On our two-weeks trip across Denmark, Norway, Finland and Sweden, spending three days each in Oslo, and Stockholm, I got a chance to see two legendary ships: Fram and Vasa. Separated by 265 years, with one being the first ever to go closest to both geographic poles in human history, while the other sank after sailing only twenty minutes into its maiden voyage. Yet they both capture public’s imagination like few other. In the case of Fram, it is not hard to see why.


Well funded marine expeditions began around mid-nineteenth century to find a new northwest sea passage through Greenland interior or the Canadian Arctic archipelago to the Pacific towards the riches of Asia. Successive attempts, however, were met with one disaster after another. Nearly everyone who tried, could not go past the frozen waterways of the archipelago. The wooden boats were no match to the formidable crushing pressure of sheet or pack ice.

Despite these challenges, British explorers managed to chart greater parts of the region from their successive failed attempts, and documented what worked and what didn’t. While this went on, in 1888, Fridtjof Nansen’s early success in penetrating Greenland’s inland ice, at 27 years of age, grew his ambitions of reaching the North Pole. Nansen handed the arduous task of building a custom ship for this extreme adventure to a Scottish-Norwegian shipwright, Colin Archer. Archer then went on to design Fram featuring a belly-like hull of extraordinary strength, using strongest oak timbers and well braced intricate system, with an awkward 3:1 length to beam ratio, so it would slip up from pack ice’s wedge-like grip.

In March 1895, Fram (Norwegian for Forward) reached a never-before-possible latitude of 84°4′N. With unreliable drift thereafter, Nansen then made a final dash towards North Pole on skis and dog sledges. The last mile is excruciating just to read, and I cannot imagine a worse expedition — weather wise. He eventually turned back just shy of 3°46′ — approximately 230 nautical miles south of North Pole. Miraculously or by design, Fram survived the worst on its return voyage before sailing south to Tromsø. Nansen’s pioneering techniques of travel and survival would come to influence all subsequent explorations. It made Nansen and Fram legends, but Nansen would never sail again. The arctic crushes even the toughest they say.

Inspired by Nansen’s achievements and techniques, Roald Amundsen in 1906, after three years of trying, achieved a break-through in successfully navigating across the Canadian arctic archipelago and found the north west passage in a similarly proportioned 45ton fishing vessel Gjøa, thereby proving to the World that Pacific could indeed be reached via the archipelago. Four years later, Amundsen would take the Fram (used by Nansen for his North Pole expedition) to a South Pole expedition. In this expedition, Fram reached the farthest possible latitude of 78°41′S before Amundsen and team began the rest of the journey on sledges and skis to the South Pole, successfully reaching it on 14 December 1911. (Robert Scott, his British counterpart, reached over a month late, and unlike Amundsen and team, he and four of his crew did not survive the return journey to base.)

Standing humble in an understated museum belies their incredible achievements in history. We took the kids to see Fram and Gjøa stand every inch proud at their home in Oslo, the Fram museum this August.


If Fram was a boat for the nordic polar conquerors, Vasa was an unprecedented tragedy — of very low metacentric height, of over-reliance on geometric proportions, of high ambitions, of immaturity in the art of naval architecture, of fear of breaking unfavourable news to the king of Sweden, and of poor judgement of ballast by its captain.

Sweden was fighting its two great foes: Denmark — to reduce its navigation tax, and Russia — to open up its markets. Prior to Vasa, Sweden had lost twelve of its large vessels in the 1620s — one captured, one self-destroyed while resisting capture, and ten ran aground in the Bay of Riga, prompting the king to urgently seek replacements to keep up the pressure in the Baltic.

Armed to gills with two gun decks full totaling an unprecedented sixty-four bronze cannons — specially cast in Stockholm, the ambition and intent of Gustavus was fierce. An operational Vasa as a destroyer would have been a terror of the Baltic, where it was to rendezvous with the king’s fleet, striking fear into the hearts of Sweden’s enemies.

Through changing specifications, an ill shipwright, poor change-management, and shortened delivery date due to urgent pleas from the battle field, Vasa got built despite failing a stability test (third run stopped, as Vasa began heeling and heaving violently — as thirty men ran back & forth on the top deck) conducted by Rear Admiral Klas Fleming.

Just as it set sail from Stockholm port on August 10, 1628, catching the south-west squall, Vasa began heeling hard over its leeward-side to the extent that lower gun ports began taking water, and disappeared. The crux of this tragedy is succinctly summarized in a paper by Fairley & Willshire:

Methods for calculating the centre of gravity, heeling characteristics, and stability factors for sailing ships were unknown, so ships’ captains had to learn their vessels’ operational characteristics by trial-and-error testing. The Vasa was the most spectacular, but certainly not the only ship to capsize during the 17th and 18th centuries. Measurements taken and calculations performed since 1961 indicate that the Vasa was so unstable that it would have capsized at a heeling over of 10° it could not have withstood the estimated wind gust of 8 knots (9 miles per hour) that caused the ship to capsize. Recent calculations indicate the ship would have capsized in a breeze of 4 knots. That the wind was so light during the Vasa’s initial (and final) cruise is verified by the fact that the crew had to extend the sails by hand upon launch.

What is remarkable about Vasa though is not how it went down, but after 333 sunken years, when it was raised in 1961 in a televised national effort, it turned out to be over 90% intact! The theory is that the sheltered Stockholm harbor, and Baltic Sea’s low salinity prevented worms from destroying the wooden vessel.

Raising Vasa, a scaled model at the Vasa museum.

Sweden’s efforts in Vasa’s preservation is admirable, and one can see its majestic stature its exquisite custom wooden carvings and embellished sculptures reveal. Aside from being a deadly machine, it was beautiful art, capturing seventeenth century culture and sophistication. We spent half a day looking at the impressive Vasa this August in Stockholm.

Leaving Flåm and en route to Bergen, I could not help notice numerous automatic lighthouses sprinkled across the fjords and on tiny land-masses. Traditionally, the concept of a light house springs to mind the manned nature of these navigation aids with a resident keeper. But the rugged and weather-challenged Scandinavian coastline demands sophistication.

Nils Gustaf Dalén, son of a farmer and a Swedish mechanical engineer, studying at the Polytechnische Hochschule under Prof. Aurel Boleshaw Stodola in 1896 became acquainted with Stodola and his math colleague Adolf Hurwitz’s work on automatic control systems.1

In 1897, he returned to Sweden and began as an entrepreneur. His significant contribution, together with his partner Henrik von Celsing, was in applying acetylene combustion to lighting fixtures and heating devices. Much brighter than petroleum gas, acetylene, a popular method of street lighting before electricity,2 offered significant advantages for lighting or heating in remote locations, mobile installations, in railways, and in automotive vehicles. Acetylene lighting proved to be a great application for lighthouses and light buoys along coastlines and shipping routes. But there was a problem: the acetylene’s explosive nature, during transportation (in pressure vessels), inhibited its adoption in such applications. Dalén and his partners turned their attention to this problem.

By 1895, it had been discovered that acetylene could be prepared from calcium carbide on a commercial scale. But attempts to store it in light buoys, and have acetylene escape under the action of water supplied automatically had proven to be inconvenient, unreliable and unworkable in cold weather. Two French chemists, Claude and Hess, discovered that acetylene could be dissolved in large quantities in acetone, and the resulting solution wasn’t unstable to be explosive. It could further be transported safely if it was compressed in a porous and sufficiently-elastic mass inside pressurized shipping containers. Dalen discovered and patented such a mass and named it after his company, AGA. The aga mass is an artificially developed porous substrate, described thus in the patent:

The mass embodying the invention consists, broadly speaking, of lumps formed of porous material bound together by means of a suitable binding agent or cement, such, for example, as good Portland or hydraulic cement, a cement consisting of a mixture of zinc oxide and zinc chloride, etc., the voids between which are filled with a porous fibrous material or with a powdered or granular material.

The result was one of extreme fuel efficiency, e.g., when used in maritime lighting, petroleum gas had to be burned in flashes lasting about six seconds, and with the valving system available at the time, one liter of gas generated 50 flashes. In comparison, Dalén’s system delivered several thousand short but brilliant flashes for a liter of acetylene. The increased number of flashes enabled a larger coding alphabet for navigation signals. Not to be done with, he further designed a special Sun valve (Solventil) in 1907 that turned the apparatus off at sunrise, and back on when sunlight disappeared. Using an arrangement of four metal rods inside a glass cylinder (three highly polished, surrounding the fourth dark rod), he invoked differential expansion and contraction of rods to release & cut gas supply as the rods absorbed heat from Sun at dawn & cooled at dusk respectively. (The gas would be lit by a small, always burning pilot light.)

Before Dalén’s system, a lightship in Sweden cost Kr 200,000 with an annual maintenance cost of Kr 25,000. An automatically operated signal buoy costing Kr 9,000 with an annual maintenance of only Kr 60 could now replace this. In 1911, AGA Company was contracted to provide lighthouse system for the entire Panama Canal, and by 1912, an increasing number of coastal installations in Sweden and several other parts of the world had installed the super efficient and automatic Dalén lighting system.

Blockhusudden lighthouse, Sweden.

As we cruised along Djurgarden this August, we saw the Blockhusudden lighthouse (above), which was one of early AGA lighthouses. It operated uninterrupted from its installation in 1912 until electrification in 1980, having consumed 1.8 million litres of acetylene and emitting 400 million flashes in 68 years!

Dalén, for his work on the Dalén light and revolutionizing lighthouse technology, received the Nobel Prize of 1912 (in the category of gases), but not before permanently losing his sight in an accident involving acetylene explosion.

Despite this, there is no shortage of books, articles and people in the scientific community who think he was unworthy or least qualified to receive Nobel prize. I find this troubling. As the land of the midnight sun, with six months of darkness, Scandinavia is no less harsh or unforgiving today. I cannot imagine what it must have been in the early 1900s for its largely fishing communities — living remotely without power source, communication or navigation support, not to mention life-threatening. One really needs to traverse the rugged islands and scattered landmasses between fjords to realize its topographic severity. As an engineer and inventor, whose work was immediately realized, and not as some potentially distant disruptive theory in future (like quantum mechanics), Dalén’s invention was very much in Nobel Prize’s vein “for the greatest benefit to mankind”, and, I think, it was very well deserved.

  1. Robert N. Clark, Historical Perspectives – Nils Gustaf Dalén (1869-1937): Inventor, Experimenter, Engineer, and Nobel Laureate, IEEE Control Systems Magazine, August 2003. 

  2. Dalén is also credited to introducing acetylene use for welding in Sweden in 1902, although it did not come into general use until much later.