According to the present statutes of the Nobel Foundation, the Swedish Academy of Sciences has to award two of the five annual Nobel Prizes. one of these is to be given to ‘the person who has made the most important discovery of invention within the field of physics’.
According to Nobel’s will these awards should be made for investigations presented during the preceding year – a provision clarified in the statutes by the statement ‘that the awards shall be made for the most recent achievements in the fields of culture referred to in the will and for older works only if their significance has not become apparent until recently’.
In view of these provisions, it is clear that a survey of the prizes distributed during the past years will be essentially a summary of the development of physical science during that period. But the second quotation from the statutes, authorizing awards even for earlier research, implies that the activities rewarded actually cover a period extending considerably before 1901, the year when the first prize was awarded. Indeed, a scrutiny of the list of names proposed for the first award reveals that of the eleven candidates nominated no less than eight received Nobel Prizes during the next ten years, thus essentially for work done before the establishment of the prizes. Only after the first decade of the activities of the Foundation is it possible to consider that the distribution of prizes, at any rate in physics, has taken a more normal course. In awarding the earlier prizes one could, of course, hardly disregard those fairly recent discoveries which at that time formed the basis of current research, and this point of view was stressed in the prize adjudicating body during the early years.