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Railway Giants: Søren's Lost Hope in a Revolutionary Dynamo

Railway Giants: Søren's Lost Hope in a Revolutionary Dynamo
photo: Wikimedia commons / Gerd-HH / Public Domain/Hjorth's dynamo
11 / 05 / 2024

Søren Hjorth is the man to whom Denmark undoubtedly owes the development of its railway network. But it is not just his home country that owes him a debt, but the whole world. Let's take a look at the story of a boy who never received a technical education, yet is still considered one of the most important engineers in history in the new episode of the Railway Giants series.

The year is 1801, and we are at the Danish estate of Vesterbygaard, west of Copenhagen. Here, a boy named Søren is born into the family of Jacob Hjorth, a local administrator, and his wife, Margethe, during the time of the fledgling Industrial Revolution. He is born into the period of the incipient Napoleonic Wars, which will rock Europe for the next 15 years. During these wars, Denmark will side with France, which will have unpleasant economic consequences for Denmark when they end. Among other things, it will lose its long-standing colony of Norway. Denmark will have to cope with the economic consequences of this unfortunate alliance for several decades. With the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Søren is now 14 years old, the perfect time to return to see our teenage great.

Wikimedia commons/Gerd-HH/Public Domain

Søren will grow up on his father's estate in Vesterbygaard. His parents won't fund any special education for him; after all, what would he need it for as a farmer in the early 19th century? In 1821, he becomes the steward of the Bonderup estate near Korsor. This position, however, falls far short of his expectations, and so in 1828, he becomes an employee at the tax office. In 1836, he works his way up to the position of secretary and clerk, thanks to his talent and diligence. In his spare time, he attends the Polytechnic Institute, where he listens to lectures. Thanks to his experience and his own creativity, he makes a threshing machine for his father and studies the workings of the steam engine. In the meantime, Søren also takes a study trip to England to learn about steam operations.

Time to Build Tracks

With the experience he has gained, Søren decides to start his own railway company in 1844 and appoints himself as its technical director. Fortune also smiles on him in his private life, as he marries Wilhelmina Ancker a year later. This divorced woman brings home two children from a previous marriage. However, she will not have another child with Søren.

In addition to working in his company, Søren also becomes the chairman of the Industrial Association. Under his chairmanship, the association is awarded the concession to build the first railway line in Denmark. This line, Søren's daughter, is to run from Copenhagen to nearby Roskilde. What matters is that the railway is only 35 km long. When it is inaugurated in July 1847, Søren records his first indelible entry into Danish history.

Wikimedia commons/Allseeingeye/Public Domain

In the years that followed, however, fortune would turn its back on both Søren and the Danish railway. The construction of new lines would not be favored at the turn of the 19th century. The reason for this is simple: numerous rebellions broke out in a number of European countries in 1848 and 1849. It makes no difference in principle whether these revolutions were nationalist, as in the case of Italy and Germany, or revolutions seeking greater civil rights, as in France or Austria. The result in both cases is practically the same: fighting, hunger, and high costs leading to the neglect of other projects. Not surprisingly, the railways themselves fall victim to them, at least for a time.

So in 1848, Søren resigns his position and sets off again for the land where the first railway miles were born, Great Britain. There, he impresses particularly with his attempt to build what could today be called the forerunner of the electric motor. His machine is also a success at the very prestigious World Exhibition in London in 1851. Moreover, it earns Søren admission to the British Institution of Civil Engineers. In his further research, Søren would get to the point where he could more or less explain the principle of the dynamo, which he patented in 1854. Quite a feat for a boy with no technical training.

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Journey to the Impossible

However, Søren's overconfidence in his new patent is almost fatal. The Danish engineer simply had excessive expectations for the dynamo. He envisioned the dynamo powering ships and locomotives with an efficiency approaching 100%. However, a perpetual motion machine cannot be created according to the laws of physics on Earth, so Søren had to accept failure.

After this failed attempt, a disappointed Søren takes refuge in the steelworks in Sheffield. Additionally, he translates English texts into Danish. In 1861, he receives an annuity for his contribution to the building of Danish railways. Søren will try once more to resuscitate his dream. Thanks to his contacts in professional circles, he secures an audience with the French Emperor Napoleon III, whom he tries to persuade to finance the development of his machines. He is unsuccessful, however, and has no choice but to return to his native Denmark in 1868. Here, he spends two more years trying to improve his invention. This finally comes to an end in 1870, when the Danish genius breathes his last.

Wikimedia commons/Leif Jørgensen/CC BY-SA 2.5 DEED

Søren's efforts as the inventor of the dynamo principle will be forgotten for several years. His work would not be followed up until 1879 by Colonel Bolton of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in London. His dreams of the dynamo would never be realized, but they would nevertheless be crucial for mankind in the years to come.