Probably few people are aware of the connection between the Nobel brothers and Azerbaijan, but it is strong and it is fascinating. Incidentally, it is worth noting that more than one Nobel had prizes given in his name. Ludvig and Emmanuel ((Ludvig’s son) also had prizes bearing their names. The Ludvig Nobel Prize was actually established seven years before Alfred’s prize was initiated. It has been speculated that the reason Alfred set up the Nobel Prize in his name was because he wanted to work for peace after having invented dynamite, although its usage was primarily for civilian purposes. Also, it is believed that he wanted to rehabilitate his reputation after reading his own obituary in 1888. A French newspaper accidently published Alfred’s obituary eight years too early when Alfred’s brother Ludvig died. The obituary was entitled, “Le Marchand de la Mort est Mort” (“The Merchant of Death is Dead.”) Whether this obituary actually was published (it is often dismissed as fiction), it supposedly read, “Dr. Alfred Nobel, who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before, died yesterday.” It left Alfred shaken and looking to portray himself in a better light to the public as well as to the scientific community. Seems he started fretting about his legacy and wanted to polish his image.
The brothers Nobel, Alfred, Ludvig, and Robert, were born in Sweden around 1830. Robert first came to Baku in 1873 in search of exotic hardwoods for gunstocks, but he realized the potential presented by the abundant oil and gas reserves and summoned his brothers to Azerbaijan where they started the Nobel Brothers’ Oil Production Association, or as it was usually called, Branobel Oil Company, which was the company’s telegraph address. Alfred did not actually go to Baku because he had severe asthma and the fumes and smoke there would have exacerbated that condition, but he invested heavily. Thanks to the Nobel brothers, Azerbaijan was the first country in the world to drill for oil. The first rig went into production here in 1846. The US cranked up its first rig in 1856. These men seemingly took advantage of every opportunity and figured out a solution to every roadblock, building phenomenal businesses in Sweden, Azerbaijan, and Russia. They supplied oil and oil-related products to markets in Iran, India, China, and Europe. Alfred held 355 international patents and most of the money given to endow the Nobel Prize came from Alfred from the income derived from the extraction of Azerbaijani oil. Ludvig invented oil tankers that were safe and he found ways to improve the refineries. The brothers built railroads and devised the first pipelines to transport oil and spared no expense improving the technology.
The brothers were dedicated to treating their employees well and maintaining very good relationships with them. Ludvig actually introduced profit sharing to the workforce. They established a healthcare system for their employees and granted time off to seek care as needed. The workers were free to attend religious services on the factory compound and a variety of different religions were represented and respected. There were parks for the employees to enjoy and schools with teachers on site.
By 1918, much of the Nobel family had fled to Stockholm due to the rise of the Bolshevik party and when this occurred, they lost all of their Russian assets to the Bolsheviks. In 1920, the Red Army marched into Baku, but just a short time later, half of the Nobel oil company shares were sold to Standard Oil of New Jersey due to the genius of Ludvig’s youngest son, Gustav. In doing so, the young Nobel secured the economic future of the Nobel family, proving once again that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. These were indeed savvy, smart people.
One of the highlights of our time in Baku was a visit today to Villa Petrolea. This fabulous estate served as the headquarters of Branobel Oil Company and was also the home of the family for about forty five years. The gardens surrounding the villa also got the Nobel treatment: some 40,000 species of grasses, plants, and trees were brought in for the landscape plan. When tankers left the shores bearing oil, they returned delivering water to irrigate the new gardens. The villa now serves as a museum and chronicles the lives of these amazing men.