Innovation history: Norway’s arms magnate

Nils Waltersen Aasen is remembered for inventing the hand grenade and land mine

Photo: Public domain
Diagram of a Russian Aasen mortar of World War I.

Rasmus Falck
Oslo, Norway

One day in November 1911, during the Italian-Ottoman War 1911-12, some Italian pilots in thin planes flew over Ottoman military units in the desert just outside Tripoli, in what is today Libya. They threw some hand grenades at the enemy, the first bombs dropped from the air. The surprised Turks probably did not know that the grenades were actually manufactured by a Norwegian.

That Norwegian was Nils Waltersen Aasen (1875-1925), credited with having created the modern hand grenade and land mine just prior to WWI. He was born in Rissa, Norway, and went on to graduate from Fortress-Artillery School for Non-Commissioned Officers in 1903.

He started his experiments developing a hand grenade while serving as a sergeant at Oscarsborg Fortress. He was encouraged in his work by the commander at the fortress, former defense minister Hans Georg Stang, who was a strong supporter in the reinforcement and modernization of the military, especially with the threat of a possible conflict with Sweden.

When he wanted to sell his patent for 80,000 kroner to the Norwegian Ministry of Defense, the answer was no. He reduced the price to 2,000 kroner, but the answer was still no. His hand grenade was armed by a long cord that burned through as it was thrown or dropped. The grenade could not explode prematurely during the first 10 meters of its flight, for the safety pin was only withdrawn after the burning of a strip of wool 10 meters long, with which it was secured. Aasen also created inventions for civil use.

The inventor visited country after country. Luckily for him, most other countries were interested. In Copenhagen he found investors and founded the Aasenske Granatkompani. The timing just before the outbreak of WWI was perfect. From Russia he received an order of one million hand grenades. The Pope also bought 2,000 grenades.

Testing weapons was risky. Out of the 155 members in the French commission (where he was a member) that checked all new weapon inventions, 80 were killed in three months. He witnessed many of the accidents himself, and later in life he counted 37 scars from fragments and bullets.

WWI made him wealthy. At the most he had 13,000 employees in 14 factories in France. He lived in a castle in Avenue des Bois in Paris and had a summer place in Nice by the Riviera. He received a number of honorary degrees and awards for his inventions and was made an honorary colonel in the French army and a Chevalier in the order of the Legion d’honneur in 1915.

He was more a philanthropist and inventor than a financier, however, so his fortune was greatly reduced. The last one and a half years of his life, he lived in Stoughton, Wis., where he established his new company, the Aasen Corporation. At the age of 48, he died from tuberculosis.

Rasmus Falck is a strong innovation and entrepreneurship advocate. The author of “What do the best do better” and “The board of directors as a resource in SME,” he received his masters degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently lives in Oslo, Norway.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 30, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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