Object of the month: Treasures from the vault in the Northern Lights Observatory

Monthly Artifacts

Professor Kristian Birkeland (1867-1917) got the national government to finance the building of a national observatory on the Haldde Mountain in Alta in 1899. A house was built for the manager in 1912 and extended in 1913-1915 to give room for four scientist families.

But the last time Birkeland visited Haldde was in 1910. So he never saw the main building where important scientists who were his disciples lived from 1912 to 1926.

Furnishing on a mountain peak for university academics from the capital

The living rooms of the main building had wallpaper, fine carpets, high quality lamps, a piano, art objects and upholstered chairs. The observatory also had a vault for valuables.

The observatory in Alta was closed in 1926, and the institution moved to Tromsø. At the end of World War II the buildings were torched by the German occupation army. Only the stone walls were left standing in 1945.

"Treasures" in rubbish heaps in the ruins

In the 1970s hikers reported that the rubbish heaps in the ruins were full of "souvenirs". Pieces of things that belonged to the scientific community have been presented to the Alta Museum. Among the lumps of rusty iron and charred wood there were some things which bear witness to the "richer" parts of life on the mountain peak.

Gerd Wegner found the door handle to the vault when she was on a mountain hike to Haldde around 1970. Fittingly enough it was a bank director from Alta, Svein Aasegg who secured the vault manufacturer plate when he was on Haldde in July 1978.

Dynamite blasting in Alta bank and a high quality vault for the observatory

One may think that there cannot have been many robbers in the vicinity of the mountain peak. But there was in fact a dramatic dynamite blasting of the vault in the Alta Savings Bank in 1915. This rare event may have emphasized the importance of safeguarding valuables from theft (and fire). The greatest valuables the scientists possessed were photographs of the northern lights and records of their magnetic and meteorological measurements. They probably also stored bankbooks, insurance papers, silverware, and cash in the vault. The vault on Haldde measured three square metres and had concrete walls. The vault’s steel door weighed 200 kg.

The elaborate nickel-plated handle and the manufacturer plate show the vault door was of high quality. The steel door was made by the Swedish firm "Frans Th. Rössel". In an advertisement in 1918 Rössel claimed that their vaults had «blast secure locks», and that they were the only locks which gave effective protection against dynamite blasting. In the ad Rössel lists 10 major breaks in the US, Sweden, and Norway where vaults were blasted open with dynamite. Even worse the thieves were not caught in any of these cases. All of these vaults were made by other manufacturers than Rössel.

On Haldde the Rössel vault was left standing after the devastation of World War II. But the building it was in was burned down. At least we know who was responsible for that crime. 

Hans Christian Søborg - Curator