At the start of my chemistry course, my professor told a story:

He said that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite (which is true) and he accumulated his wealth by selling it to both parties A and B (where A and B are countries that were at War) who were fighting each other. And he said that at the end he was too rich that he created the "Noble Prize" using this money he collected.

To what extent is this story correct? Did Alfred Nobel actually help A and B kill each other?

  • $\begingroup$ The main use of dynamite is not for fighting. Most uses are peaceful. For example to crack the rocks in the mines or during earthworks. Military ammunition uses other explosives and propellants. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Nov 12 '14 at 12:51
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko Yep I understand that there are many good uses of it. But my question isn't about "Did the invention of dynamite make the world a better place" or "About the uses of dynamite" . My question is kindoff like did Alfred Nobel collected his wealth in this particular way. $\endgroup$ – The Artist Nov 12 '14 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ He did make his fortune on the invention of dynamite. Which answers the first part of your question. But I have never heard about "selling it to warring parties". I suppose he sold it to any buyer without worries about what the buyer will do with it, as all industrialists do. $\endgroup$ – Alexandre Eremenko Nov 12 '14 at 13:13
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexandreEremenko oh I got it :) Thank you very much. $\endgroup$ – The Artist Nov 12 '14 at 13:18
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    $\begingroup$ The magic of the "hot questions" list. It can attract new users to the site and help a site grow. Good titles really matter. $\endgroup$ – Kate Gregory Nov 17 '14 at 11:13

I too was told this story, by my father as we drove through Nobel, Ontario. While the main purpose of dynamite may never have been warfare, it most certainly was used for that purpose during his lifetime, and he didn't expect or like that very much. As well, he invented a number of other chemicals which were explicitly for use in war, but he didn't feel they defined him - he invented a lot of other stuff too. Some quotes from the Wikipedia article on the Nobel Prize:

Nobel amassed a fortune during his lifetime, with most of his wealth from his 355 inventions, of which dynamite is the most famous.

That answers your title question. Also,

In 1888, Nobel was astonished to read his own obituary, titled The merchant of death is dead, in a French newspaper. As it was Alfred's brother Ludvig who had died, the obituary was eight years premature. The article disconcerted Nobel and made him apprehensive about how he would be remembered. This inspired him to change his will.

A recent article includes pictures of the hand written will and more details on both how and when he wrote it, and how the mechanisms of the prize were put into place.

At around the same time, he met a pacifist who inspired him to change his ways from "living the high life in Paris" to something more, well, noble. In a letter to her he wrote:

Perhaps my factories will put an end to war even sooner than your Congresses; on the day when two army corps will be able to annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will recoil with horror and disband their troops."

(Yes, mutually assured destruction as a peace strategy, but dynamite and other explosives rather than nuclear bombs.)

So it seems your chemistry professor was close enough to the spirit of what happened and why the prize was created. Nobel was embarrassed by the way he'd been using his money, mostly as a result of his friendship with Bertha, and didn't like the idea of being a "merchant of death" because armies used dynamite (or other explosives he invented and sold, such as cordite) to kill people. Even though he thought that in theory this could reduce war, by the time he died he had set up the prizes in his will to help advance peace, science, literature and so on and thus leave the world a better place. The precise details about supplying dynamite to two specific countries in one specific war don't seem right, but the overall spirit of the story does.

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    $\begingroup$ Are you sure that dynamite has been used to a significant amount in weapons? It's mostly used for mining and the Wikipedia article on dynamite suggests that military use was on a rather small scale. However, their article about Nobel states that he also owned the Bofors company, which he had transformed from a general steel company into a large and successful armaments company. That would be a more natural reason for the "Merchant of death" obituary and would also make it rather strange for him to object to dynamite being used in warfare. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Nov 12 '14 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ Also, the Wikipedia article on cordite (the main military propellant used during WWI) describes cordite as having been "developed and produced [...] since 1889 to replace gunpowder as a military propellant." So, in 1889, people were still using gunpowder; post-1889, they moved to cordite. At no point was dynamite in the frame. $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Nov 12 '14 at 15:28
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    $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby edited, though I think that dynamite's role in blowing up bridges or the like is not to be ignored. $\endgroup$ – Kate Gregory Nov 12 '14 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @KateGregory But you're still claiming that the owner of a large armaments company didn't like it that one of his other products was used for killing people. Even though Nobel invented Ballistite which, as the name suggests, was specifically designed to be used as a military propellant. It just doesn't add up that guilt over dynamite's incidental use in war was any kind of motivation to a man who built weapons of war and invented military explosives. "How dare you kill somebody with my mining explosive -- I could have sold you something much better!" $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Nov 12 '14 at 16:10
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    $\begingroup$ No, it seems to me he invented hundreds of things, some of which had peaceful uses and some military, and while he happily made and sold it all, after a while (especially after reading the obit) he regretted the military side of his inventions, whether it was dynamite that should have just made life easier for miners, but that could be used to destroy, or stuff that he had deliberately invented and named as armaments. People regret stuff as they get older. He shifted from being motivated by money to thinking of his legacy. And then he changed his legacy on purpose. $\endgroup$ – Kate Gregory Nov 12 '14 at 16:20

Alfred Nobel was also one of the world´s biggest weapon manufacturers after having bought the Bofors Industries and started production of cannons. He also invenyed the smokeless gunpowder thus making it possible to see the soldiers at the battlefields and kill them more efficiently.

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    $\begingroup$ Although this seems to provide some relevant information, it does not address the story that the original post mentions. Please improve and/or extend your answer to cover this, or your answer will run the risk of being deleted (converted into a comment on the question). $\endgroup$ – Danu May 31 '15 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ The question was: Did Alfred Nobel collect his wealth by selling dynamite? Alfred Nobel collected his wealth by selling dynamite, miltitary weapons and smokeless gunpowder. Did he help A and B to kill each other. I would sayso. How many people were killed by Nobel´s weapons - nobody knows. $\endgroup$ – Bo Swede Jun 1 '15 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ This is simply an unsolicited comment on some biographical details of Nobel. In no way does it attempt to address the actual question. It is a "non-answer" in our site terminology. $\endgroup$ – J. W. Perry Jun 2 '15 at 4:07
  • $\begingroup$ Question: Did Alfred Nobel collect his wealth by selling dynamite. $\endgroup$ – Bo Swede Nov 17 '16 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ cont. Answer: Yes partly. $\endgroup$ – Bo Swede Nov 17 '16 at 19:32

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