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The Nobel Prize: Milestones from the history of the Nobel Prize

Press release   •   Dec 09, 2012 12:49 UTC

Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) is one of the most famous Stockholmers of all time. The prize that bears his name is known worldwide since it was established with the fortune he left in his will as the first donation. Nobel’s spirit of curiosity, creativity and entrepreneurship lives on, especially in Stockholm during an intensive week at the end of each year.

“Home is where I work and I work everywhere.” Alfred Nobel.

November 27, 1895

Alfred Nobel signs his will in Paris

Nobel decided in his will that a large part of his fortune would go to establish a prize. Five prizes would be established: Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and a Peace Prize, which would be awarded to the person who, during the preceding year, “conferred the greatest benefit on mankind”. He also named the institutions that would select the prize winners: Karolinska Institutet, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, the Swedish Academy and the Norwegian parliament, Stortinget.

December 10, 1896

Alfred Nobel dies in his home in San Remo, Italy

Nobel’s will caused quite a bit of controversy when it was opened. His family opposed the prize. Many people, including King Oscar II, were critical because the large amount of money would not fully benefit Swedish research. The institutions that Nobel chose to select the prize winners were not consulted and accepted the responsibility only after considerable hesitation. They feared that the responsibility would occupy too much of the academy’s time and resources. It took five years until the first Nobel Prizes were awarded.

June 29, 1900

Nobel Foundation founded

The Nobel Foundation was founded as a private organization to manage the finances and administration of the Nobel Prize.

December 10, 1901

Nobel Prizes are awarded for the first time

In 1901 the first Nobel Prizes were finally awarded. The amount of the prize was enormous for that time: SEK 150,000 for each Laureate, the equivalent of about SEK 8 million in today’s monetary value. The huge prize sum of the Nobel Prizes received considerable international attention, helping right from the start to draw the eyes of the world to Stockholm at the time of the award ceremony every December. And it continues to do so today, 111 years later.

Although some academy members were initially quite dubious about the Nobel Prize, others recognized the potential for greater respect for Swedish scientists abroad and believed that the prize could contribute to a better position for Swedish research. Over the first few years, they deliberately chose to award the Nobel Prize to famous, respected scientists so that the prize would gain greater prestige.

The Nobel Prize soon became entangled in politics and Academy of Sciences members often promoted their own discipline to receive the prize, to bolster their reputation and increase opportunities to attract research funding from government, academia and private foundations. New disciplines such as theoretical physics, biochemistry and nuclear physics required well-equipped laboratories and more resources.

World War I and II

During World War I, the Peace Prize was only awarded in 1917 to the International Red Cross for its efforts during the war. During World War II, no Peace Prize was awarded from 1939 to 1943 and no prizes were awarded at all between 1942 and 1943 because of the Norwegian occupation. In 1944 the International Red Cross once again received the prize for its efforts during the war.


Internal resistance within the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences prevented the Nobel Prize in Physics from being awarded to Albert Einstein in 1921. Instead he received the 1921 prize one year later, at the same time that Niels Bohr received the 1922 Physics Prize.

Quantum physics had its breakthrough with Bohr and the prize was awarded at the same time to Einstein, who by this time had gone from being a pioneer in this field to being one of the harshest critics of quantum mechanics.

Einstein:God does not throw dice!
Bohr:Stop telling God what to do.


The Nobel Prize is secured by investing in safe securities

According to Nobel’s will, the money would be invested in “safe securities” such as government bonds. The return on these investments deteriorated and the prize dropped in value. Over time, the government eased up on the rules and since 1953 the Foundation has largely been allowed to invest to achieve maximum profit.

December 10, 1969

Swedish central bank awards the first Prize in Economic Sciences

The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel, which is often called “the Nobel Prize in Economics,” was established in 1968 by Swedish central bank Sveriges Riksbank on the occasion of the bank’s 300th anniversary. The prize was awarded for the first time in 1969 and the prize money, which is the same as for the Nobel Prize, is presented along with the four Nobel Prizes awarded in Stockholm. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selects the prize winner.

Nobel Prize splendor

The Nobel Prize developed a strong reputation right from the start because of the large prize sum awarded and the opportunities for foreign laureates. By initially selecting already famous and respected scientists, interest in the prize rose worldwide. The well-oiled machinery surrounding the nominations and the announcement of the prize, the Nobel Lectures and the lavish gala attended by Swedish royalty all provide a splendor unsurpassed worldwide by any other scientific context.

For more information:
Per Holmlund, PR Manager, Stockholm Business Region
+46 70 472 80 69,

About Stockholm Business Region
Stockholm Business Region is the official investment promotion agency for the Stockholm region. Stockholm is one of Europe’s most dynamic regions. With continual high growth, world-leading clusters within life science, cleantech and ICT, and as a center for fashion and design, Stockholm is the natural capital city of Scandinavia.