Object of the month: Letters sent from Alta mountain peaks 100 years ago

Monthly Artifacts

The letter to the left and upper right gives us an intriguing description of the newly built northern lights observatory on Talviktoppen. Sem Sæland wrote it to his brother in southernmost Norway the day after he moved into the newly built observatory in December 1899. Using a drawing he described the set-up: No. 1 is the staircase up to the rooftop platform where he stood in the evenings studying the northern lights No. 11 is the cupboard for food and scientific equipment, No. 13 is the three bunkbeds (he slept on top), etc. Even the nail he hung his fiddle on is marked on the drawing. Today the observatory is a ruin. Sæland later became the first president of Norway’s University of Science and Technology in Trondheim and after that he was president (rector) of the university in Oslo for many years.                                                                              

The letter on the lower right was written on November 7th 1914 by the director of the northern lights observatory on the mountain peak Haldde Ole Andreas Krogness to professor Kristian Birkeland who lived in Egypt till 1917 under World War I. The British authorities who controlled Egypt censored all letters. Krogness wrote in English so that «the letter will not be stopped by the censur. I hope you and the censers will excuse my surely terrible English».

Krogness wrote to ask advice from his teacher and academic “god-father” Birkeland.

But Birkeland was last in Alta in 1910. He had shifted focus in his studies from the northern lights to the zodiacal lights which can be seen in tropical regions soon after dusk. He had also moved from Norway for reasons of health. As he wrote to a friend in Oslo: “Norway’s is the most beautiful country in the world if you don’t have to spend the winter there”.

Hans Christian Søborg, Curator