Reading tip: The Engineers by Gunnar Wetterberg

I love learning about history; how people have lived before, and how the world has evolved into the amazing, wonderful and crazy place it is today. Since I moved to Sweden 10 years ago, one of the ways I have improved my Swedish is by reading books in Swedish, often about Sweden and often about history.

In the spring, when the family needed a break from work and screens, we unplugged and drove to a cottage in Sörmland for an extended weekend. On the way there, in a local bookstore, I came upon the book Ingenjörerna (The Engineers) by Gunnar Wetterberg.

It’s a book about how the profession of Engineer evolved in Sweden and how Engineers changed Sweden from a poorly developed country that people migrated away from to one of the richest countries in the world. From 1870 and 100 years on, Sweden and Japan were the most prosperous countries in the world. 

Analog reading about progress in a cottage without running water. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2021.

In 28 chapters and 350 pages, Wetterberg tells the stories of how things we today take for granted came to be in Sweden: A warm house when it is cold outside, light for reading when it is dark outside, clean drinking water from the tap, food that is safe to eat, roads and rails that are safe to use. Progress is the sum of many small steps. Inventions turned into products, products finding their way into the world. 

Perhaps you know that it famously took 10 years of product development before the first milk pyramid saw the light of the day and Tetra Pak made a profit. Now we pick milk packages up routinely when shopping, never worrying about anything but date and price, trusting that the content is healthy and safe to consume. Which it is, partly due to the Alfa Laval Separator.

Perhaps you also know about Götakanalen, the channels connecting inland lakes from coast to coast. The entire length opened 1832. However, just a few decades later, goods were mostly moved on rails. Now a scenic destination for a slowcation.

And I trust you have heard of Ericsson? The company is named after Lars Magnus Ericsson (1846-1926). Bell couldn’t be bothered taking out a patent in the small Swedish market. Ericsson who had a telegraph workshop, started building and selling telephones. One of the curious detours of development of communication is Telefontornet (the Telephone Tower) in Stockholm (1887-1913) that connected telephones across the city. Ericsson fell out with his business partner later in life, moved to Alby south of Stockholm (where I live now), to build a modern farm and to experiment with new ways of farming.

In 1915-1917, Lars Magnus Ericsson built what is today the main house in Hågelbyparken, a community centre for public events. Concrete was latest fashion in construction back then and is used extensively. Copyright Frederik Jensen 2021.

Not known to me before reading this book was that the rise of hydro electric power in Sweden was triggered by the shortage of oil and coal during World War One as Sweden only had access to one site with coal. Another curious fact: The adoption of electricity in big cities in Sweden were slow due to existing infrastructure for lightning (gas lamps). Investors were protecting previous investments. Progress is also about business, not just great products.

Wetterberg tells these stories and many more and connects them into an overall theme of how great ideas that were a product of their time evolved through many hands and brains into everyday solutions. The final chapters are weaker: highlighting the trends of recent years and projecting into the future is a notorious difficult art and not Wetterberg’s strength. This will be for future historians to pick up.

One reflection I made after reading this book (and last summer’s visit to the Polar Exploration Museum in Gränna) is that history is full of tragic pioneers. The people who took the first steps often did not end up happy or rich. Also, progress is the sum of consistent effort over long time from many people. Even the greatest of ideas requires refinement and execution. But when it happens, the world can change fast. The everyday life of our children will be very different from ours and they will take it for granted.

Gunnar Wetterberg: Ingenjörerna, Albert Bonniers Förlag, 2020. Kindly sponsored by my wife.