Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Czech Scientists and Inventors

Image by Dragonkatet

Hi Everyone,
While the Czech Republic is famous for its beer and great food, you will also find this country has produced many brilliant and accomplished Czechs in areas ranging from music and saints to scientists and inventors. Science is a subject near and dear to my heart for two reasons:  1. Science is one of my favorite topics to learn and read about, and 2. it just so happens I’m married to a Czech scientist.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to several Czech scientist/inventors whose work laid the basis for much we take for granted in our modern lives. There are so many Czechs who have made worthy contributions to science; it’s difficult to choose only a few to share here with you. 

This list of famous Czech scientist/inventors includes men who developed the sugar cube, soft contact lenses, the lightning rod and much more. When you take a look at each of these men, you’ll find they were multi-talented and made important contributions in several areas of science. Some of them also suffered hard times and many serious setbacks, yet they persevered and carried on with their work. I’ve written about the highlights of each scientist’s life, but there is so much more that could be written about each man. These are some amazing Czechs.

Prokop Diviš (1698-1765)

Prokop Divis
Image from Wikipedia

Prokop Diviš (who preferred the first name Václav) was a distinguished priest, theologian, natural scientist, and researcher of physics—his specialty was electricity. With all these interests, how did he ever find time to also become an inventor? 

Diviš invented the first working lightning rod. Benjamin Franklin invented the first lightning rod (in 1752), but it didn’t work, as the lightning rod wasn’t grounded. Diviš’s version of the lightning rod, built in 1754, was grounded and worked like a charm Among many other inventions, he is credited with creating the first electrical musical instrument, the Denisdor (Denis d’or). Diviš also developed electrotherapy treatments for humans, after studying the effects of electricity on the human body. 

Diviš Lightning Rod:  Wikipedia

Jan Evangelista Purkynĕ (1787-1869)  

Jan Evengelista Purkynĕ
Image from Wikipedia

Jan Evengelista Purkynĕ was a physician and natural scientist, whose name is known around the world for his findings that human cells are the basis of human life, and that finger prints are able to identify specific individuals. He also discovered human sweat glands and how light affects the pupils in our eyes. In addition, Purkynĕ discovered heart fibers, and studied the structures in the human brain—known as Purkynĕ cells. He made more discoveries about the human body that are too numerous to list here. Along with being a scientist, Purkynĕ also was quite a supporter of the Czech national revival in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Jakub Kryštof Rad (1799-1871) 

Jakub and Juliana Rad
Image from Wikipedia

Jakub Rab is credited with the invention of the sugar cube. Rab was a Swiss-born Czech who took the position of director at the Dačice sugar refinery in 1840. He quickly began to modernize the factory and introduced the first steam engine to the plant in 1842. In that time, most sugar was made into sugar loaves, which sometimes were made in different shapes, including cones. In order to be more usable, the “sugar cones” had to be cut down into smaller portions; it was quite common for women to cut themselves while cutting the sugar loaves down to size.

Rad’s wife, Lady Juliana, gave him the inspiration for the sugar cube. One day, Juliana was cutting the sugar loaf down to size and in the process accidentally cut her finger. She bandaged her finger and ran to her husband saying, “Look what happened to me! Those damned sugar loaves! Next time I or one of my daughters can cut off the whole finger. Isn’t it possible to invent something smaller?” About three months later, Rab successfully developed a special press to produce sugar cubes. He presented Juliana with a small box containing 350 red and white sugar cubes. She was very pleased with his gift.

Rab had a difficult time creating a method to mass-produce sugar cubes; he suffered many failures along the way. However, he overcame all the difficulties and was able to obtain a license and patent to produce sugar cubes. Sugar cubes are still used all over the world today.

Ernst Mach (1838-1916)  

Ernst Mach
Image from Wikipedia

Ernst Mach is usually called an Austrian, but he was truly a Czech. He was born in Moravia, near Brno, when the Czech lands were part of the Austrian empire. Mach was a physicist and philosopher who also made notable contributions to Psychology with the Mach Band optical illusion. 

Mach is also noted for developing the Mach number system which is used to compute the speed of sound—an important concept in regards to aerodynamics, supersonic velocity and hydrodynamics. He applied this concept to the study of shock waves—specifically spark and ballistic shock waves. Mach and his son took the first photographs of a bullet and its shock waves in 1888.

Mach's photo of a bullet and it's shockwave
Image from Wikipedia

Jan Janský (1873-1921)  

Jan Janský
Image from Wikipedia

Jan Janský was a serologist (serology is the study of blood serum), neurologist and psychiatrist. Janský was the first scientist to classify blood into the four types (A, B, AB, O). His discovery was almost overlooked, but was found by an American medical commission in 1921. Janský was awarded a posthumous Nobel Prize for this work in 1930.

After serving as a doctor on the front during WWI, Janský took up neuropsychology. He tried to find a tie between diseases of the blood and mental illness, but was unsuccessful in this work. 

Josef Ressel (1841-1926)  

Josef Ressel
Image from Wikipedia

Josef Ressel is credited as being the inventor of the screw-driven ship propeller. He was born in Chrudim, and later studied at the artillery school in České Budĕjovice. He next attended university in Vienna, where he studied mathematics, geometry, and  technical drawing. Ressel was also interested in forestry, chemistry, technology and natural sciences. He was forced to quit university due to lack of funds, and then he worked for the forestry service, where he developed new ways to quickly measure forest areas. 

It was at this point that Ressel developed an interest in ships and developed the screw-driven ship propeller. There has been some controversy of whether or not he was the first inventor of this type of ship propeller. At about the same time, two British boat builders, Sauvage and Smith, also claimed to be the first inventors of the screw-driven ship propeller, however Czechs believe Resell was the original inventor.

Otto Wichterle (1913-1998)  

Otto WichterleImage from Wikipedia

Otto Wichterle was a world-famous scientist and inventor whose field was in macromolecular organic chemistry. His main scientific contributions were the development of soft contact lenses and the discovery of nylon fibers. 

Wichterle’s university career was cut short by the installation of the Nazi Protectorate in 1939 . Many students were deported and/or executed, and all Czech institutions of higher learning were closed. He survived the purge of students and was able to continue on with scientific work when he was hired by Bat’a, a shoe factory in Zlín, which also included a research facility. 

During his time in Zlín, Wichterle became part of the resistance movement. Eventually the Gestapo learned about the resistance cells in Zlín, and conducted a purge of these cells. The Gestapo arrested Wichterle, and sentenced him to time in a concentration camp near the city. After spending about four months in the camp, the Nazi’s began to lose on the Eastern Front and the U.S. began to encroach on Zlín.

After the war, Wichterle moved to Prague, where he was appointed professor of macromolecular chemistry at Czech Technical University. He also became a member of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. 

In 1952, he was appointed dean of the new University of Chemical Technology, and became a member of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. In 1958, during another purge by Communists, Otto Wichterle was expelled from the university. However, he was able to continue working under the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences. 

It was during this time that Otto Wichterle began to use hydrogel to produce soft contact lenses. He developed a machine, called the Merkur, which used centrifugal force to create the lenses. 

Wichterle's Merkur
Image from Wikipedia

Jára da Cimrman (1800’s to the present)

Bust of Jára da Cimrman
Image from Wikipedia

Jára da Cimrman is a special character to Czechs around the world. He is a complex social phenomenon that can be difficult for foreigners to comprehend. Cimrman is reputedly the highest genius in all the Czech lands, and is reputed to be the inventor of most anything you can think of, the author of books and plays, and is even credited with being the first man on the moon…and even more. 

Cimrman is somewhat of a mysterious person, as there are no photos or other images of him in existence. Apparently he works very hard to maintain his anonymity and manages to avoid the paparazzi, unlike most people with his level of fame. There is one bust of Cimrman at the Cimrman Theather in Prague, however, his face is so chiseled (pun intended) that it was difficult for the artist to accurately portray his rugged good looks.

Now for the serious facts about Cimrman; he’s actually a fictional character and made his first “appearance” on a radio show called Nealkoholická vináma U Pavouka (“The Spider Non-Alcoholic Wine Bar”). His creators, Jiří Šebánek, Ladislav Smoljak and Zdenĕk Svĕrák, intended Jára da Cimrman to be a funny character who represented typical Czechs. Czech humor is amazing; it can be satirical, full of irony, and yet doesn’t take itself too seriously; Cimrman is the classic representation of Czech humor. I’m still learning about Cimrman, and am looking forward to learning many more of the funny stories that surround his life and work.

This is only a short list of Czech scientist/inventors who have made significant contributions to science. There are many more who could have been included in this short list. Czechs, from my perspective, don’t seem to be proud of their country or their achievements. Czechs are highly intelligent and gifted people, but often downplay their abilities and contributions. In my opinion, they have a lot to be proud of, including Jára da Cimrman.

That’s all for today! Have a great day!

God bless,
Sher J

© 2012 by Sher Vacik. All rights reserved.


Ivanhoe said...

I remembered the name, but forgot what they were famous for. So thanks for the reminder :)
BTW: I graduated from Ressel Business Academy in Prague.

Sher said...

@Ivanhoe: Glad to have been able to help remind you what they were famous for!

Thanks for sharing that--I didn't realize there was a Ressel Business Academy in Prague!

It was fun to put this list together, but difficult. Maybe I'll have to do another list one of these days!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Anonymous said...

Merkur -the contact lenses machine - is actually name for the metal construction components of the machine. It's name of a toy construction set (like Lego or something similar). I had a box of it when I was a child.

Karen said...

What amazing stories. A guy who can be oppressed by both the Nazis and the Commies and still have time to come up with soft-contact lenses! Wow. He effects my life to this day. And the guy who made the sugar cubes for his wife? What a great story!

Sher said...

@Anonymous: Thank you for making it more clear for English readers that "Merkur" is actually the name of the construction components. When I found that picture, I thought very much resembled an erector set, like my brother had when we were kids!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Sher said...

@Karen: Thanks for your comment! These guys had some amazing stories--and there are even more Czech inventor/scientist stories to share.

Yes, I loved the story about the sugar cube being inspired by a wife, and then Wichterle's drive to keep working on his ideas.

There are some very inspirational stories to hear from many Czechs, though. The longer I live there, the more I learn and the more amazed I am at the resilience of not only Czechs, but humans as a whole.

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Manish Kumar said...

Interesting post! I enjoyed reading it! Thanks for sharing this useful info.keep updating same way. Cheers,

Sher said...

Hi Manish,
It's great you enjoyed this post. Czechs are very creative in many fields--especially in Science.

I'll find some other interesting people and topics to write about soon!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Anonymous said...

Hi, there actually is a photo of Jara Cimrman (it was shown at one of the seminars that are traditionally held before his pieces are played in his theater). It is an aerial photo of Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of people on it, but the cimrmanologists estimate that Maestro is somewhere in the upper-left quarter or something like that :-)

Cheers, Jiri

Anonymous said...

In fact, Jara Cimrman is hugely popular among people here (you might have heard about The Greatest Czech television poll, which he was about to win, but was disqualified). Some friend of my dad's even made a monument commemorating an event in life of the genius. Here's the story: The friend was working in a stoneworks and one day they accidentally broke a corner off from a massive marble plate so the plate was useless for commercial purposes. He and his colleagues managed to get the plate for bargain and completed it with an epigraph in big gold lettering. Then they loaded it in a car and drove to the middle of nowhere and installed the piece randomly somewhere deep in a forest. To this day it is there and almost nobody knows...

And what is it the stone says? Something like: "In summer of 1879, Jara Cimrman walked the road not far from here." :-)

Hapy New Year, Jiri