The prizes established by Swedish inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel in his will are generally considered the most prestigious awards in the world. Yet the Nobel Prizes almost didn’t end up existing at all.
During the last years of his life, Alfred Nobel spent the summers at Björkborn, a 17th-century manor in Karlskoga in the Swedish province of Värmland. What drew Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and other explosives, to the area was the fact that the arms manufacturing company Bofors, headquartered in Karlskoga, was up for sale. Nobel had been looking for a place where he could experiment with gunpowder without interference or complaints. Bofors fit the bill, and Nobel purchased the company in 1894. He received the manor of Björkborn as part of the package and lived there during his summer visits to the facilities he set up in Karlskoga.
Alfred Nobel died on December 10, 1896. In his will he specified that most of his fortune should be used to establish a fund, from which the interest should be distributed annually in the form of prizes to those whose work during the preceding year had conferred the greatest benefit on humanity. He designated the 26-year-old engineer Ragnar Sohlman and a business colleague, Rudolf Lilljequist, as executors.
All was not smooth sailing, however. Trouble arose around the question of Alfred Nobel’s official residence. He had lived for many years in Paris and maintained a large apartment in that city. Prior to acquiring Björkborn, he had lived in a villa in San Remo, Italy. But it was at Björkborn that he had spent his summers and focused his professional activities for the last few years. Which of these places should be considered his official residence?
The resulting conflict was long and drawn-out. The French fought tenaciously for control of Nobel’s testament, and Nobel’s own relatives did their best to muddy the waters, since allowing Nobel’s final wish to go forward would prevent them from getting access to his fortune. It all came down to a small, seemingly insignificant detail: Nobel had kept three Russian stallions at Björkborn. According to French law, the location where a person’s horses were stabled was considered his official residence. As a result, Björkborn was deemed Nobel’s home, and Swedish testamentary law prevailed. The prize plans laid out in the will were given a green light.
Additional challenges followed, as it proved difficult to get support from King Oscar II, who was reluctant to see the prizes awarded to foreign winners who would take the money out of Sweden, and the institutions Nobel had wished to involve in the prize administration were reluctant to take on the burden. After a heroic effort, however, the tireless Ragnar Sohlman, with support from Nobel’s nephew Emanuel, eventually succeeded in bringing Nobel’s wishes to fruition. In 1901, five years after Nobel’s death, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded.
Björkborn, the location that proved so critical to the existence of the Nobel Prizes, is now home to the Nobel Museum (not to be confused with the identically named Nobel Museum in Stockholm), with interiors reconstructed as they would have looked when Nobel was in residence. Although many of Nobel’s possessions were sold after his death, efforts to reacquire many of his belongings have met with great success, and the museum’s collection now boasts books, medals, and numerous other items that once belonged to Nobel. The highlight of the museum, however, is the guided tour, in which Alfred Nobel himself — in the form of a costumed guide — engagingly tells visitors the dramatic and improbable story of his last will and testament. Also on the property is Nobel’s laboratory, with exhibits about his inventions and other achievements.
All in all, a visit to Björkborn offers a fascinating look at the final years of Nobel’s life and the little-known controversy that almost prevented his greatest legacy from coming to fruition.
For more information, visit the Nobel Museum in Karlskoga website.
Latest update: 10 December 2018.
The Nobel Prize: History and Trivia