Alfred Nobel's lesser-known side of life

Alfred Nobel's lesser-known side of life

On December 10, 1901, on the fifth anniversary of the death of the Swedish chemical engineer, inventor and industrialist, the founder of the Nobel Prizes, Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), the first prizes, which today became the most prestigious international prizes, were awarded in Stockholm and Oslo. The tradition of awarding the prize on Nobel's day of the death remains to this day. In Stockholm, the King of Sweden awards prizes in physics, chemistry, physiology and medicine, literature and economics, and the Peace Prize is awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman in the presence of the King of Norway and members of the royal family in Oslo. The international accolade has an unusual affiliation with the Asian nation's long-standing oil industry.

Alfred Nobel, the Swedish-born chemist after whom the prize is named, is perhaps best known for holding hundreds of patents and being the inventor of dynamite. However, Nobel left a $265m endowment to fund the prize in his will when he died in 1896 - and a sizeable portion of that money came from the extraction of Azerbaijani oil, according to Togrul Bagirov, chairman of the Baku Nobel Heritage Foundation (BNHF).

'Land of fire'

Located on the Caspian Sea in the South Caucasus region, Azerbaijan is known as "the land of fire" because of its rich reserves of oil and gas, which the government estimates total nearly three trillion cubic metres today. Alfred Nobel's older brother, Robert, first came to Azerbaijan in 1873. Another brother, Ludwig, had sent Robert over from Russia to find walnut trees that could be used to build the rifles the family was manufacturing for the Russian tsar's army at the time, according to a New York Times report. Their father, Immanuel, had moved his family to St Petersburg to produce military equipment to be used in the Crimean War from 1853 to 1956. When the fighting ended, however, the family encountered financial problems and ended up bankrupt. That is when Immanuel, his wife, Carolina, and Alfred returned to Sweden. There, Alfred and his father built a nitroglycerin factory, and soon after that, dynamite was born. But it was Robert Nobel who saw the potential in Azerbaijan's oil business.

Villa Petrolea

Robert bought a small refinery, and in 1879, with Ludwig, he established an oil extraction operation, the Baku-based Branobel oil company.  Bagirov told Al Jazeera that archival documents showed that between 20 and 22 percent of the funds used to start the Nobel Foundation came from Alfred's shares in the oil company. The Nobel brothers also established petroleum storage sites around Russia. They helped Baku become a major source of oil and oil-related products, supplying markets in Europe, China, India and Iran, according to the Times. In fact, the first prize established by the Nobel family came after the death of Ludwig in St Petersburg in 1888.

The Ludwig Nobel Award was established by the Imperial Russian Technical Society to honour advances in the oil and metallurgy sector. The award was handed out three times before being discontinued due to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s. The Branobel oil company's headquarters, Villa Petrolea, was built in Baku, the capital, and the brothers lived there for about 45 years. Today, after being restored by the BNHF, it serves as a museum that details the Nobels' lives.

Nobel's dual and seemingly contradictory legacy as the inventor of dynamite and founder of the peace prize has been a source of curiosity for many. "Certainly the background of the prize was humanitarian: [It was] a wish to support science and innovations [and] also peace," Bagirov said. But another reason for the prize was that Alfred Nobel wanted to "improve his image and support scientists", he said. 

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