Gustaf Dalén

Gustaf Dalén was AGA's most influential president and the inventor of epoch-making lighthouse technology products including the flashing apparatus, the sun valve, the AGA compound and the Dalén mixer. In 1912 he was seriously injured and lost his sight in an accident involving a gas explosion. In the same year he was awarded the Nobel Price in Physics. Gustaf Dalén led AGA from 1909 until his death in 1937. His creative genius and boundless optimism laid the foundation for the company's development and international success.

Gustaf Dalén was one of Sweden’s most important Nobel prizewinners and the only one to create an entire industrial group. His story and his life’s work began in 1869 on the beautiful Skräddargĺrden farm in Stenstorp in the Swedish province of Västergötland.

Gustaf Dalén was the fourth child of five. It seems to have been his mother, Lovisa Johansson, who pushed and made sure the children were allowed to study. Perhaps that explains why the children adopted her maiden name, Dalén. At first Gustaf Dalén had intended to take over the family farm. He was not regarded as a talented scholar and although he was constantly inventing new gadgets, his teacher said "Gustaf is no use for anything." As a boy who found it difficult to get up in the mornings, Gustaf Dalén invented a "bed roller" which both made the coffee and switched on the light. This invention attracted attention throughout the district.

Student Years

Gustaf Dalén took care of the family farm but also started a market garden, a seed merchants and operated a dairy. In 1892 he invented a milk-fat tester for checking the quality of the milk delivered. He showed his invention to the foremost Swedish inventor of the day, Gustaf de Laval. Laval was impressed by the self-taught Dalén and encouraged him to start studying.


Dalén took his advice, sold the farm and five years later, in 1896, he obtained his degree at Chalmer's Institute of Technology in Gothenburg. His enthusiasm for study led him to spend a year in further study at ETH in Zurich and on his return to Sweden he started working as a designer at de Laval Ĺngturbin in Stockholm. His position now allowed him to marry the true love of his life, Elma Persson.

Successful Inventor

His studies completed, Dalén formed the company Dalén & Celsing together with his wealthy fellow student Henrik Celsing. At the same time, he worked for Svenska Carbid & Acetylen (later to become AGA). The partners invented the Brilliant gasworks which they sold to the town of Ängelholm. This work involved a new way of producing and using acetylene gas, mainly for lighting. It was also Dalén who introduced welding using acetylene gas in Sweden in 1902.

In 1905 when the Pilotage Service needed a new apparatus which could both save the expensive acetylene gas in lighthouses and provide beacons of varying character, Dalén's experiments resulted in the flashing apparatus. It only uses one-tenth as much gas as its predecessor and the light signals can be varied. In 1907 he invented the ingenious sun valve which automatically switches on lighthouse beacons when darkness falls and switches them off at dawn. He became president of AGA in 1909. The unmanned, reliable, low-energy AGA lighthouse which improved safety at sea was an immediate international success. In 1911, for example, the company received an order for the then unimaginable sum of US$ 150,000 for a lighthouse system for the entire Panama Canal.

Tragedy and Nobel Prize

But acetylene gas is explosive. Safety matters were therefore of decisive importance for the continued success of acetylene. Dalén personally participated in the dangerous testing work. He had already developed a special porous compound which minimizes the risk of explosions in gas tubes (the AGA compound, 1906) and spurred on by his success Dalén continued to experiment.

A dedication which was to have tragic consequences. In September 1912 a gas accumulator exploded while being heated up and Dalén was very seriously injured. The doctors succeeded in saving his life but he never regained his sight.

Still bedridden he was awarded the 1912 Nobel Prize in Physics. The citation reads: "For his inventions of self-operating regulators which in combination with gas accumulators can be used to light lighthouses and light buoys." Since lighthouses could save many human lives and expensive property these were inventions which, entirely in the spirit of Alfred Nobel, were to the benefit of humanity. This encouraging recognition together with a happy marriage, an involved family and strong support from AGA's chairman Arvid Lindman, helped him to recover. Both as a company leader and inventor. In February 1913 he was back among AGA's management and was to remain the company's president for another 25 years. The telephone, radio, reading out loud, skilled employees and a phenomenal memory enabled him to continue to create and lead the company successfully. Though he himself could no longer travel, AGA could conquer the world market. There are also countless stories about how his four children helped their blind, but determined, father to develop the AGA cooker. A coke-fueled, low energy cooker which could burn for 24 hours without attention. The cooker was viewed as an odd product by the company but was an enormous export success. Launched in 1929, the cooker was Daléns last major invention to reach a wide public. In all he had almost 100 patents pending during his lifetime.

Strong Belief in Technology

Gustaf Dalén who was himself passionately interested in aviation became a partner in Enoch Thulin's aircraft factory in Landskrona during World War I. But the market disappeared after the war and the factory was closed down after Thulin had crashed. The rest of Gustaf Dalén's story is very much the history of AGA the company. In the twenties AGA developed a number of products based on the very latest technical achievements, including AGA cars which were built in Berlin and Landskrona. The company delivered the first Swedish sound film equipment in 1929 and by the end of the 1930s more than half of Sweden's then around 3,000 movie theaters had equipment from AGA-Baltic. Innumerable of Sweden's highly popular "Pilsner films," light comedies made in the thirties and melodramas were also recorded using equipment from AGA-Baltic.

Public Citizen

Gustaf Dalén did not confine himself to AGA and his inventions. He was also active in local politics and intensely involved in the national economic debate, among other things in 1931 when he campaigned to bring back the gold standard in Sweden. He was also a member of a number of government committees and sat on the boards of several companies, including AB Radiotjänst.

When the Krueger crash came in 1932 and forced most of Swedish industry and commerce to its knees, Dalén assigned Sporrongs to make pins bearing the motto "Be optimistic". He kept these at the ready under his lapel and handed them out to people he considered needed to take a brighter view of things.

Appreciated Leader

Gustaf Dalén was a far-sighted employer and leader who looked after AGA's employees and made every effort to provide them with security. This was proved when he received his Nobel Prize and shared the prize money with his staff. Every worker was given an extra week's wages and his much appreciated alma mater, Chalmers in Gothenburg, received a donation towards a new scholarship.

The finest award Gustaf Dalén received was perhaps the Nobel Prize but he received many more. In 1918 he was made an honorary doctor at Lund University and he also received both the Nordstjärne Order and the Wasa Order, the Dannebrogen and Morehead medal and became a member of the Academy of Engineering Sciences and the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Gustaf Dalén was active as company leader until his death on December 9, 1937.

In 1954, the same year as the AGA company celebrated its 50th anniversary, Gösta Folke directed "Victory in the Darkness" a film about Gustaf Dalén, based on Erik Wästberg's biography "Gustaf Dalén - a great Swede."

On June 29, 1996, the Dalén Museum in Stenstorp was inaugurated by AGA's President & CEO Marcus Storch. The museum houses an exhibition of Gustaf Dalén's life and his life's work - AGA.