Today, the origin of the Nobel Peace Prize. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The first Nobel prizes were given
in 1901. They included the Physics Prize to Roentgen
who'd discovered X-rays, and the Peace Prize to Dunant
who'd founded the Red Cross. Alfred Nobel had made a
fortune inventing and selling dynamite and other more
powerful explosives. He was shy, indrawn, and torn by
feelings of inadequacy. He never married, yet his life
was powerfully affected by a woman named Berta Kinsky von
1876, the 43-year-old Nobel placed an ad in a Vienna
paper: It said, Wealthy, highly educated elderly
gentleman seeks lady of mature age, versed in languages,
as secretary and supervisor of household. That
business about being elderly at 43 says a lot about
Berta Kinsky, a 33-year-old countess who'd fallen on hard
times, answered the ad. She'd been in the service of the
aristocratic von Suttner family 'til then. But a romance
had developed with young Arthur von Suttner. Arthur's
parents disapproved of her poverty and asked her to
leave. So she went to work for Nobel.
was smitten by the beautiful and intelligent Kinsky. It
wasn't long before he professed his love for her. Berta
told him thank you, but she was engaged to Arthur.
Berta and Arthur eloped soon after. Nobel saw her only
two more times, but they corresponded as long as he
lived. As the Baroness von Suttner, Berta took up the
cause of peace. In 1889 she published a book titled
Lay Down Your Arms. Only one other
19th-century book was more popular -- Harriet Beecher
Stowe's Uncle Tom's
Cabin . Berta had touched a nerve. She'd also
touched Nobel. He wrote,
"I have just finished reading your masterpiece." He also called her,
"an Amazon who so valiantly wages war on war."
n 1892, Berta invited Nobel to join in a Peace Congress
she'd organized. He contributed money. He also attended,
but he did so incognito. Nobel insisted the best way to
end war was to create a weapon so vicious as to make war
unthinkable. He kept making munitions and he kept
supporting Berta's peace efforts.
Before he died (only four years later) he set up the
Nobel Prizes in his will. It was clear they'd include
Physics, Chemistry, Medicine, and Literature. As for the
Peace Prize, his and Berta's letters argued over its
form. Offering it for efforts at disarmament, he felt,
would be futile. It should instead reward efforts at
arbitration and ending the prejudices that caused war.
When Nobel died, his will was hotly debated. Many people
thought the Peace Prize was wasted money -- foolish
idealism. But it stood up in court and the Prize has been
given ever since.
In 1905, the Peace Prize went to Berta Kinsky von
Suttner. She'd done much in her life for the cause of
peace, no doubt. But I suspect that we find her finest
contribution to peace in the lasting influence of -- the
Nobel Peace Prize itself.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.