Sunday, October 14, 2007

Alfred Nobel in Vinterviken - A blast from the past

Vinterviken seen from Rävudden.

At the end of this week of Nobel prize announcements I thought I'd share a few photos with a Nobel connection.

As you might know, Alfred Nobel died as a very wealthy man in 1896, donating almost all of his fortune to a fund bearing his name. According to his will the earnings from the donation of 31 million SEK (equals about one and a half billion today) should be equally shared by "those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind" in the categories of medicine, chemistry, physics, literature and peace. The economy prize was added later and is actually called "The bank of Sweden prize in economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel" so it is more of a prize in his spirit than a "proper" Nobel prize.

But how did he make all this money? By inventing, manufacturing and selling explosives worldwide, starting here in Stockholm in the 1860:s. Alfred Nobel had learned about the new explosive nitroglycerin in Paris in the 1850:s and started to experimenting with it along with his father and brothers. Nitroglycerin is a very unstable liquid, something which became apparent in 1864 when their laboratory on Långholmen in Stockholm exploded within its first year of operation and killed five, including Alfred's younger brother Emil. This accident caused the manufacturing of nitroglycerin or "sprängolja" ("blasting oil") as Alfred Nobel called it, to be outlawed within the city limits. A short while the lab was situated on a barge in lake Mälaren, maybe not the best place for such a thing, but in 1865 the estate of Vinterviken (Winter bay) was bought to be the new premises for the factories. Vinterviken is a narrow valley surrounded by cliffs and was therefore very suitable for the dangerous exploits of Nobel. The explosions and accidents continued and Alfred thought hard on how to tame his blasting oil. The solution was to mix it with kieselguhr creating a safer and easier to handle solid explosive, better known as Dynamite. The manufacturing of it was still dangerous though and over the years about 50 persons died in explosions in Vinterviken.

So, let us take a look at some of the artifacts after Nobel's activities there.

The valley's cliffs continues out in two capes, the northern Rävudden (Fox cape) and the southern Djävulsudden (Devil's cape), forming a narrow bay in lake Mälaren. On Rävudden the manufacturing of nitric acid was done, but there is no buildings left there. In the alcoves blasted into the rock where the buildings used to be there's nothing now but a lawn and my favorite chair. The chair is actually visible on the satellite images. :)

Birches standing close to the rock wall in the alcove on Rävudden.

Further in on the northern side of the valley another main ingredient of nitroglycerin, sulphuric acid, was made in this big brick building. Today it is used as a conference hall.

The factory is built right next to the cliff. For safety?

A warehouse...

...locked and forgotten?

Old cistern, originally placed at the nitric acid production on Rävudden.

A chimney raises above the workshops and the power station. (Steam, PP!)
The workshops are used as studios for sculptors today.

What is hidden behind this door?

The mixing of the nitroglycerin and "kneading" it into dynamite was made on Djävulsudden in houses placed between the cliff and dirt barriers. The barriers are several meters wide so the houses were accessed through these tunnels.

In this tunnel rock climbers have attached rocks in the ceiling with mortar, making it a long overhang.

Behind the dirt barriers were also testing grounds.

In front of these dirt barriers were small houses placed facing the water, separated by barricades to reduce loss of life in case of an explosion. In these so called "presshus" (press houses) the dynamite-"dough" was shaped into cylinders. Only one of these houses remain today and is used as a shed.

Sign on the house stating the allowed maximum of 200 kg dynamite and a workforce of four persons to be in the house. If something bad happened it would only happen to those four...

Further out on Djävulsudden there's more testing grounds but of later date. Even though there was not much production here after 1920:s the area was used until the 1980:s.

At the end of this tunnel... a small blast chamber in a good mood...

...and other contraptions of unknown use.

One of two underground warehouses for the finished dynamite. They were used the during building boom in Stockholm in the 1960:s.

Most of the information about Vintervikens history I gathered by talking to a sculptor. On my walk through the area I only found two signs saying saying something about Nobel's activities in this area. Is it too young to be "historic" and to old to be interesting? Not in my opinion. It wasn't until the mid 1990:s it even got some formal protection as a historic site. I find this strange considering how much fame Alfred Nobel, his dynamite and the Nobel prizes have brought Sweden.

(Listening to while posting: Planet X - The noble savage)


EH said...

Good research OK, and a very interesting post. About your question, Is it too young to be "historic" and to old to be interesting?, I think it´s exactly the case, to young to be anything but old factory ground in the eyes of people with influence over money. To old to be interesting, absolutely not, I would like you to guide me there some day. And I have to try the rock chair.

O.K. said...

The problem is that there won't be anything left when it is "old enough".

The story about how Skulpturens hus (A sculptural museum), that used to inhabit the sulphuric acid factory, was handled is very illustrative of how shortsighted the thinking is.
The museum opened about ten years ago. In spring 2006 the building was bought by the city to secure the survival of the museum. But after that the city raised the rent to a level the museum couldn't pay, and a year later the museum was evicted.

EH said...

One would think the Nobel committe would have an interest of preserving the history of the man who is famous all over the world. The swedish politicians to, but they are always too shortsighted.

The story about Skulpturens hus is really a good example of people with influence and money and no clue of whats going on. They´re shortsighted...

O.K. said...

Part of the explanation for the politicians erractic behaviour is that there was an election during that period of time.
I.E. not the same politicians. The new majority only likes culture that brings profit...
But I think Nobel's old manufacturing grounds could be profitable in a tourism perspective.

EH said...

O.K. Have you changed the color of the sky behind the chimney? It´s incredibly blue, a very deep hue too. At least on my computer screen...

O.K. said...

Well, the thing is that since only one browser in the world (Safari) show pictures using the embedded color profiles, I merge the profiles into the picture and save them without the profile. That way most people can see what the colors look like without opening them in Photoshop, something I find very unlikely to happen. However the merge is an approximation and can screw things up at times, which happened here. I just didn't check it properly.
As an illustration I am replacing the chimney photo now with one with an embedded icc-profile (not merged). Open that in Photoshop and compare the colors with what it looks like in your browser, and I hope you'll understand what I am trying to fix by merging the icc-profile into the picture.
Check your gamma too.

O.K. said...

I might add that the photo is straight out of the camera, no manipulation has been done.

LS said...

This post is fantastic - great story, research, interesting, great photos, and very relevant! More like this!!!!

O.K. said...

I got a tip about this great site on the subject with a lot of information and historic photographies:

(Only in swedish so far.)

EH said...

OK, I see, about the picture. It looks the same in Photoshop and in my browser now. I didn´t check the last one. I kind of liked the intense blue sky though... :-)

O.K. said...

The point I tried to make was that the colors are _not_ the same in PS and your browser with embedded icc-profiles. PS handles them, the browser doesn't.