This article is mainly based on information found in the book "The clockmaker Rasmus Sørnes", by Tor Sørnes. If you are interested in more details, check out the resources section for information on where to obtain it.

Photo of Rasmus Sørnes in his workshop, with clock No. 3 [1] Rasmus Sørnes was born in Sola, Norway, on March 22, 1893. He was the oldest of four brothers and one sister. His mother died shortly after the birth of the sister, and his father brought up his children alone.

According to his sister, he was already as a young boy very creative and industrious, at least when it came to his own ideas. He was less eager if he had to work with ideas from other, and it often happened that he skipped school for a day or two if he was working on something interesting. In spite of this, his grades were very good.

He made himself a small workshop in the attic, and one of his first projects, built in 1910, was an automatic water pump for the cow stable. The pump started when the reservoir was low, and stopped when it was full. A centrifugal regulator controlled the speed, and it had a start function that connected the motor to the pump only when it had reached full speed. Fifty years later, this system was still functioning.

Another early project was a four-stroke petrol engine, also built in 1910, and believed to be one of the first four-stroke engines to be built by a private person. This engine is on display in Borgarsyssel Museum, Norway.

After finishing elementary school, Rasmus Sørnes applied to be a watchmaker apprentice in Stavanger, but got rejected with the explanation that he was a farmer son with big hands and lumpy fingers. Instead, he started his career at a bicycle factory, assembling bikes. The job was boring and repetitious and he only lasted six months. The next job was in a mechanical workshop in Stavanger, where he stayed for about a year. 18 or 19 years old, he got hired as an electrician apprentice, which in two years yielded him a certificate as a fully educated electrician.

For some time he worked as an electric fitter in the surroundings, but then he got employment as an electrical engineer at Jørpeland Power Station. It was a long way from the power station to his home at Sørnes, but nevertheless he managed to do alot of work at home.

Photo of the interior of the workshop, Jeløy [1]

In this period of his life, many of his inventions served the purpose of reducing the heavy workload that farmers in that day experienced. He built his own tractor from a German Adler automobile, a garage with workshop and greasing pit for cars and tractors, equipment for loading hay into the barn, an incubator for chickens, an electric milk separator and a hydroelectric power plant. He earned himself a reputation as a unique handyman, almost a wizard, and he was asked to solve many problems in the neighbourhood.

Most of his design were single works, and none of them led to mass production or profit. He was not a business man, the challenge seems to have been to design and construct a mechanical solution to a problem. His son, Tor Sørnes, remembers him saying the words "Always remember, everything can be learned, if the will is strong enough". He certainly had the will, but also the gift of thinking differently, always seeing things from different angles.

Rasmus Sørnes read alot of scientific litterature, and eventually he mastered multiple disciplines including watchmaking, mathematics and physics. The first wireless telegraph in Norway was built in Ullanhaug, close to where Sørnes lived. In 1922 he got employment as a radio technician, a job that probably suited him well as he was now surrended by what he was interested in; radio, electronics and mechanics. Working shifts, he had plenty of time to practice his own hobbies.

In the same year, he married his long-time fiancee Gunhild Serina Kvaeven, and eventually they got six children together. His father gave him and his siblings five acres of land each, enough to live on, but not more. He built his own house and garage workshop on the land, but let his brother take care of the farming, as he had his job at the radio station and his workshop to attend to.

Rasmus Sørnes was a keen radio amateur and started in the 1920's one of the first radio broadcasting stations in Norway, called Radio Grannes, where he read news and his wife sang. To make sure he got listeners, he supplied friends and neighbours with receivers. The station was later shut down by the manager of the power company as he was afraid that the radio station uncontrollably drained off the electricity out into the air.

Photo of the workshop in the garden, Jeløy

In 1931, the radiostation was moved to the island Jeløy, in south-east Norway. Unemployment was considerable at this time and the entire staff had few options but to move along with the employer. Rasmus Sørnes built a new house and brought his family there one year later. The house had a lightning conductor, alarm system, radio mast and a house calling phone to his new workshop in the garden.

Also in the new setting, Sørnes soon became known as »the wizard« and got involved in developing a maintenance-free radio beacon for a nearby lighthouse. He designed a new motor with very low current consumption. Powered by a battery charged by solar cells and controlled by a timepiece, this motor drove a switch array, thus sending certain radio signals at certain time intervals.

He got more job offerings than he could take on, and he had to say no, as he didn't have time for his new hobby, the study of astronomy.

In 1935, he started working on his first astronomical clock, but the result was not satisfactory. The calculations were based on data from regular calendars, and they did not include full correction of irregularities in the movement of the moon and the sun. Even though the movement of the celestial bodies on average remain virtually constant over time, they sometimes move a little faster and sometime a little slower, depending on where in their orbit they are.

After this, he decided to build his own astronomical telescope to be able to check his calculations by means of observations. He confirmed with the Zeiss Company in Germany that his design was ok, and then he and his son started the painstaking job of grinding the lenses for a 250 mm (10") reflector-telescope with 2150 mm (7') focal length. When finished in 1939, it was the second largest reflector telescope in Norway. The telescope seems to have worked very well; even when pointed to a seemingly black area, looking through the telescope, it was crowded with stars. During World War II, when Norway was occupied by Germany, the neighbours asked Sørnes to remove it from the garden, as the German bomb planes might mistake it for a gun.

Photo of tools and workbench at Borgarsyssel Museum

At this time, the possession of a radio receiver was strictly forbidden, in fact punished by death. This didn't stop Sørnes, who hid a single tube receiver in a still functioning voltage meter. By turning a screw on the rear side of the instrument, it was turned into a radio, with the dial on the front indicating the tuning.

Every evening, the family doctor visited Rasmus Sørnes around seven o'clock, the time for the news from London. The radio / voltage meter is now on display at the Norwegian Technical Museum in Oslo.

In 1957, when Russia placed Sputnik in orbit, Sørnes made a model of the satellite rotating around the globe. It showed in real-time the location of Sputnik relative to the earth, and could be used to predict when and where the satellite would be visible. To Sørnes' disappointment, this device got more attention than the astronomical clocks.

Starting with clock No. 1, Rasmus Sørnes seems to have spent most of his spare time working on what would become in total four astronomical clocks, each one more complicated, accurate and beautiful than the previous one. He retired from the radio station in 1958, and then he started working full-time on what would become his masterpiece, clock No. 4.

In spite of this, he never said no to helping old friends and neighbours, whether it was with clocks or radios. One year after finishing his last clock, he was struck by stroke while standing at the turning lathe, and he passed away a week later, at Moss hospital, February 15th, 1967.

Source reference

  1. Private photo
  2. Erik Ødegaard: Norsk biografisk leksikon
  3. De gamla urens vänner