Updated: Nov 13, 2021
By David John Smith
To understand the story of the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage Site, we have to get to know the man called “the greatest entrepreneur in Norway’s history” and the genius behind Norsk Hydro
- Sam Eyde.
Sam Eyde was born into a well-off family in the southern Norwegian town of Arendal, one of the largest ports in the Nordics at the time. The son of a ship owner, guests came often to the Eyde house, and even as a young man his enthusiasm and curiosity was infectious, and people were drawn to him.
As he grew, the general feeling was that he would follow his father’s footsteps into the shipping business, but that was not to be. Leaving Arendal for the capital city of Kristiania (now Oslo) for further education and later the Norwegian War College (Krigskolen), Sam’s destiny would lead him in a different direction.
After completing Krigskolen and gaining status as a reserve officer, he made the decision to pursue a technical education within engineering. At the time, Norway had no adequate higher technical education possibilities, so Eyde applied to and was accepted to the Technische Universität in Berlin. After achieving his degree in 1891 with a graduate degree in construction, he began his work career.
With seven years of work in Germany as well as assignments in Sweden and Norway, Eyde achieved a measure of success, winning a number of awards for design of railway stations and other facilities. Based on this expertise, he succeeded in establishing his own engineering office in Kristiania in 1898. The company won contracts and designed and constructed ports and railway stations in cities including Gothenburg, Helsinki and Malmö.
Back to Norway
Although an excellent engineer by education, as time went on it seemed more and more that business was where he was going to truly make his mark. By the turn of the century his engineering company was one of the largest in Scandinavia. His primary motive may have been first and foremost to win contracts, but he also was looking ahead to bigger projects.
Sam Eyde had gained a fascination for the power of waterfalls over the years, and while he did have capital himself he began to have access to larger amounts when in 1903 he began a collaboration with the brothers Knut and Marcus Wallenberg and their investment bank.
Eyde and Birkeland
It was on the 13 February 1903 in Kristiania (now called Oslo) that Kristian Birkeland met with Sam Eyde over dinner. During that conversation Birkeland asked Eyde what question was occupying his mind. To this Eyde replied, “What I want most of all is the most powerful electrical discharge on earth”.
Birkeland exclaimed: “That I can get for you!” It was only a short time after this fateful meeting that Birkeland patented the idea that would be the basis for the electric arc method, soon to be called the Birkeland/Eyde method. This method would bind nitrogen from the air, extracting it and making it possible to produce nitric acid – and then mineral fertiliser, to be known as Norway saltpetre.
This brings us to the beginning of what was the decade that would change so much in Norwegian society and industry – and arguably be one of the primary catalysts that would bring the world back from the road that might have led to food shortages – and even starvation.
We tell more about Sam Eyde's life as the founder of Norsk Hydro and his collaboration with Kristian Birkeland in the future as part of Wild Telemark Facebook and blog posts.
Arendal from 1800. By the year of Sam Eyde’s birth in 1866 Arendal was becoming one of the wealthiest towns in Northern Europe, welcoming tall ships from all over the world.
The Technical University of Berlin shown in 1895 just four years after Sam Eyde had completed studies there.
The city of Kristiania (now Oslo) pictured in 1906, a few years after Sam Eyde had established his own engineering office in 1898.
Sam Eyde as a young man.