Normal Science

Prizes in the Swedish Academy of Sciences before Nobel

In: Nuncius
Sven Widmalm Uppsala University Department for History of Science and Ideas

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Prizes have been awarded by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences from its foundation in 1739 onwards. In the 18th century these were of a kind typical of the period: problems were posed, almost always with a utilitarian bent, and awards (money or medals) were promised to those who could come up with practical solutions. The Academy’s first prize question, in 1739, concerned an improved method for bleaching cloth; the response was zero, a not untypical result. This type of award was never a success, and from around 1810 prizes became more academically oriented and were offered for recent publications or innovations rather than solutions to problems posed beforehand. The Letterstedt Prize was the most important among these awards during the 19th century, and a model for the Nobel Prize. It was awarded mostly for work in the natural sciences, but sometimes also in the humanities or for technological innovations (Alfred Nobel received it in 1868); a special prize was awarded for translations. An analysis of nominations and discussions preserved in the Academy’s archive shows that the Letterstedt science prizes functioned as a kind of benchmarking of national science (foreigners were not awarded on principle); high-quality “normal” science that seemed to put Swedish science on par with research in countries like Germany or France was awarded rather than work of high originality.

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