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Updated: Nov 13, 2021

By David John Smith


Sam Eyde and Kristian Birkeland

As the world population began to boom during the course of the 1800s, the scientific question began to circulate – how long would the world population survive on current food supply production?

Eyde - the power of water

In 1903, Eyde would take over the rights to Rjukanfossen. He knew the massive potential of the falls and the 250,000 horsepower the falls could provide. But at the time electric power could not be transmitted great distances, it had to be used close to the source – and he knew that there were very few people – and no factories that could use even nearly the amount of power that Rjukanfossen could generate.

Eyde was also well aware of the scientific race triggered at least partially by Sir William Crookes who predicted lean times for mankind.

An imminent catastrophe awaited on the horizon if measures were not taken to increase agricultural productivity. The world was in grave danger.

(Right Image: NIA)

Birkeland - young and brilliant

On the other hand, there was young and brilliant Kristian Birkeland. He had become a professor at the age of 30, and now his 35th year he had already made substantial contributions to science within disciplines that included mathematics and physics.

Birkeland was currently involved in experimentation that would attempt to launch a projectile using the power of electro-magnetics rather than electricity – the electric cannon. He had encountered many problems in this research, but he had observed that short circuits were visible as electric arcs fanned out as a result of the cannon’s electrical coils. He had also noticed the smell of nitrous oxide pulled from the air when the short circuits occurred.

Just one week before the dinner that would eventually determine the destiny of so many people, Professor Birkeland had rented an old banquet hall at the university to demonstrate his electromagnetic cannon.

The demonstration was well-attended by foreign companies, the government, the military, and others. Something had gone wrong though – there again was a short circuit, the transformer broke down, and long flames flared out of the cannon’s muzzle. Still, Birkeland observed the effect of the electromagnetic field on the shape of the flame.

The dinner that changed everything

The following week, on February 13th in the year 1903 in the town now called Oslo (then, Kristiania), this would be the evening when Sam Eyde and Professor Kristian Birkeland would meet for the first time.

This dinner in February 1903 has been called one of the most important dinners in Norwegian history, bringing together a visionary businessman with a brilliant scientist.

This conversation between Eyde and Birkeland led to a collaboration that changed Norwegian industry, with Birkeland’s invention of the electric arc furnace, recognised as the most important ever in Norway.

The timing was right, and the stage was set.

The most powerful on earth

During the dinner, 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!”

The adventure that is the Rjukan-Notodden Industrial Heritage story all began one cold winter’s night in Oslo

To be continued

This story continues next week.

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