Despite being one of the richest people in Europe, Alfred Nobel was not a happy man. The Swedish industrialist made his fortune by inventing (and later producing) dynamite. But his work made him a recluse. He spent most of his life traveling to oversee his vast multinational business, and he filled the rest of his time with reading and inventing. In fact, Nobel patented more than 300 inventions. While many were related to explosives, others included ideas for aluminum boats and artificial silk.
Nobel never married. Too cerebral for his own good, he considered himself “a worthless instrument of cogitation, alone in the world and with thoughts heavier than anyone can imagine.” So, he decided to leave his riches to those who “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind,” instead.
But even in this final act, Alfred Nobel managed to spread misery. His will enraged his nieces and nephews, who stood to inherit a fortune. It also angered millions of Swedes, who believed that Nobel was unpatriotic because he made the prizes open to people of all nations. Of course, four years after the philanthropist died, when the first Nobel Prize committee was assembled, the resentment began to evaporate.
This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and Linda Rodriguez-McRobbie and originally appeared in a 2010 issue of mental_floss magazine. Check out our new iPad edition and get the latest issue free!