Alexander Roda Roda, “Inventors” (1908)

The first inventor I ever met was Uncle Bernhard. I was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time and on holiday. Uncle Bernhard heard that I had gotten a good grade in physics, which incited him to invite me to pay him a visit. He was longing for somebody to whom he could present his inventions. For somebody to participate in them, to understand them. For an expert, as it were, and he believed to have found one in me.

I can’t remember all of them, Uncle Bernhard’s inventions. I can only visualize one clearly —[a farming implement,] the tailcoat harrow.

A tailcoat harrow? It was a harrow with a somewhat bizarre form—let’s say, like the length-wise bisection of a mushroom. It was called a ‘tailcoat’ harrow, because Uncle Bernhard found that a tailcoat spread out on the ground would give the best outline.

“And what advantage does this harrow have over other harrows?”

Uncle Bernhard said: “You know, it does the same work as other harrows.”

“Well, of course. What’s the advantage? Is it easier to make? Is it more inexpensive?”

“It’s somewhat more difficult to make and costs somewhat more than other harrows. But, my child, it does have one very significant advantage: You only have to attach a couple of horses in front of it.”

I looked around and there were already a couple of horses attached in front of all the other normal rhombus-shaped harrows.

My uncle read my mind and said: “What I mean is that the horses don’t get so exhausted in front of the tailcoat harrow.”

“Why’s that, Uncle?”

My uncle warmed up and called out, “Isn’t it true, my boy, that when you put on a tailcoat, you simply put it on over your upper body, and the coattails—right, my boy—they’ll get dragged along behind—you don’t really need to carry them at all? My tailcoat harrow is based on this same mechanical principle: The horses pull the front part, the broad upper body, as it were, and the narrow coattails in the back simply go along with it. You don’t need to pull them one bit. You see, that’s the advantage of the tailcoat harrow.”

In subsequent years, I encountered quite a few other inventors. The strangest was probably the village blacksmith in Terpinje. Terpinje is a tiny little village somewhere in Croatia, and I never would have gone there on my own volition. But, at the time, I had to visit Terpinje because I was a lieutenant and had received the order to set up quarters there.

Once at the inn, somebody already started telling me about the curious village blacksmith who built gigantic, mysterious machines. And they told me how he had come to build them: As a 20-year-old boy, he had been sentenced to death for murdering a man who had caught him committing adultery in flagrante. Then he was ‘pardoned’, as people in Europe were in the custom of saying, to twenty years in a penitentiary. In confinement, he proved himself to be recalcitrant and closed-off, and he had to stay there for the full twenty years. Two or three years ago, he turned up again in Terpinje, re-opened the blacksmith’s shop, and pursued his trade using the rusty tools inherited from his father. He found them to be fairly useable, except for the bellows, which had not been improved by twenty years storage in a scorching hot attic.

And during all the years in the penitentiary this man had gotten stuck on an idea, which he now strove to make a reality. He did not speak about it with anyone, least of all with me. My uniform made him mistrust me.

But I was too curious, too cocky, and, consequently, I was also a little bit intrusive. I wouldn’t let him go. He had to take me to his machine! It was disassembled and consisted of a disorderly pile of gears, springs, connecting rods, shafts, and bearings—none of it would have made anyone the wiser.

The poor blacksmith had forged, filed, and finished all of these gears, control wheels, bearings, and springs in the bleak hours of his free time, using his own anvil. His father’s rusty old tools of the trade. It was one of those perseverant, closet accomplishments that makes you stand there frozen in disbelief and incomprehension. Like whenever you hear about some prisoner scratching a man-sized hole into a prison wall using only a sewing needle and then letting himself down from the fourth floor on a rope made out of threads he had culled from his bedsheets over the course of many years.

Among the sergeants quartered in Terpinje was a year-long volunteer, a technician who had more luck with the blacksmith. He learned the purpose and basic concept of the large machine.

It was supposed to be a motor for farmers, a replacement for the horse-driven mill. And where did the blacksmith get the necessary horsepower? At the end of a single-arm lever, there was a seat for the machine’s custodian. His bodyweight pressed the lever down and set the wheels in motion. Whenever the lever would be at its position of rest, a mechanical system would automatically get activated, and the machine would raise the lever up again. Then the weight of the man would start to work again, and so on, and so on. In short: a perpetual motion machine. And this invention is what the poor blacksmith was spending his time on, all his years, his desires, his future, and his inheritance from his father.

Shortly thereafter I encountered another inventor. It was in Belowar, again in Croatia. Belowar is a tiny little Komitat city, the retirementopolis of the military frontier. An ancient captain there had the monomaniacal pursuit of brewing wild cherry liquor—but not made from wild cherries—no, made from wild cherry wood. He attributed magical properties to this schnapps. It was supposed to be a veritable Theriac. It was supposed to heal any disease and fight off aging and death. Whoever drank it would live to be at least two hundred years old.

“How do you know that, Captain?”

Then he told me cryptically that he had made experiments using fresh veal bones. He put them in the schnapps and observed—they were barely altered. Every day he would weigh them, and, out of their reduction in weight, he arrived at the number 200 as the limit of human life, assuming that it is conserved with wild cherry schnapps.

You can find these kinds of oddballs by the dozen, if you’re lucky—and, if you’re not afraid of visiting a madhouse, by the hundreds. Everyday and everywhere an inestimable amount of energy and brainpower gets wasted on nonsensical inventions. Just as dilettantes often have  fifty dramas stashed away in their desks, working on each of them for months, perhaps years, with fervent effort and unshakeable belief.

In Drahowitza there lived an entire family of inventors—father, mother, three sons, and a daughter—all of whom were building an enormous birdcage, once again, for years. They were always expecting to find a millionaire and aficionado who would offer them riches for it. I saw the cage at three rural exhibitions. Once it even received a bronze medal. The head of the family was no longer around to experience it. The poor man had starved to death.

That’s one group of inventors, the complete dilettantes.

I’ve also met another type of inventor. For example, Count Defours-Walderode. He had traveled around the whole world, only to get know all of its railroads. He studied and noted down all the little inventions and improvements. When he returned home, he built his own miniature train set in his park, which contained all the inventions and improvements he had liked.

Then there was another inventor, a higher Austrian officer. His name is renowned in the history of weapons technology. He famously contributed to the development of the modern repeating rifle. This high officer spent years of his life on a construction that was supposed to make it possible to open and close a double-window—using a single handle.

Once I traveled from Hamburg to Berlin with a strange man. I no longer know why—the man introduced himself to me. He gave me his business card. It read: Emile Durieux, inventeur. At the time, I was amazed at this job title and thought of the village blacksmith in Terpinje, my Uncle with his tailcoat harrow, and the captain with his wild cherry liquor. But ever since I’ve learned that there’s such a thing as a professional poet, I can also believe that there’s such a thing as a professional inventor. And I can no longer apply the well-known Styrian proverb to them: “The like of them surely exist, you may hear about them, but you’ll never find them.” For I know exactly where they can be found—in very large factories. Almost in every very large establishment.

The most peculiar inventors can be found in chemical factories. They have the task of creating new chemical compounds out of simple permutations of atoms. Every now and then it is easier to come up with new chemical compounds than to come up with the bombastic names for them. Only after a new compound gets produced do people consider the purpose it might be suited for. A factory owner can always find ambitious assistant doctors and university lecturers to accept the new invention, undertake experiments with it, and finally discover the disease that the new medicine should treat.

Professional inventors can also be found on the technical committees of the ministry of war. There, it’s a matter of adapting unprofessional inventions to the purposes of war. But usually just circumventing foreign patents by means of minor modifications.

The professional inventor really only works with permutations of known elements—without any truly new ideas. That will always be their bread and butter. A genius among the inventors does not always get by so easily. As is well known, Josef Ressel, the inventor of the screw propeller, died of starvation. That was less than forty years ago. And we are all contemporaries of the engineer Wilhelm Kress, a poor old man who will one day earn a monument for thinking up the experimental aircraft called the “Dragon-flier.” If people called Heinrich Heine unlucky three times over for being poor, sick, and Jewish, the same applies to Kress four times over: He is a genius—i.e., born too early—poor, old, and Austrian.

Only a tiny amount of genius inventors have reaped the fruits of their labor: Guglielmo Marconi, for example, and before him, Alfred Nobel. But Marconi’s invention can be traced back further to Heinrich Hertz, and Nobel only invented dynamite using nitroglycerin by accident, which had already been produced using kieselguhr.

We are all witnesses to a grandiose fight over the priority of invention in the case of the Zeppelin. While the external form of the balloon was created by Charles Renard over twenty years ago, the gasoline engine, the soul of the modern airship, derives from Karl Benz. Yet, the rigid frame of the balloon was an idea of Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, and Zeppelin alone. For years, nobody wanted to believe in the invention, and even today, nine out of ten aeronauts are opposed to the rigid system. “Is there anything more amazing, anything more hair-brained than a balloon made of metal?” these opponents say. Long before the experts, it was laypeople, unbiased and unprejudiced, who placed their trust in the daring Count. The masses are always easier to persuade than are the high priests.

Source: Alexander Roda Roda, “Erfinder.” Berliner Tagesblatt und Handels-Zeitung, Abend-Ausgabe 37, no. 484 (September 22, 1908): 1–2.