Born on November 30, 1869, Gustaf Dalén grew up with the intention of taking over his father’s farm, until Gustaf de Laval, another Swedish inventor, realized his potential and convinced him to attend the Chalmers Institute at Gothenburg. Evidently, “Dalén’s inventiveness first showed in his early days… when he built a threshing machine powered by an old spinning wheel. He contrived a device to indicate the butterfat content of milk.” It was this beginning that led Dalén to winning the Nobel Peace Prize many years later for “his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys.”
Coastline safety, and the lighting that provided it, had been a consistent issue for countries like Sweden which boasts a long coastline and countless islands. Dalén’s solution for this problem was groundbreaking and significantly increased the efficiency of coastal lighting. Previously, maritime lighting had utilized petroleum gas, which “had to be burned in flashes lasting about six seconds, and with the valving system then in use, one liter of gas provided 50 flashes.”
Dalén’s system could take one liter of acetylene and provide “several thousand short but brilliant flashes. The shorter flashes permitted a larger coding alphabet for the navigation signals.” He also developed a “solar valve, or Soventil,” that would turn the marine lighting system off at sunrise and back on in the evening. This ensured that lights could operate automatically, and additionally, they only needed to be inspected once per year at most. In addition, the cost of Dalén’s lighting system was also significantly reduced.
Two months prior to being awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physics, Dalén was seriously injured and permanently blinded in an accidental explosion during an experiment. Despite his blindness, after recovering from his injuries, Dalén continued to develop products and conduct experiments.