Chistopher Polhem (1661 – 1751)

Christopher Polhem was a polymath whose understanding of the natural world was based on experience gained in many other countries, and who influenced the technological development of industry throughout Europe.

The son of a trader from Pomerania, Germany, Wolf Christoph Polhem, he was born on the Swedish island of Gotland. After his father died, he lived with an uncle in Stockholm from 1669 and studied at the University of Uppsala from 1687. He became a celebrated clockmaker, but also gained distinction as a mining engineer, by designing a water-powered hoist for raising barrels of ore from the copper mine at Falun in 1693 that attracted the attention of mining engineers from all over Europe.

In the mid-1690s he studied in Germany, the Netherland, France and England, and in 1697, after his return, established a laboratorium mechanicum in Stockholm, for training scientists and testing materials and machines. In 1698 he was appointed Director of Mining Engineering in Sweden, with particular responsibility for the Falun mine, and visited mines in the Harz region in 1707.

From 1700 he established a water-powered factory for the automated manufacture of knives, locks and clocks at Stiersund (Stjarnsund), near Husby. The venture was not entirely successful and much of the factory was destroyed by fire in 1734. He gained a profound understanding of civil engineering, of dry docks, dams and locks, and undertook in 1718 to build a waterway along the line of the later Gotha Canal, but the project never materialised.

Examples of his tools and models are displayed in the National Museum of Science & Technology, Stockholm, and at Falun.