Well into the 19th century Norway was still a pre-industrial country with a poorly-developed infrastructure and transportation system. 90 per cent of the population lived as self-sufficient fishers and farmers. For centuries fishing was the country’s main source of income. The North Sea and the North Atlantic were rich in herring and in the second half of the 19th century when herring was fished on a large scale, fish processing, especially of sprats, became an important industry. Around 1900, more than half of the population of Stavanger, for example, was employed in the fish canning industry. Today – after decades of over fishing – only 1 per cent of the labour force is employed in fishing or fish farms.

The earliest Norwegian factories produced soap, bricks, glass, iron or beer. They were generally small; their production was low and their machinery and equipment very basic. More advanced industrial sites developed in the 1850s to 1870s which mass-produced articles made of Norwegian raw materials. Initially, textile factories were built. Citizens with sufficient capital built spinning companies and weaving mills around Kristiana (Oslo) and Bergen. Then the metal industry with factories, engine works, rolling mills, dockyards followed. The refining of wood became more important. New roads, railways and canals improved the transportation network.

In the early 20th century the production of electricity by water power – the “white coal” and massive technological advancements were of tremendous importance for the economic development of the country. Norway is the country with the greatest potential for water power in Europe. Between 1890 and 1900 the first eleven water power stations were built, today there are more than 600. In November 2009 the world’s first osmotic power station, using the pressure that results from mixing freshwater and salt water for the production of energy, went into operation in Hurum on the Oslofjord.

Soon, industries making use of the cheap, mass produced energy were introduced, including new industries such as electrochemistry and electrometallurgy. They produced energy consuming products such as carbide, zinc, tin, steel, ferrosilicon and fertiliser. New industrial cities like Rjukan, Notodden, Tyssedal and Eydehavn developed around the power stations and factories. The production of aluminium and magnesium developed into a major element of the Norwegian economy and today, Norway is one of the world’s largest producers of these materials.

By comparison with former times, mining and smelting today is far less important in the country’s economy. As early as 1623, large reserves of silver were found in Kongsberg. Copper was mined in a number of regions, of which, the most significant was in Røros. After the Second World War, North Norway became the most important mining region of the country. Iron ore has been mined in Sør-Varanger and in Rana and coal (since 1904) in Spitzbergen.

The discovery in 1969 of the Ekofisk oil field, 300 km south-west of Stavanger in the North Sea, was as important for Norway’s economy as the development of water power had been at the end of the 19th century. After Ekofisk, further oil and gas fields were discovered and Norway became a major oil producing country and one of the richest countries in the world. Furthermore, in 1972 Norway established an important milestone when it became the first country in the world to create a Ministry of the Environment.

High-tech industries with international reputations developed in conjunction with the oil industry. The list of products is long but includes communication systems, heating systems, transformers and oil platforms.

Based on: Klippfisch, Öl und weiße Kohle: Industriekultur in Norwegen / Vera Steinborn; Michael Funk.
(Schriften / LWL-Industriemuseum; 24 - Essen: Klartext-Verlag ISBN 3-88474-952-8)