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Magnus Swenson

Magnus Swenson

Wisconsin Historical Society
Image ID: WHi-68188

Thor's Beach, Thorstrand Road

Magnus Swenson (1855-1936) was a brilliant scientist and inventor. Born in Norway, he immigrated to the United States at age 13, on a horrible passage. The trip took twelve weeks, and 22 of the 60 passengers died from starvation and exhaustion. He worked his way to Janesville where he learned the trade of blacksmith. He came to Madison in 1876 to attend the UW, graduating four years later with high honors in metallurgical engineering. He then taught chemistry at the UW until 1883. He and William Henry founded the College of Agriculture, and he was also instrumental in establishing the UW chemical engineering department.

His 1880 senior thesis revealed that 87 percent of Madison wells were contaminated by sewage, which he attributed to their proximity to outdoor privies. This was a radical thought for the day, since Pasteur had only recently announced his germ theory. While sampling wells, Swenson had to be escorted by police officers to avoid being pelted with stones. Ultimately, his research showed the need for a municipal water system, and he was given the position of city chemist.

While teaching at the UW, he perfected a method of extracting sugar from sorghum. He won a $2500 prize from the USDA for the best paper on chemistry and the manufacture of sugar in 1883. He left Madison at that time and built a sugar plant in Texas. Then he went to Kansas and built a factory to manufacture sugar-making equipment, including his Swenson sugar evaporator. In 1893, he went to Chicago and built another sugar equipment factory. He also invented a cotton baler, for which he received a medal at the Philadelphia centennial exposition. He devised processes used by soap and perfume manufacturers.

Annie Dinsdale Swenson (1858-1935) graduated with Magnus from the UW in 1880. She accompanied her minister father as a young girl when he went on his saddlebag tours. She was a member of the Madison Woman's Club and the AAUW. For 35 years, she was an active part of Madison's civic, religious, and social life.

In the early days of their marriage, they lived just off the capitol square. In the 1890s, they purchased a 15-acre cornfield north of University Avenue near the site of Marshall Park ["Thor's Beach"]. Over many years, they planted a variety of trees, including many not usually found in the area. The mansions on today's Thorstränd Road were constructed in 1922. The Italian-style villas were designed by Law and Law, the second mansion being for their daughter Mary Swenson North. Both houses featured exquisite hardwood floors and woodwork, as well as stained glass. In 1979, both were facing demolition. [I don't know if they are still there; the roadway is marked private.]

In 1912, Norway's king knighted him as a native-born Norwegian with great scientific achievements. That same year, he became director of the newly-founded Norwegian-American Steamship Company. In 1919, Swenson was appointed president of the Norwegian-American Steamship line in New York, remaining in this position until his death.

Swenson was promoting food conservation before the 1917 food crisis. When Herbert Hoover took over as the nation's food administrator, he adopted many of Swenson's ideas and appointed him food administrator for Wisconsin. Swenson attacked food hoarding, encouraged cultivation of gardens, and instituted wheatless and meatless days in the state while in this position. Swenson served as director general for food supplies in northern Europe after World War I from Copenhagen for the Hoover administration.

Tess Mulrooney