Skip to content

In the summer of 1906 there was still great uncertainty as to whether the capital could be raised to develop the tremendous waterfall at Rjukan, north-west of Notodden in Telemark, Southern Norway, and provide the power for new factories. But both the company Elektrokemiske and the Wallenberg family were clearly interested, and together they pushed ahead for a development they wished to be part of.

The road to the Skarsfoss waterfall was finished towards the end of summer, and the first tunnel work could be commenced. The plan was to develop Rjukan in two stages. First the power plant at Vemork was to be built. Later one would also be built at Såheim. The town of Rjukan would develop between the two. The work picked up speed as workmen arrived and sleeping quarters were found for them.

Everyone wanted to join in

New negotiations were started with Badische in Germany. The Germans believed their Schönherr furnace technology was ready for commercialization, and they realized that the large amount of electricity they needed would be cheapest in Norway.

Eyde, Wallenberg and Moret led the negotiations, representing Hydro and the Swedish and French ownership interests respectively. An agreement was signed on 11 September 1906. Two new companies were established in connection with the Rjukan development, with share capital amounting to NOK 34 million, 50 percent of which was from Badische. Hydro’s share capital was also increased. The developments in Rjukan thus involved significant German, French and Swedish interests.

In a practical division of roles, the German ownership interests took on responsibility for building the nitric acid factories, and the Norwegian investors were in charge of the hydroelectric power projects.

The Schönherr or the Birkeland-Eyde furnace?

What type of furnace was to be used in the Rjukan factories? The negotiations had only decided that the two parties should continue to compete. The German interests had hoped for better results from the Birkeland-Eyde furnaces, but tests drew out, and a decision had to be taken. New comparisons were made in the middle of June 1910. The results were almost equal. In the end they settled on a compromise: eight rows of Badische’s Schönherr furnaces and two of Birkeland-Eyde furnaces were installed. This amounted to a total of 120 furnaces in a building extending over 6,000 square meters.

Eyde on the sidelines – for one year

The period from 1907 to 1910 was intense and challenging, both at Notodden and even more so at Rjukan. Problematic leadership forms also undermined the cooperation between management and owners in the companies. Eyde was criticized for his management of both Hydro and the Rjukan companies. After a while both French and German interests opposed him, and the Swedish interests did not, on the whole, give any real support.

Eyde played an important part in the agreement on the choice of furnace. Once this was settled, the management body of the Rjukan companies, the “Aufsichtsrat,” decided that Eyde should step down from the board of these companies with effect from September 1.

1911: Less German, more French

Work on the Rjukan projects did not proceed particularly well the following year either. The German interests had to swallow their disappointment and admit that absorption was so poor in the Schönherr technology, that Hydro’s technology would have to be used alone. It also became clear that the nitric acid factories at Rjukan would exceed the budget.

In the early summer of 1911 it was apparent that the Germans might be willing to sell their interest in the Rjukan companies. Eyde immediately involved himself in an intense effort to raise financing for Hydro to take over the majority of Badische’s shares. With the help of Marcus Wallenberg, Horace Finaly and Hans Olsen, who were on Hydro’s board at the time, he was successful.

On September 28 it was announced that Norsk Hydro had taken over the majority shareholding in the Rjukan companies from the German group. Hydro was undergoing an extensive reorganization, and it became clear that Eyde should have the overall responsibility for completing the Rjukan projects.

Comeback for Eyde

Eyde’s comeback as leader of the Rjukan operations was popular. When he arrived in Notodden a few days later he was greeted with a torch-lit procession and acclaimed by thousands of people. Eyde returned this honour with a moving speech from the steps of the Administration Centre. He then travelled on to Rjukan.

“I had taken up residence in Rjukan and had a telephone installed by my bed, and I demanded to be called whenever I could be of use, day or night, and there was hardly a night when I was not called out to the factory to take decisions.”

On November 8, a telegram was sent to Paris reporting that the first fifth of the factory was in production. Although efforts must have been intense during the subsequent period, Eyde felt that the workforce was too small. Greater speed throughout the line, was the solution.

“We were soon able to increase the number of workers by around 1,000, so the workforce was around 2,000 men on November 1, and at the end of the month amounted to around 2,500,” writes Eyde. Men were also brought in from Notodden. Efforts produced results and the development of Rjukan proceeded step by step.

By the end of 1911, NOK 100 million (EUR million 13 at 2003 exchange rate) had been invested in Hydro’s businesses in Telemark. This was equivalent to the Norwegian state budget at the time. Nitric acid production required 188,000 horsepower, and the company had around 1,500 permanent employees.

Eyde had, on some occasions, highlighted the fact that he had handled equivalent development projects when he was in charge of Scandinavia’s largest engineering office. But even he was dazzled by the dimensions of the development at Rjukan.

It was also remarkable that projects of such complexity could be executed in such a remote area with little infrastructure, challenging landscape and difficult access. The transport solutions were also ambitious: railway to Tinnoset, train ferry over the Tinnsjøen lake and a new railway track from Mæl to Rjukan.

An urban community from A to Z

Houses were built in Rjukan, together with a grocery store, a butcher with a freezer facility and a public bath. Streets were laid out with water and sewerage systems, electric lights and telephone lines. To which was added a fire station, hospital, schools, parks, sports clubs and later even a library. Hydro’s effort to provide homes for its employees in Notodden was also outdone by the projects set up in Rjukan.

The building of homes to meet social needs in Norway had not at the time progressed beyond simple workers tenement blocks. However, although the need for housing was pressing during the construction period in Rjukan, most of these new workers’ homes were detached or semi-detached houses with gardens.

Eyde had been involved in the architecture and detailed building plans in Notodden, but this was nothing compared with the interest he showed in Rjukan. These were rare opportunities for gifted architects and engineers to design, plan and regulate a town. Some of the buildings, such as the power plants at Rjukan and particularly Såheim, which became known as the “Opera”, remain outstanding examples of monumental architecture.

Trouble and strikes

But the developments at Rjukan were also troubled by conflicts and delays. Workers toiled under conditions that fostered radical political movements, and strikes delayed the work. Social life could also be turbulent. Reports of fights and disorderly behaviour were fairly common in the local newspapers. Labour moved freely about the country at that time, and there was a migration of people to Rjukan. They tramped in on their sore feet from every corner, and they weren’t all “Sunday school children”.

“The people who took part in the riots were hooligans from Christiania, trouble makers and Swedes,” according to one newspaper comment. It is interesting to note that the workers tended to have more respect for the engineers and other leaders at the plants than they had for the uniformed police.

From tourist attraction to electro-magnet

Together with the majestic mountain peak Gausta, the Rjukan waterfall had been a magnet drawing walking tourists and travellers to the valley. Gausta still rises up 1883 meters over sea level, but the Rjukan waterfall is seldom allowed to show its full force. When it does, tourists again pour into the valley. Eyde used to say that the waterfall has not gone, it has just been put to good use for mankind.” The Rjukan waterfall made it possible for the little Såheim community to be transformed into Rjukan. As early as July 19, 1908, Aftenposten wrote: ”Even if  Rjukan loses tourist value, it has undeniably risen beyond belief in sales value.” 

1914: War and difficult decisions 1910: What became of Professor Birkeland? 1908: Of course the workers must have houses 1907: A powerful source of energy 1906: The next gigantic step 1905: Three remarkable men 1905: A little bit of Norway and more 1905: A new working day – December 2, 1905 1904: A project of caliber 1903: Explosive winter days 1900: On the brink of famine