Alfred Nobel and the Prize That Almost Didn’t Happen

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When Alfred Nobel, the Swedish inventor of dynamite and more powerful explosives, died in 1896, he bequeathed the bulk of his fortune to create five annual prizes honoring ingenuity. The chemistry, medicine and physics prizes have come to be widely regarded as the most esteemed in their fields. The two others, literature and peace, are more controversial.

Yet in a little known story, the Nobel Prizes, the first of which will be announced on Monday, almost never came to be, largely because of the unsophisticated way Nobel drew up his will. It was flawed and legally deficient because he lived in many places and never established a legal residence. Nobel resided for many years in France, made intermittent visits to a home in Sweden and amassed assets in many countries before dying of a stroke at his villa in Italy.

To secret Nobel’s French assets to the Swedish consulate in Paris before claims might be made on them there, the will’s principal executor literally sat on Nobel’s millions as he rode a horse-drawn cab through Paris. “I sat with a revolver at the ready in case of a direct attack or a prearranged collision with another vehicle, a trick not unusual among thieves in Paris at the time,” the executor, Ragnar Sohlman, wrote in “The Legacy of Alfred Nobel,” which was published in English in 1983.

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