Ludvika gruvmuseum


Technology in Bergslagen


Bergslagen achieved its distinctive character with the advent of mining, here, in the early Middle Ages. This changed the nature of the region: from being a wilderness, covered in forest and interspersed with lakes and rivers, it was gradually transformed into a powerful economic and political region, with iron being exported across the Baltic Sea.


New knowledge was needed to exploit the natural resources of the area, as were new tools—innovative machines and chemical processes. So new technology was developed. If we go back in history, we find that knowledge existed that enabled magnificent cathedrals to be built and, likewise, fairly sophisticated ships. But working mechanical tools—machinery—had not been necessary in the old farming communities and therefore had to be introduced. There might have been the odd windmill or water-wheel for grinding corn to make flour. And in hot countries, they had developed pumping systems for irrigating crops in the fields.


Pumping systems, of course, were something that mining in Bergslagen could do with. Here, the problem was one of pumping dry the mine shafts to keep out the water—water that trickled down through cracks in the rock, and precipitation that fell from the sky. Somebody might like to calculate how many tonnes of water will end up in a mine shaft that measures 10 metres across and 10 metres deep after 30 mm of rain has fallen, and then how many skips or barrels full of water would have to be hoisted up to the surface before the mine was dry again. Whatever the answer is, there is no doubt that help from technology was needed. The solution came in the form of horse-driven winch or hoist systems, some of which were large enough to have four horses working at the same time.


A more sophisticated solution consisted of a balanced system of wooden pumps, powered by a draught engine which, in turn, was powered by water. The system comprised a long shaft and an ingenious reciprocating-action wooden-pole system, together with a cable-way, that was used to transfer power mechanically from the water-wheel to the mine. The system of wooden poles could be several kilometres long. This system was still operating in Sweden in the early 1900s, and various components of the system can be seen at several sites in Bergslagen today, eg, at Ludvika gammelgård. These water-wheel-powered draught engines were expensive to erect but could operate round the clock. In c.1900, electricity replaced the draught engine in providing power to distant sites.


The advance of new technology in Sweden was pursued with both elegance and ingenuity. The name of Christoffer Polhem was well known in Sweden but even better known in other countries. However, he did not confine his work to mining technology. In the early 18th century, at his Stiernsund estate in Dalarna, he installed all sorts of automated factory machinery in his workshop for the production of tools and implements. He mixed freely with the powers that be in Stockholm, participated in polemics on the national economy and on trade and industry, and was appointed head of the Kommerskollegium (Board of Commerce). He lived to the ripe old age of 90.


Technology advanced with the extraction of metal in the blast furnaces and the forge hammers. As far back as in the 12th century, the furnaces were equipped with water-driven bellows. Refining the pig iron was initially done by hand, in small furnaces close to the smelting houses. But later, in the 16th century, and guided by the Crown, production took on a larger scale, with hundreds of kilograms of iron being processed at a time, forging the bar by means of large water-driven tilt hammers.


The tilt hammers were a complicated piece of machinery; they were mounted on a sturdy, heavy-timber frame and were driven by large, heavy-duty water-wheels. The design came from the Continent and was used unmodified in Sweden up until 1800. The hammer head itself weighed about 400 kg and it struck the hot iron at a little more than one stroke a second. It was something to see! The dull thud of the hammer, which operated day and night, dictated the rhythm in the lives of everyone in the community.


Just a few years into the 19th century, the Bergslagen communities suddenly received a jolt that knocked any complacency they might have had straight out of their heads. Their traditional and lucrative iron industry now faced devastating competition from new technology developed in Britain. The British iron & steel industry was now using cheap coal to fuel its furnaces, rather than charcoal, which was always in short supply and expensive to produce. In no time at all, they adopted large-scale operations with coke-fired blast furnaces, puddling furnaces and rolling mills. Britain had stepped out of the age of timber and into the Industrial Revolution. Power generated by steam engines was introduced in the 1770s; machine tools (iron lathes and smooth planing machines) in c.1800. Railways became a reality, and steam locomotives were leading-edge technology.


So where was Bergslagen? Quite simply, about fifty years behind the times! The Swedish iron industry was not lost altogether, but major changes had to be made. The forges and power hammers were converted into ironworks equipped with Lancashire furnaces, welding furnaces and rolling mills. The Swedish steel industry grew, but not on the scale of those in the big countries. A number of sound engineering shops and shipyards sprang up in Sweden too, and pretty well the entire railway network was established over a 25-year period. Most of the steel rails came from Britain.


Thanks to the high quality of its raw materials, Bergslagen was reasonably well positioned, even when the next technological advance came along. This time it was the production of cast steel, produced by the Bessemer and Martin processes in the 1870s.


Sir Henry Bessemer’s ideas were adopted and used in practice, here, in Bergslagen, mainly for the manufacture of high-grade steel. The old ironworks now became a steelworks. The process of change and adjustment continued throughout the 20th century.


The conditions that originally made possible the industrial development that took place in Bergslagen, ie, the presence of high-quality iron ore, no longer apply. There is not a single active mine in the region today. But if we look at the steel industry, many of the old ironworks sites are now occupied by highly specialized steelmills of world class, with most of the products going to the export market. These are profitable enterprises. Sweden’s metallurgical competence and technical know-how are still on a par with the best.


But Bergslagen, no doubt thanks to its strong technical heritage, has also attracted many other branches of industry to the area, businesses that are often exporters on the international market, and which prefer this historical setting to the congestion of the major urban conurbations.