The reason Nobel Prizes exist is found in the guilt-ridden remorse of Alfred Nobel. Mr. Nobel (1833-1896) was a Swedish arms merchant who invented dynamite. Unlike nitroglycerin which can explode merely by jostling it, dynamite is a very stable compound – at least until it’s detonated. And for the record, TNT (despite AC/DC’s lyrics to the contrary) is not dynamite. Nobel invented dynamite a few years after the less stable and less powerful TNT came to market. OK, so much for a crash course in mid-19th Century explosives. The question is, how did we get from a rapacious arms merchant in Sweden to the revered Nobel Prizes we have today?
In 1864 a nitroglycerin explosion in Nobel’s factory killed 5 people including Alfred’s brother Emil. This tragic event was the impetus for Alfred to create a safer, more stable explosive (dynamite). He accomplished this in 1867. Tragedy generally plays a role in the creation of a variety of worthy inventions such as seat belts, gun safes and sneeze guards. And let us not forget that the national tragedy of tedium spurred great advancements in distractions like Angry Birds and Words with Friends. These popular distractions weren’t born fully formed. Angry Birds began its life as Disgruntled Birds and Words with Friends started out merely as Words with Acquaintances. Like most things, they took time to evolve and mature just as Alfred Nobel’s priorities took time to fully mature.
Alfred Nobel became a wealthy man from the sale of his patented dynamite. It was marketed as Nobel’s Safety Powder (which it was, being so stable). Dynamite was initially used for mining and road projects. Things with economic and infrastructural benefit. But just like television was going to be the great education box before it devolved into its less savory form, Nobel’s “safety powder” was going to move mountains in good ways until it was packed into armaments and exploded on people’s heads (thank you very much Franco-Prussian War 1870-71). In short order dynamite shells and casualties were going through the roof. The demand for the now not-so-safe powder also went through the roof (they had very weak roofs back then). The demand for dynamite only slackened when the military men who ordered it began to die from its effects. Besides Otto Von Bismarck who managed to unify Germany, the only other beneficiaries of the war were the Bereavement Industry and Alfred Nobel.
Fast forward to 1888 when peculiar fortune shined on Alfred in the form of death. Not his death, but by the death of another brother named Ludvig. In the prevalent misinformation of the day, a French newspaper erroneously printed Alfred’s obituary instead of Ludvig’s thereby allowing Alfred to achieve that rarest of occurrences – to read his own obituary. And when he did, it was an epiphany. He was aghast the paper had dubbed him the Merchant of Death or more specifically: Le marchand de la mort est mort (“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.”
This was a metaphorically explosive event in his life. It became his Ebenezer Scrooge moment and Alfred vowed to create a penitential make-good to negate the lethal horrors of the dynamite he visited so recklessly unto the world. Thus were born the Nobel Prizes; designed to promote invention, industry and service to mankind. Alfred, a confirmed bachelor (confirmed by his longtime male companion Gustav, who, evidently was dynamite in bed), devoted much of his life to investing his vast fortune (estimated at $250 million) into a trust to institute and perpetuate the Nobel Prizes.
These prizes are now awarded annually in Stockholm, Sweden except for the peace prize; which for some reason (probably having to do with ABBA) is awarded in Oslo, Norway. The Nobel Prizes are awarded for excellence in fields ranging from nanotechnology to material sciences. The prestigious institution Alfred Nobel created has served as a catalyst for human progress and a reward for those who have achieved significance in the service of mankind. They’re the Oscars for technological, academic, aesthetic and peaceful pursuits. Not only does a Nobel recipient receive an 18k gold-plated statue, but also about $1.2 million they can receive either in cash or in an Amazon gift card.
And to think this beneficial human accelerant (the Nobel Prizes) resulted from the happenstance of a French newspaper editor’s error in publishing a mistaken obituary that intersected with Alfred’s chance encounter in reading the errant notice while visiting Cannes.
The Nobel Prizes have served as both a global incentive to educe excelsior accomplishments from the best and the brightest, and a revered marker for recognizing and rewarding people whose stellar achievements brought something worthy unto the world. The more well-known Nobel Prizes are for Peace and Economics, however there are some lesser known Nobel Prizes that have been discontinued as the more primitive times of the late 19th century gave way to modernity.
With all this pious sincerity I’m issuing on the topic of ardent Alfred’s transformation from rapacious monster to societal benefactor, it’s important to remember that gravitas demands a dash of humor. So herewith I’m here with the Discontinued Nobel Prizes:
- The Resheath Your Pitchfork Award: Bestowed upon Circumference Counselors for helping frightened villagers overcome their fear of the Wheel
- The Dickensian Prize for Soot: Awarded for improvements in Chimney Sweep Safety
- The Marconi Prize: Given for improvements to the Wireless Talking Box
- The Supreme Appreciation Award for Word Processing: To Microsoft employee Rachel Bailey, inventor of the “Undo” button. All praise unto Rachel! Wish I had one for 1975.
- Halitosis Abatement Trophy: Given for progress in the field of Breath Mint Technology. Without it there’d be no drop of Retsyn in Certs.
- Lemons to Lemonade Award: Given to the first Seamstress who sewed a Onesie for newborn Siamese Twins. Then, when they became adolescents, she constructed a unicycle for them.
My Ebenezer Scrooge Moment
I will admit the impetus for writing these heartfelt insights into the redeemed life of Alfred Nobel is that in perusing the New York Times, I espied my (David Hardiman’s) obituary which, for some reason, was mistakenly printed in place of David Bowie’s. The obituary referred unto me as just another well-intentioned soul who went gently into that good night. Not quite a man in full, but more a man in half (at least I was half-full instead of half-empty). However the obit took no notice of my writing, which I now consider my full time job – a job whose only compensation is immense satisfaction. The satisfaction I experience by sculpting, redirecting and presenting protean thoughts as rickety stand-ins for something much deeper, eternal and inexpressible. My bliss is to take mundane ideas and infuse them with explosive connectivity so you’re transported from the prosaic to the sublime. Or at least from your easy chair to someplace kinda cool.
So I vow here and now (as opposed to “there and then”) to use my forum for the advancement of everyone. I seek to reduce suffering and increase the good kind of cholesterol. HDL for everyone, everywhere, now. My penitential make-good for a life of Scrooged sentiments will take a variety of written forms. One form will be a story about awarding prizes for the best jock strap in a supporting role all the while trying to avoid cliché. Another story could be about a guy whose starry-eyed outlook is shattered forever when he discovers, that which did not kill him, usually made him weaker. Not stronger. It seems, that which almost kills you, is pretty powerful stuff.
Still another story I write might be about teaching a dog to do something else in the pool besides the doggie paddle – boring – ever hear of the backstroke Grover? No, I pledge to carry on in the spirit of Alfred Nobel by detonating the verbal dynamite in my arsenal for your amusement and my edification (we all have to channel something). Whereby you look unto the nighttime sky at the illuminated contrails of my verbal confetti and exclaim, “Ooooh. Aaaah.”
To ensure my future obituary is replete with testaments to the popularity of my stories I’ll write each one like a hit single and band these singles together into a concept album with a really cool dust jacket. These stories will have themes or hooks in them so you’ll want to read them again and again until the grooves are worn out.
One single will be called Local Honey. In this story of Americana we’ll visit an Oregon Farmer’s Market to buy a locally produced honey. This locally produced “honey” will be named Francine and we’ll all get arrested by not declaring her as produce when we cross the state line into California.
In another smash hit I’ll take you on a journey to a restaurant so hip (Chez Pube), its only open 4 days a year. I’ll dine there on one of the other 361 days and after finishing a terrific meal, I’ll ask for the check. The server will look askance at me and say, “Check? I’m sorry sir we’ve been closed all month. You’ll have to leave.” Now that’s hip without being trendy. On those 4 days they are open, the Gulf shrimp risotto with roasted pimentos and cilantro flowers will cost $12,500 – $13,000 with a side salad. Chez Pube will stock rare bottles of A Root Beer. A Root Beer was produced in limited quantities before Mr. Andersen partnered with Mr. Wilkers thus producing the more familiar A&W Root Beer. This mug of A Root Beer can be yours for only $3.95 plus $986 CRV.
Will I ever win a Nobel Prize for literature? If Bob Dylan can, why can’t I? But if my demographic continues to include just me as the only loyal reader of what I write, I doubt the Nobel Committee will consider me. I have no choice to read what I write. But you do. And apparently you’ve made that choice. This will change. To expand my market I’m reading these stories to my cat. Human readers might be down the road a few years because I think it’s important I establish myself in rescue shelters and in areas with big game first. Then I’ll work my way up to primates. Energizing the base, as they say. My life coach Mr. Witherill has glanced at my work and thinks my word order has “greatly improved” – or was it “improved greatly.”
As I embark on my new calling, clearly there is much work to be done. But if you notice your cholesterol numbers improving in the next few months, you’ll know it’s working. For now I’ve decided to stop touring and I’m going back into the studio to work on some numbers with in conjunction with all the voices in my head. It’s a very creative process as each voice has something special to say.
How a well-intentioned think piece on the irony of Alfred Nobel’s morphed into an intervention for yours truly is not surprising. After all I’m a guy who takes solace in the fact that, despite the unfathomable destruction of a nuclear bomb, at least its mushroom cloud is vegan.