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When the chemistry was right and the gun flashed

February 6, 2003, 00:00 CET

"It might be said that Norsk Hydro was founded on the basis of this document," says Svein Hofseth, head of Hydro's patent and trade mark department. On Thursday it was exactly 100 years ago that Professor Kristian Birkeland fired his famous electric-arc gun, paving the way for the commercial manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer.

 

PATENT: The Norwegian Patent Office's announcement no. 12961 has been entered as Document no. 1 in Hydro's register of patents.

 

Hydro's register of patents reveals that Document no. 1 deals with Professor Kristian Birkeland's application relating to the electric-arc process for chemical fixation or the fission of gas compounds.

The patent application is dated 20 February 1903, just one week after Birkeland and Eyde met at the historic dinner hosted by government minister Gunnar Knudsen, where the idea of using electromagnetic fields for nitrogen fixation was discussed.

"A short time span such as this is often characteristic of pioneering inventions. There is the worry about losing information and the fact that other inventors may be looking into the same phenomena," Hofseth points out.

Birkeland fired the starting shot

"It is of course interesting that Professor Birkeland's was the sole signature on the first patent application. It appears as the extension, or direct derivative, of the short circuiting of his electric-arc gun that he demonstrated at the University of Oslo on 6 February 1903. The later patent application, that describes the process for the manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer, also includes Sam Eyde's signature. Birkeland was the better writer of the two, whereas Eyde was extremely concerned to protect technology. This fact is underscored by the fact that Norsk Hydro has had an in-house patent department ever since its inception," he continues.

"When Norsk Hydro was founded, it must have been the vital importance of financing the major development projects in Telemark that necessitated the protection of technology rights," he adds.

The first patent applications that formed the basis for setting up Norsk Hydro were delivered to the Patents Office in Christiania, as Oslo was then known.

"The Patents Office was established towards the end of the 1800s. In other words, it was hardly an institution of long-standing, but Birkeland and Eyde must have been very much aware of the protection it could give."

Good chemistry?

"Later on there were often heated discussions regarding what each of them had contributed, but on balance I think we can assume that the "chemistry" between Birkeland og Eyde must have been right in those historically important February days in 1903," Hofseth surmises.

Furthermore, he points out that Professor Birkeland held many inventor's rights during his life. He also knew the bitterness caused by neglecting to apply for protection for scientific discoveries and inventions.

"Eyde's emphasis on protecting intellectual properyy rights can best be illustrated by the fact that not only Hydro, but also Elkem, that Eyde was head of from 1903, have always had an in-house patent department. And it is also true to say that Elkem and Hydro – historically speaking – have experienced fewer conflicts and problems relating to rights than many other large Norwegian industrial companies without this in-house function. Ours has been there from the very birth of the company," he says with a smile.

 

IN BRIEF

  • Hydro's engineers were the first in the world to develop the commercial manufacture of nitrogen fertilizer – calcium nitrate – by means of hydro-electric power. This breakthrough paved the way for the setting up Norsk Hydroelektrisk Kvælstof-Aktieselskab in 1905 and the construction of fertilizer plants at Notodden and Rjukan. Hydro is currently the world's biggest producer of mineral fertilizer.