It’s an idea that began 100 years ago, but didn’t come to fruition until this Wednesday when, for the first time ever, the small town of Rjukan, Norway, saw the winter sun.
Tucked in a deep valley under the perpetual shadow of Gaustatoppen Mountain, the town of just over 3,000 residents doesn’t get a single ray of direct sunlight from September to March. To compensate, residents must take a cable car to the top of an adjacent mountain in order to get their fix of Vitamin D.
The problem of Rjukan’s sun-starved winter months wasn’t lost on Norsk Hydro founder Sam Eyde, who developed the industrial town in 1902 to provide a base for those working at a power plant at the foot of the nearby Rjukanfossen waterfall. Eyde announced bold plans to harness the sun in 1913, but the technology to make his “Solspeil” never materialized.
Another decade passed before Eyde cooked up a more practical plan: a gondola to bring the villagers to the sun. Now, with the help of the company he founded, technology has finally caught up with Eyde’s imagination in the form of massive mirrors that bring the sun down to the villagers.
“It is a historically strong point that Hydro is now entering this project as its main sponsor, 100 years after Hydro founder Eyde first seized on the idea,” Steinar Bergsland, mayor of the Tinn municipality, which includes Rjukan, said in a statement. “Rjukan was built on new technology, and it is new technology that is now the basis for the sun mirror.”
Bergsland said he hoped that the mirrors would become a popular tourist attraction and draw new visitors to the town, which is better known as a staging post in Hitler’s quest for the atomic bomb during German occupation. Twelve Norwegian saboteurs parachuted into the nearby tundra and destroyed Norsk Hydro’s “heavy water” plant, hampering the German nuclear energy project and becoming some of Norway’s most legendary war heroes in the process.
Rjukan is currently a candidate for UNESCO’s prestigious World Heritage list, and could join the likes of the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza as soon as 2015, thanks to its combination of hydroelectric power, history and unique architecture.
As for Rjukan’s most recent historical milestone, local resident and artist Martin Andersen is credited with reviving Eyde’s idea for sun mirrors after the Italian village of Viganella successfully installed its own reflectors in 2006. In order to push forward with the 5m Norwegian krone ($851,000) plan, however, Andersen had to convince the town that it was a sound investment. There was initial resistance over the use of public money, but local residents agreed on a combination of private sponsorship and public investment to once-and-for-all bring the 100-year plan to life.
Helicopters flew in three 17-square-meter (183-square-foot) solar- and wind-powered mirrors, or heliostats, and placed them on a mountain roughly 450 meters (1,475 feet) above the center of town. Engineers based in Germany can now control the mirrors -- which were activated this week -- by computer, tilting them to follow the course of the sun across the horizon to bring light into Rjukan’s main square.
More than 1,000 people gathered in the town center Wednesday for the unveiling ceremony, according to local reports. Many donned sunglasses, sipped cocktails, sat in loungers and played beach volleyball on a makeshift court as mirrors reflected the first rays to hit the town center.
Footage of the event showed only a faint light in town, but the effect, residents said, was a noticeable one. The dim rays also bounced off a statue of Sam Eyde himself, offering a ray of vindication for a man with a vision ahead of his time.
Mark Johanson is the travel editor at the International Business Times. He has traveled to and written about more than 30 nations and territories on every continent except...