The Non-Tesla Division – The Inventors From The Slavic World


The cat has long escaped the bag. Certain sections of the internet still like to push the idea that Nikola Tesla is the forgotten genius of the 19th century, a man screwed over by that dirty rotten scumbag Thomas Edison and left to gather dust in the broom cupboard of history’s memory, a man who must must must be resurrected and must must must have his reputation rehabilitated, and the only way to do so is via comics and memes. Folks, hear me as I say, let it be known that the memory of Tesla is no longer in jeopardy. Sure, this isn’t going to lead to the man himself being brought back from the dead and given the respect he deserved in his lifetime, but alas.

Our generation has taken a turn for the intense when it comes to pushing the memory of Tesla, so much so that a number of his darker moments are forgiven in the tidal-esque desire to present Nicky as a tortured artist for the scientific world, a Kurt Cobain with a spindly moustache and blueprints for a flying machine. The guy was in favour of eugenics and spoke to pigeons – he may have been a genius but he obviously needed help.

If you’ll ignore the slight change of tact here, the guy was also clearly in possession of a truly remarkable brain. When folk point to the boy from Smiljan and refer to him as ‘The Electric Jesus’ or ‘The Man Who Invented The 20th Century’ they aren’t excitedly throwing unwarranted hyperbole in his direction. Tesla was so far ahead of his time it stopped being funny, as if such a thing could ever be funny in the first place.

The problem is that the obsession with Tesla also eats up space and bandwidth that could well be used to champion other individuals who found themselves presented with the lemons of being born in peasant Slavic nations when those in charge had ‘Keep the Slavs poor and miserable’ underlined on their To-Do Lists, people who took those lemons and dissected them every which way until they began to resemble whatever the shit ‘lemonade’ is supposed to be in that analogy. Their inventions weren’t as sexy as Tesla’s alternating current or coil, but history needs bit-part players as much as it does lead roles.

Men like Nikola Toškovič are forgotten. The son of a Bulgarian tradesman, Toškovič received the first known patent issued to a Bulgarian when he devised a way of lessening the wear on pistons on trains, simply by placing elastic rings between the piston and cylinder. This all happened in 1857 and was directly responsible for the invention of the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine two years later. Toškovič is yet to receive a quirky webcomic in his honour.

What of Otto Wichterle, the Czech brainiac who invented soft contact lenses on Christmas Day way back in 1961, using a children’s building kit and bicycle dynamo? Wichterle’s only real recognition in Prague today is a cheese fingers-esque monument all the way out in Petřiny, a part of the city that you are only likely to go to if you happen to live there or are a big fan of speedway, and Sky Sports scheduling leads me to believe that no one is a big fan of speedway.

Before Wichterle, contact lenses were usually made of plastic or glass and were used by a maximum of 20,000 people worldwide, but his invention began the development of the contact lens industry as we know it today, an industry that serves more than 100 million people worldwide. He also wore glasses his entire life, a fact made for celebrating via eccentric illustration and dry respect.

If the day-to-day lives of Wichterle and Toškovič weren’t sexy enough to compete with Tesla’s lightning bolts and testicle removal (supposedly), it makes no sense that Peter Florjančič isn’t an international household name. The man from Bled (Slovenia) was the youngest member of the 1936 Yugoslav Olympic skiing team before faking his own death in the Austrian Alps seven years later in order to avoid being drafted into the German Army and sent to compete in the race to die on the Eastern Front.

He subsequently escaped into neutral Switzerland and invented the perfume atomiser (not in the same day), along with prototypes of the plastic zipper and airbag that eventually were improved upon further down the line. Florjančič spent 13 years in Monte Carlo making fortunes and losing them, rubbing shoulders with movie stars and models and displaying a gift of the gab that could put Duško Popov to shame.

Florjančič is now 98 years old, and by the tense used in that phrase you would be correct in assuming that he is still alive. He is pretty much blind, but this hasn’t stopped him working. Florjančič sketches his ideas and continues to come up with new things, with his current focus being on more efficient way to feed birds.

Despite the cinema-ready twists and turns that Peter Florjančič has lived through during his 98 years on this planet, mentioning his name in supposedly educated backpacking circles will see you rewarded with pursed lips and shoulder shrugs and not a whole lot else, despite the fact this dude faked his own death on a skiing holiday to avoid the Nazis before making millions in Monte Carlo casinos. He is the lowest hanging fruit, yet no one is picking.

The list goes on and on and on, stopping for breath and a big-brand energy drink before going on and on and on some more. From Slovakia we have Jan Dopyera and his resonator guitar and Štefan Banič and the early parachute. Poland gives us Ignacy Łukasiewicz and the oil refinery, Ludwik Zamenhof and Esperanto and Józef Kosacki and the man-portable mine detector.

Croatia has given the world the ballpoint pen via the great mind of Slavoljub Penkala, the torpedo thanks to Ivan Lupis and the ability to identify criminals via their fingerprints thanks to Ivan Vučetić. Francisca Rojas wasn’t too happy about that last invention however, as in 1892 it led to her becoming the first criminal caught via fingerprint evidence after murdering her two kids and trying to blame it on her neighbour.

Which brings me back to where I began, the curious history of invention and the Serbs. To be accurate I began with Nikola Tesla, but in this case Tesla is merely the door handle opening into a whole list of things that you probably did not realise were the creations of overly-active Serbian brains.

We thank the Serbs for prototypes of plastic (Ognjeslav Kostović Stepanović) and analog computers (Mihailo Petrović), for manual hair clippers (Nikola Bizumić) and active exoskeletons (Miomir Vukobratović), for efficient treatment of sleep apnea (Miodrag Radulovački) and for Turbo Folk, although by ‘thank’ I clearly mean ‘shake our collective heads and sigh’ with regards to the final invention there.

It was Idvor-born (don’t bother looking it up) Mihajlo Pupin who invented a way of improving and extending the reach of long-distance telephone calls, which he achieved by plonking (the scientific term) loading coils at pre-determined intervals along the transmitting wire. Pupin was born in a village so nondescript that it was once called Staro Selo (Old Village) yet he grew up to make long-distance telephone communication possible.

But who am I kidding? Why even bother to claim that the creative thinkers mentioned above deserve more attention under the microscope of history? Nikola Tesla will continue to dominate the list of Slavic inventors in the same way that Adam Mickiewicz dominates Polish literature and Dinamo Zagreb dominate modern Croatian football. If you’re a mad as crabs inventor who turned up in the USA with some Serbian poetry and flying machine blueprints and went on to conceive the smart phone, remote control, wireless technology and a whole lot more, the same generation who have made such technologies the centre of existence are going to turn you into a deity, and whether or not the cat is still in the bag is rightly going to be of little interest.