us who watched Sherlock Holmes A Game of Shadows at the cinema last year, I think the adapted character of Moriarty was cast on the image of Nobel the arms manufacturer. Allowing myself to speculate, I think also Jules Verne´s book The Begum´s Fortune may have been inspired by his life. During his days Alfred Nobel was a merchant of death.

Big gunsNobel travelled for much of his business life, maintaining companies in various countries in Russia, Europe and North America, keeping his main home in Paris from 1873 to 1891 until he moved permanently to San Remo. He spoke Swedish, Russian, French, Italian, English and German fluently.

In 1888 Alfred’s brother Ludwig died while visiting Cannes and a French newspaper erroneously published Alfred’s obituary. It condemned him for his invention of dynamite and is said to have brought about his decision to leave a better legacy after his death. The obituary stated “The merchant of death is dead" and went on to say, "Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday."

For Alfred Nobel the erroneous obituary was a wake up call, making him concerned with how he would be remembered. Having no wife or children, Nobel signed his last will and testament on 27 November 1895 and set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Prizes, to be awarded annually without distinction of nationality. The will is a relatively short document, handwritten by Nobel himself, where he emphasizes that he wants his wealth to reward those who benefit mankind. The will reads:

Alfred Nobel sitting downThe whole of my remain­ing real­iz­able estate shall be dealt with in the fol­low­ing way: the cap­i­tal, invested in safe secu­ri­ties by my execu­tors, shall con­sti­tute a fund, the inter­est on which shall be annu­ally dis­trib­uted in the form of prizes to those who, dur­ing the pre­ced­ing year, shall have con­ferred the great­est ben­e­fit on mankind.

The said inter­est shall be divided into five equal parts, which shall be appor­tioned as fol­lows: one part to the per­son who shall have made the most impor­tant dis­cov­ery or inven­tion within the field of physics; one part to the per­son who shall have made the most impor­tant chem­i­cal dis­cov­ery or improve­ment; one part to the per­son who shall have made the most impor­tant dis­cov­ery within the domain of phys­i­ol­ogy or med­i­cine; one part to the per­son who shall have pro­duced in the field of lit­er­a­ture the most out­stand­ing work in an ideal direc­tion; and one part to the per­son who shall have done the most or the best work for fra­ter­nity between nations, for the abo­li­tion or reduc­tion of stand­ing armies and for the hold­ing and pro­mo­tion of peace con­gresses.

The prizes for physics and chem­istry shall be awarded by the Swedish Acad­emy of Sci­ences; that for phys­i­o­log­i­cal or med­ical work by the Car­o­line Insti­tute in Stock­holm; that for lit­er­a­ture by the Acad­emy in Stock­holm, and that for cham­pi­ons of peace by a com­mit­tee of five per­sons to be elected by the Nor­we­gian Stort­ing.

It is my express wish that in award­ing the prizes no con­sid­er­a­tion what­ever shall be given to the nation­al­ity of the can­di­dates, but that the most wor­thy shall receive the prize, whether he be a Scan­di­na­vian or not.”


Nobel Prize.pngAfter Nobel’s death on Dec. 10, 1896, the Nobel Foundation was set up to carry out the provisions of his will and to administer the fortune he had left. 

The Nobel Prizes are widely regarded as the most prestigious awards given for intellectual achievement in the world. They are recognized by virtually every scientist, and they are also among the few prizes known by name to many ordinary citizens. The only international prizes that approach them in importance are those awarded in the Olympic Games. The Nobel Prize winners almost invariably fall into the top one percent of highly cited scientists.

Nobel banquetTomorrow, December 10th is the anniversary of Nobel’s death and also the date of the annual award ceremony in Stockholm. The highlight of the ceremony occurs when each Nobel Laureate steps forward to receive the prize from the hands of the King of Sweden. After the award ceremony follows a banquet, held at the Stockholm City Hall, which is attended by the Swedish Royal Family and around 1,300 guests.

When the Nobel Committee chose to honor me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow. – Aung San Suu Kyi

When the Nobel award came my way, it also gave me an opportunity to do something immediate and practical about my old obsessions, including literacy, basic health care and gender equity, aimed specifically at India and Bangladesh. – Amartya Sen

In many ways, when you’re a Nobel peace laureate, you have an obligation to humankind, to society. – Desmond Tutu

The Nobel Prizes have become an institution, inspiring scientists and authors and entitling the greatest with an award that is recognized and known and admired by scholar’s and people throughout the world. It has become the ultimate recognition of scientific achievement.

Alfred_Nobel_-_Statue_in_SanremoReturning to the Nobel villa in San Remo, I tried to visit it many times during the years but it was only in 2010 that I found it open for visitors. Some months ago I went there again together with my friend Christer Asplund.

The park around the villa includes several rare tree-species, including the tall “Cupressus macrocarpa”, a Californian species. At its roots is a Bofors cannon, dating back to 1883, that Nobel used to fire out at sea during his experiments on weapons’ range.

The villa is the property of the Province of Imperia, which has taken care of its restoration. It is now a museum set in three floors. The ground floor is dedicated to the activity of the scientist and inventor and the institution of the Nobel Prize and also houses a conference room decorated by Pompeian frescos. Nobel´s studio is on the first floor. In the basement is his laboratory, now with a collection of pictures giving a historical and technical description of the main experiments.

The villa contains original furniture and its architecture and eclectic decorations makes it a very original and fascinating building. The inside, with its wide windows facing the park, are frescoed and furnished according to the style of the end of the 19th Century.

San Remo continues to maintain its ties with Nobel, long after his death. Every December, large quantities of flowers are sent by the authorities in San Remo and the Board for Tourist Promotion of the Riviera dei fiori, to decorate the annual Nobel Prize Award Ceremony and Banquet in Stockholm.

Villa Nobel in 2006
Villa Nobel in 2011, with narration in Italian

1 comment

  1. Between 1865-1921 dynamite was manufactured at the Nobel factory at
    Vinterviken in the outskirts of Stockholm. Working conditions weredangerous, and in the early years of development, there were manyexplosions and deaths. As a result of hosting almost a century of industry, Vinterviken is in fact, fraught with highly contaminated soil. This grim and violent past has left it’s mark. Nobel is most often remembered for creating a safer product, and celebrated for his contribution towards the peace and other prizes, but lying beneath the surface is another kind of legacy, This is toxic terrain. There are at least 10 different metals in the soils, among the highest concentrations are lead, copper, zinc and arsenic – some concentrations reaching over 28X the Swedish legal hazardous waste limits. The provincial government states that :“Vinterviken has been included on the list of the county’s 10 most polluted areas.”
    the Nobel The Nobel Foundation plans to build an enormous Nobel Center in Stockholm. The whole site has to be excavated (with dynamite ?) down to 9 meters and large masses of clay and stone has to be transported through the fragile inner part of Stockholm.
    The center will, if built, demolish a maritime heritage of great cultural and historical value; a customs house built in 1876 and two unique warehouses built in 1910 and totally change the scape in this fragile old part of the city. Clothing company H&M is sponsoring with 400 milj. SEK. The Customs House has great historical value as a representative of late-19th-century government and administrative buildings in general and of Stockholm’s customs services, in particular. The warehouses are unique in Stockholm, since there are no longer any similar warehouses remaining at the harbour of Stockholm. Maybe it would be better to spend money to clean up after the old Nobel factory than to destroy the historic port environment for good ?

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

fifteen + ten =