Life and Work of Rolf Wideröe by © Pedro Waloschek,     => Contents

Wideröe on Wideröe

Ragnhild and Rolf Wideröe 1992 (Fig. 1.1)

1   Family, Youth and Lord Rutherford

If I am going to recount my life, it may be a good idea to start with my family history - although that's not quite as easy as it sounds - and then tell a little about my youth.

Theodor Wideröe, my father, was born the son of a vicar in the Norwegian town of Kongsvinger. He was a businessman, a general agent for French wines and Cognac (Martell) and for Dutch vegetable oils used in the manufacture of margarine. His particular interest lay in postage stamps and he loved the outdoor life. We often went on skiing tours in Nordmarken together and we got on very well. We were a well suited pair.

My grandfather's name was Paulus Peter Marcus Wideröe and he lived between 1827 and 1891. His ancestors can be traced far back. The founding father was Aage Hansen who lived near Molde and also in Veöy, the island which has Odin's `Ve' relic. In Molde, he married Synnöve Oudensdatter of the famous Aspen family which originally came from Brandenburg and used to be known as Kane. The first historical reference to them dates back to 1340 and they are mentioned again in 1597. This was my father's family.

My mother's forebears originated in Germany and they too have an interesting history. My maternal grandfather was called Carl Gottlieb Launer and was born 1819 in Düro-Brockstadt, south of Breslau. He died in Halden (Norway) in 1902. We suspect that the name Launer came from the Huguenots who emigrated from France during the reign of Frederick the Great.

This grandfather wanted to become a brewer and, as a journeyman, he walked all the way to Constantinople and then back to Vienna where, during an uprising in 1848, he took part in a few battles. He became a captain on the side of the rebels. He had a wife during this period, and after sustaining an injury in one of the battles, she hid him in an oven and nursed him back to health. But then his wife died, so he went back on his travels. He came to Northeim near Hanover where he married Johanne Dorthea Magrethe Cramer, my grandmother. She was born in 1837 in Northeim and died in 1925 in our home in Oslo. She was a white-leather tanner's daughter. The couple moved to Halden (Norway) where he became a master brewer. This is where my mother was born in 1875. She died in 1971 in Oslo.

My grandfather later became a master brewer in Hamburg, but some years later he returned to Halden. It is quite possible that I inherited my wanderlust as well as a few other characteristics from my grandfather.

At this point I would like to recount a story which I think is rather curious. I had four cousins in America, in Seattle, the sons of one of my mother's sisters. During a visit, Orwill Borgersen, the eldest of the brothers, told me of an incident; he was driving around in his car when he accidentally slid into a ditch. A farmer who lived nearby pulled him out and, while doing so, he told my cousin that his father had originally come from Germany, namely Hamburg. While still there, he and his horses had been employed to deliver Master Brewer Launer's beer. This has to be an almost unbelievable coincidence!

I remember that as a twelve or thirteen year old boy, I was already very interested in the natural sciences, particularly physics, and in technology _ although I wasn't particularly encouraged in that direction at home. I even built an electric telegraph which connected to a friend who lived next door. My family was a little concerned about some of my chemical experiments. They must have been afraid that I would blow up the house, but it never quite came to that. My two brothers, Viggo (born 1904) and Arild (born 1907) were interested in nothing but aviation, and my sister Else (born 1913) had quite different concerns. My two brothers later founded an airline which was probably the first in Norway. In any case, they set up the first postal link to the north of the country, between Oslo and Stavanger and are therefore regarded as pioneers of Norwegian aviation. Viggo usually acted as the pilot and Arild was the mechanic, although he knew how to fly too. Arild crashed whilst flying over the Oslo Fjord in 1937 and he was killed together with our uncle and aunt. His plane had been brand new, but one of the wings' supports had a bad weld and broke off.

In the 1930s, Viggo had a contract with the shipowner and Antarctic whale fisher Lars Christensen. His task was to take cartographic photographs of the coast and bordering areas of the Antarctic. During one of his reconnaissance flights he discovered a large massif now called `Sör-Rondane', and one of its mountains was named after him `Wideröe-fjeld'. It is 3,000 m high. The sections of the Antarctic which were explored on the basis of those reconnaissance flights were subsequently awarded to Norway.

The airline which Viggo and Arild founded still exists and is run in collaboration with SAS and Braathens SAFE. It is known as `Wideröes Flyveselskap'.

In an article recently published in a Norwegian magazine Viggo was described in very romantic terms: `He likes to have air under his wings; with his nest way above the city and the fiords, with a broad view over the Bunnefjord up to the Sörkedal-Valley, the sharp eyes above his eagle nose follow the way of the sun, the swallow's flight and the correct arrival time of the WF-782 from Brönnöysund' [Sa93]. Viggo also has a house in Spain and every spring we have a few weeks holiday with him. But normally he lives in Oslo. Needless to say, we get on very well.

In Oslo I had a good friend in Kaare Ström who later became professor of geography and limnology, also in Oslo. His father subscribed to the magazine `The World of Nature' which I often read when I visited his home, and many articles made an impression on me. For example, in the magazine the splitting of the atom was explained and this interested me greatly. Even then, I had an idea that one could use very strong magnetic fields to force the valence electrons of the atoms onto smaller and smaller orbits, in something like a Super-Zeeman-Effect, and that this may cause the atoms to collapse. Later, it must have been in 1983, I found out during a physicists' meeting in Geilo that it was in fact possible to achieve something like that with magnetic fields of 1010 Gauss, and that fields of up to 1012 Gauss exist in neutron stars.

While I was at school I wrote to Professor Brock at the University of Oslo and asked him about spectral lines. I received a polite reply with references to books in which I could find out more about my questions. This had been my only contact with the world of physics.

I read many books in those days, such as, Rider Haggard's adventure stories about Africa, Conan Doyle's `The Lost World' and Övre Richter Frich's books about Jonas Fjeld, as well as many novels serialized in magazines.

But I also found much to interest me at grammar school. The things I learnt there were probably of the greatest use to me later on, and a lot of it must have committed itself to my memory. I was a relatively ordinary student, although private study of the lovely booklets in the `Göschen Collection' enabled me to learn a few things about higher mathematics. We also had a teacher of mathematics, captain Löken, who was a member of the Norwegian Mathematics Association, so I too became a member of this association. During my last years at school I read something about Einstein's theory of relativity. It must have been around the end of the First World War that the deflection of light by the sun was proven and thus Einstein's theory confirmed. At the age of seventeen I gave a talk on this and on Einstein's theory of relativity. Planck's quanta also interested me. My physics teacher knew nothing about this, so I had to explain it to him.

However, I also studied electromagnetic phenomena, that is, the laws of electrostatics, as well as the laws of induction and their strange equations, which were already being used a lot in technical applications.

In 1919 I was deeply impressed by the news that Rutherford was able to disintegrate the nuclei of nitrogen atoms by bombarding them with fast alpha particles from a radioactive substance (I guess it was radium). I had found out about this through newspapers and magazines. So the alchemists' dream had finally come true!

Box 1:  Sir Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson

It was clear to me even then, that natural alpha rays were not really the best tools for this task; many more particles with far higher energy were required to obtain a greater number of nuclear fissions. I thought that perhaps this was a case where solutions could be found with the help of high voltage technology.

I knew that electrically charged particles such as atomic nuclei or electrons could be accelerated by electric fields. The energy thus yielded would correspond precisely to the `volt-number', which is the voltage-difference traversed by the particles. At a million volts this is a mega-electron-volt or one MeV.

However, it is not possible to increase the voltage indefinitely; very quickly a breakdown happens in the form of a spark or something like a flash of lightning. On a dry day and in a large room it is possible to charge a smooth and sufficiently large metal sphere up to a few million volts. But after that, discharges will happen. In those days this was impressively demonstrated, occasionally even in schools, albeit on a smaller scale.

A further disadvantage of accelerating particles with high voltages is that either the source of the particles or the measuring instruments (or even both) have to be at high voltage, which makes any operation rather awkward and even dangerous.

Furthermore, the maximum of several million volts available to accelerate charged particles which can be achieved with this kind of apparatus is not really all that much, if compared with the energy of alpha rays of radioactive substances; these lie between 5 and 10MeV which would correspond to an acceleration with 5 to 10 million volts.

Therefore, anyone wanting to achieve such high or even higher particle energies had to look for completely new methods of accelerating particles. And that is where I saw certain possibilities in the elegant, but not easily comprehensible equations of electricity and magnetism which already interested me then. They were extensively used in technical fields. That, therefore, is how my desire to study electrical engineering came about. But in any case this subject interested me more than any other. Then came the decision to attend a German university. My parents were convinced that I would have to go abroad to study in order to fulfil my dreams. They claimed that the Polytechnic in Trondheim, the only one in Norway which ran technological courses, was not suitable for me and even categorised it, rather condescendingly, as a `kindergarten'. I cannot assess whether it really was like that. I am sure that my parents would have revised their judgement a few years later, but I didn't make many enquiries about this institution at the time. It had only been founded in 1910 and in my time it had about 100 students, as Jan Vaagen later told me during our interview in 1983. The kind of technical training which would have fulfilled my expectations was not available in Oslo where we lived.

However, I was quite happy to go abroad and was particularly interested in Darmstadt and Karlsruhe. I can no longer remember why I chose Karlsruhe in particular. Perhaps the decision was influenced by Professor Richter who was an important figure in the field of electrical engineering in those days. I firmly believed one had to be an academically qualified engineer if one wanted to achieve anything in life.

After sitting for my A-level exams (Examen Artium) in the summer of 1920 at the Halling School in Oslo, my father took me to Karlsruhe in the autumn of the same year to study electrical engineering. I still hadn't really formed any precise notion of the work I would do afterwards and during the course of my life.

(See Fig. 1.2: Rolf Wideröe 18 years old)