Bown, Stephen R. A Most Damnable Invention: Dynamite, Nitrates, and the Making of the
Modern World. New York: Thomas Dunne (Originally, St. Martin's Press, 2005).
This is a fascinating history of explosives and a significant addition to Feldman's The
Nobel Prize. Alfred Nobel made his fortune in the arms trade but he liked to think of himself as
the inventor dynamite which allowed for the construction of the modern world. When Alfred's
older brother Ludvig died in 1888, Alfred's obituary appeared in a Paris newspaper and that obit
painted him as an "immoral man who profited from human conflict and misery, providing the
means for others to maim and kill each other." That was not how Alfred wished to be
remembered. He had an immense fortune for his day, about $8 million. He pondered his death
and by hand wrote his own will and placed it in a vault in Stockholm. It was a precise, four page
document. He hated lawyers and it was a confusing document which was only worked out after
five years of "interpretation" by courts all over Europe. He cut his family from his estate and left
all his money to the awarding of prizes for "practical accomplishments." It is here suggested that
mathematics was omitted because it was too theoretical with no practical outcomes.
More, it is suggested here that Countess Bertha Kinsky was responsible for the Peace
Prize, she talked him into the award. "Nobel's antiwar sentiments had been established in his
youth, and were not merely whimsical musings of a lonely man in his closing years. But his
early opinions, as much as they were opposed to murder and destruction, amounted to a
pragmatic excuse through which he could absolve himself from moral responsibility for the uses
to which his inventions were being put." (P. 175)
It wasn't until June, 1900 that the king of Sweden signed into existence of Nobel
Foundation. It was a years and a half later, December 10, 1901 the first prizes were awarded.
A major figure in the history of warfare, and a Nobel Prize winner himself, was Fritz
Haber (1868-1934) the man who first introduced chlorine gas into WWI. That same Haber, not a
mean chemist, was the inventor of the process for fabricating artificial nitrates from air for which
he won the Nobel Prize in 1919 but and here's a story which does not appear in Feldman's
book the King of Sweden refused to give Haber the prize at the usual ceremony (because of the
"gas" use in WWI). Haber's synthetic process of producing nitrates allowed for the tripling of
population with the creation of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. Cursed for gas, he is the father of
the human population explosion. It's sad that Haber was cursed by the world for his introduction
of "gas warfare" in WWI (battle of Ypres) for which he was awarded a medal and which was, to
him, clear evidence of his German loyalty. His wife committed suicide as a result of his
reputation and years later, because he was a Jew, he was condemned by the Nazis.
There is a long chapter here on the Peruvian nitrate wars: controlling the source of
nitrates was monumentally important for fertilizers and for gunpowder and explosives (see pages
143-165). It's evident just how important Haber's invention was for mankind. His was a great
contribution. Artificial fertilizer and artificial nitrates made the modern world possible!