Gustaf Dalén – light-bringer and optimist

​​On 30 November 2019, it is 150 years since Gustaf Dalén was born. He was the engineer who developed revolutionary lighting equipment for lighthouses, inventions that led to a brilliant career, a tragic accident –​ and the Nobel Prize in physics.
Gustaf Dalén was born in 1869 and grew up at Skräddaregården in Stenstorp, Västergötland. He showed an interest in technology and inventions at an early age. When he was 13 years old, he invented an alarm clock out of a wall clock. A quarter of an hour before the clock would ring, a wheel lined with sandpaper began to turn. The wheel lit a match that swung out on a wooden arm and lit a gas lamp. The flame then heated a coffee kettle. When the alarm clock rang, the very tired young inventor could wake up to a bright room and hot coffee.

His ingenuity continued. As he grew up on a farm, he spent a lot of time creating designs to simplify the work there. Among other things, he created an instrument that could measure the fat content in milk. He showed this construction to the inventor Gustaf de Laval. Unfortunately, it turned out that Gustaf de Laval had just patented an almost identical construction. However, he told Gustaf Dalén that he should come back for a position at his company, when he had obtained a technical education.

Once a Chalmerist, always a Chalmerist

So, Gustaf Dalén came to Chalmers in the autumn of 1892, when he was 23 years old. He was very involved in the student life and he also started the local department of Chalmersska Ingenjörsföreningen in Stockholm. Since 1950, Chalmersska Ingenjörsföreningen awards a Chalmerist with the Gustaf Dalén medal every year in memory of him. Göran Dalén is his grandson, who says that his grandfather was diligent in school and that he often asked questions to his professors.

“My grandfather was a bit worried when he first came to Chalmers, as he was slightly older than his peers and he did not have the same study background. But he quickly dedicated himself to his studies and graduated as the best student. He was very grateful for his student time and Chalmers stood close to him all his life.”

The fact that Chalmers was important to Gustaf Dalén was also noticeable in the house Villa Ekbacken on Lidingö, where he lived with his wife Elma and their four children, and where Göran Dalén also grew up. Göran Dalén remembers that there were many murals in the house and at one place in the house there was a painting of the Chalmers Avancez-emblem.

The revolutionary lighthouse lighting

After graduating from Chalmers in 1896, he continued his studies abroad, at the Polytechnikum in Zurich. In the early 1900s, he started working as a development engineer in the newly started Aktiebolaget Gasaccumulator, shortened Aga, and after only a few years Gustaf Dalén was appointed CEO of the company. At this time, experiments with acetylene gas had been made in several places, which was believed to be Black and white image of Gustaf Dalén standing by a construction for a lighthouse.
suitable for use in lighthouses. The problem, however, was that acetylene gas was very explosive, required careful supervision and if it was used in lighthouses it required a lot of gas. 

He began experimenting with acetylene and invented the Dalen Flasher, which saved 90 percent of the gas by dividing it into bubbles that were ignited by a perpetual flame. He did not stop there, since the lighthouses still flashed during the day when they were not needed. So he invented the sun valve. It contained a dark rod that would expand by the sunlight and then reach a gas valve that extinguished the lighthouse. In the evening the rod retracted so that the lighthouse could flash again.

Gustaf Dalén also developed Agamassan which made the handling of acetylene easier. The mass, a mixture of substances such as cement, coal and asbestos, was able to absorb the acetylene so that the gas could be transported. By means of these inventions, lighthouses could now be automated.

1912 –​ the year of both success and tragedy

The interest of the Aga lighthouses spread quickly and 1912 was a breakthrough for Aga as they received a large order of lighthouses to the new Panama Canal. Their lighthouses then began to be used widely around the world. In September of that same year, during the development of Agamassan, Gustaf Dalén was involved in an accident during an experiment. He was badly injured but recovered. Unfortunately, his sight could not be saved.

Just weeks after the accident, in November 1912, Gustaf Dalén was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. The prise was given with the motivation: "for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys". He donated a large part of the prise money to the employees at Aga and he also established a fund at Chalmers for scholarships to talented students.

Be optimistic

The 1930s was financially difficult for many, including Gustaf Dalén and his company. However, he was careful not to be beaten down by it, but instead tried to stay positive. He even made badges with the text "Be optimistic" on them. He wore the badge on his coat, and always had a few extra to hand out to people he thought needed to be cheered up. Göran Dalén says that his grandfather was always a person who wanted to focus on solutions rather than problems. 

“After the accident that made him blind, he wanted to live as usual as possible. He walked quickly so that it would not appear that he was blind and if he walked together with his wife Elma she would usually give him a small push when they met friends. Then he knew that he should lift his hat and greet someone, and depending on the push he knew which way to turn. He did not want others to worry about the fact that he could not see.”

He continued as CEO of Aga even after the accident. Being blind did not prevent him from continuing to invent things either, and during the 1920s he developed the fuel-efficient Aga cooker, which became world famous. He led the company until his death in 1937 and was constantly active in the technological development, always with an optimistic belief about the future. The company was granted a total of 250 patents under Gustaf Dalén's management.

The life of Gustaf Dalén was portrayed in the feature film "Seger i mörker" which premiered in 1954. In conjunction with the 150th anniversary, a newly revised edition of the biography "Gustaf Dalén: En biografi" has been published, as well as the new children's book "Gustaf Dalén –​​ kungen av ljus" by Ann-Sofie Jeppson. In Stenstorp, where Gustaf Dalén grew up, you can visit the museum Dalénmuseet.

Text: Sophia Kristensson

Published: Fri 29 Nov 2019. Modified: Mon 02 Dec 2019