Svend Foyn

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Svend Foyn (1809–1894)
Foynegården in Tønsberg, Norway

Svend Foyn (July 9, 1809 – November 30, 1894) was a Norwegian whaling and shipping magnate who pioneered revolutionary methods for hunting and processing whales. Svend Foyn introduced the modern harpoon cannon and brought whaling into a modern age.[1]


Svend Foyn was born at Foynegården in Tønsberg, the son of shipmaster Laurentius Foyn and Benthe Marie Ager. Svend Foyn wed Elise Amalie Tvede in 1839 in a marriage which ended in an amicable separation in 1842. His former wife, later known as Elise Wærenskjold, immigrated to Texas in 1847. Foyn maintained a long distance friendship with his ex-wife throughout the remainder of their lives. In 1849, Foyn married Magdalene Margrethe “Lena” Bull, with whom he would be married for the remainder of his life.[2]


The whole process of whaling was changed drastically when Svend Foyn invented the exploding harpoon. By doing so, he removed much of the danger from whaling although it remained a very dangerous undertaking. His invention increased the efficiency by which whales could be captured and made it possible to hunt the larger and faster rorquals, the largest group of baleen whales.[3]

Svend Foyn introduced mechanized, steam-powered catcher boats equipped with bow-chaser deck cannons and heavy-caliber harpoons that exploded on impact. Foyn constructed his 86-ton, seven-knot Spes et Fides, the first steam-powered whale catcher. The ship was equipped with seven whale guns separately mounted on the forecastle, each firing a harpoon and grenade. The vessel was 94 feet (29 m) long, with a 20-horsepower (15-kW) engine. It could reach a speed of 7 knots (13 km/h).[4]

Svend Foyn patented his grenade harpoon gun in 1870. He modified existing designs and utilized ideas developed by Erik Eriksen. It consisted of a cannon that fired a barbed explosive head harpoon. Aimed and fired, the harpoon barb would hook into the whale. A moment later an explosive charge in the head of the harpoon would inflict a mortal wound. Then the whale was retrieved by a winch. Once alongside the whaling vessel, the whale was pumped full of air to keep it afloat, as the whale was moved to the location of processing.[5]

With this development, he launched Norway into a new and profitable industry. After years of perfecting a cannon that could fire a grenade and harpoon simultaneously, Foyn finally managed to catch 30 whales in 1868. These increased efficiency and volume, enabling the harvest not only of all of the species that had been hunted for, but also the largest species which had eluded all previous hunting technologies. The whaling industry was in decline when Foyn first began his development of the bow-mounted harpoon cannon. Foyn's eventual successful development of the cannon, in combination with fast and sleek steam-powered catcher vessels, ushered in a modern whaling industry that was to become dominated first by the Norwegians, then the British and finally the Russians and Japanese.[6]

The Antarctic Expedition of 1894–95 was funded by Svend Foyn and led by Henrik Johan Bull. The expedition was a whaling expedition that sailed to the Ross Sea aboard the ship Antarctic.

Svend Foyn's worker's homes, restored and protected flats for workers built 1857–70. In 1865 there were 73 flats and 303 residents. There was a library, prayer room and the country's first kindergarten. Svend Foyn was not only a man before his time in the modern whaling industry, but also as regards social conditions. Svend and Lena Foyn's Memorial, a home for elderly ladies founded by Lena Foyn in 1896. Since 1983 the building has been used for business purposes. Svend Foyn's Chapel, was consecrated November 5, 1876. There was seating for 500 people and at the time it was Norway's largest and most beautiful chapel.

Svend Foyn residence[edit]

The former residence of Svend and Lena Foyn on Storgaten in Tønsberg is a protected house. Built in 1700, Svend Foyn's complete townhouse complex is a shipowner's house from 1750, and Svend Foyn's childhood home, protected in 1924. It is the only complete house of its style from the 18th century in the town.[7]

Later years[edit]

Foyn was entered as a Knight in the Royal Norwegian Order of St. Olav in 1853, was promoted to Commander in 1870 and received the Grand Cross in 1893. Foyn died in 1894 in Nøtterøy, followed by the death of his widow Lena in 1905. The couple had established “The Svend Foyn and Wife Mission Fund” (Norwegian: Svend Foyn and Hustrus Missionsfond) with an endowment of over NOK 3 million. The fund was intended for the benefit of their workforce and for the welfare of their families. His statue, by Norwegian sculptor Anders Svor, was erected outside the cathedral in Tønsberg (Tønsberg domkirke) in 1915.[8][9][10]


A number of locations related to the Antarctica and the surrounding area are named for Svend Foyn including:

In the Arctic, Foynøya, north of Nordaustlandet, Svalbard, is named after him.[11][12]


Additional sources[edit]

  • Gill, Peter (2001) Whales Dolphins & Porpoises (Springfield, MA.: Federal Street Press)
  • Jacobsen, Alf R. Svend Foyn. Fangstmann og nasjonsbygger (Oslo:Aschehoug, 2008)
  • Nielsen, Aage Krarup (1942) En Hvalfangerfaerd: Gennem Troperne til Sydishavet(Kobenhavn: Gyldendalske Boghandel, Nordisk Forlag)
  • Tønnessen, J.N.; And A.O. Johnsen (1982) The History Of Modern Whaling. (translated By R.I. Christophersen. University Of California Press)
  • Henrik Johan Bull (1898) Sydover. Ekspeditionen til Sydishavet i 1893-1895 (British Library, Historical Print Editions) ISBN 978-1-241-41827-4

External links[edit]