An exhibition titled Czech inventors and inventions is currently underway at the National Museum in Prague. It introduces visitors to the life and work of more than 20 Czech or Czech-born inventors who made their mark in the world. The exhibition covers achievements in many fields of human activity - engineering, medicine, agriculture, biology, chemistry, as well as in the humanities. But you will also find curious and somewhat absurd creations which never went beyond the prototype stage. I asked Pavel Douša, who heads the museum’s cultural heritage department, to show me round and we started our tour in the entrance hall where a group of people were admiring an enormous snowmobile.
“This is our biggest exhibit. It is five metres long and is a propeller-driven sledge –basically a car on skis. It was made in the 1940s and ordered by the Nazi army to be used in the war, but it was never used and there is just one prototype of this snow machine in the Czech Republic.”
Is this a copy of the original one that was made in the 1940s?
“No, this is the real thing and in America there is one copy made three years ago.”
So where was this made?
“It was made in Kopřivnice, a small town in Moravia. It is based on the Tatra car and has four skis in place of wheels.”
Has it been tested? How fast would it go?
“We do not really know. It was probably tested in Kopřivnice and most likely in Switzerland as well and we suppose that it runs 80 kms per hour.”
Why was it never put to use?
“That is not clear. Maybe because the war ended before it was quite finished or they lacked money for improvements – we do not know for certain.”
But why was it not put to use after the war? Is it just too cumbersome a vehicle or too expensive to produce on a mass scale?
“Well, here we don’t have the right conditions for it, so there was probably scant interest. It was made for Russian terrain –to be used on the Russian front.”
So let’s move on and see what else you have. I hear the exhibition is very interactive –and mainly intended to attract children and young people?
“Yes, we are focussing on children, pupils and young people and not only do we present as many inventions as possible through interactive games, but also show what it is like to be an inventor. So there is a laboratory where they can try their hand at various experiments and work with others in a team to test their skill and patience.”
So what else do you have – this looks like a Merkur set?
“Yes, that is a Merkur set, they were very popular in the 70s and 80s.”
We should say it is a construction set for children...
“Yes, but the main reason why it is presented here is that Otto Wichterle invented contact lenses with the help of just such a set.”
Yes, that’s a fascinating story. Now we move to another hall...
“Yes, the exhibition has two main sections –in this hall we have inventions from the field of engineering, chemistry and biology and in the other hall there are inventions from the field of humanities.”
What are those children playing with?
And here we have individual inventors and the relevant exhibits....What’s this exhibit here?
“That’s a lightening rod invented by Prokop Diviš at the end of the 18th century. He is famous for that in the Czech Republic, but of course, the invention was patented by Benjamin Franklin who invented it at the same time. So Diviš never really got credit for it.”
“Now we are in the section devoted to chemistry and biology and we can see the achievements of Jan Jánský who is credited with the first classification of blood into the four types A, B, AB, O. And here we see a little girl with an electronic game where she is trying to match different blood groups and see if they are compatible. ”
We see a motorcycle over there ...
“Yes, that exhibit is very popular among men. We see two types of Jawa motorbikes. They are Czech-made and used to be very popular here in the Czech Republic.”
And this looks like a sailboat, sailing around in a glass case – what is it?
“If you look closely you will see why it is here - there is a screw propeller in the background. The screw propeller was invented by Josef Ressel and first used on this boat named Chivetta.”
Another Czech invention. And these look like medical instruments of some sort...
“Yes, we can say that the Czech Republic gave the world plastic surgery. Czech professor František Burián laid down the foundations of plastic surgery in 1912 at his clinic in Prague.”
“Here we can see maybe the most famous Czech inventor professor Jaroslav Heyrovsky who won the Nobel Prize for inventing the polarograph and polarography in general.”
And I am sure we will find Otto Wichterle’s contact lenses here somewhere if we look hard enough....
“Yes, here we have the equipment that he made the lens with in his own home in the 60s and it was all done with a Merkur set.”
And this looks like a report card – a school report card...
“Yes, that’s his school report card from grammar school.”
And not all A’s as one might assume! There are B’s and even a C.
“Yes, he appears to have got a C in German.”
And this microscope here?
“These are some belongings of Jan Evangelista Purkyně, who has many achievements to his name (the first person to realise that fingerprints can be used for identification purposes) and whose most important area of study was cells of the human body (he discovered what are known as 'Purkyně cells' in the cerebellum).”
Do you have an exhibit here that you particularly like – a favourite exhibit?
“Yes, but that’s in the other hall featuring among others a number of curiosities and absurd inventions. My favourite exhibit is the ornithopter -an aircraft that flies by flapping its wings like a bird.”
“It is in a way and it is still used in Canada where they try to see for how long it can stay airborne, powered in different ways. The one we have is from the beginning of the 20th century.”
So let us see some of the exhibits here –what’s this strange-looking vehicle?
“That’s a dálnik. An authentic vehicle loaned from the National Technical Museum.”
When was this used? Was it ever used?
“It was used in the 20s.It’s a two-seater. And it was used like a motorbike.”
And here we see a similar construction of the same thing. Oh! Semtex –well, everyone will know about that!
“Yes, but it is not exhibited here for safety reasons. It just figures among the inventions.”
And there is a remoska. Now we have listeners who know about this in Britain! Can you please explain what this is?
“It is something like an electric mini-oven invented in the 1950s in Czechoslovakia. It was very popular and is sold and used to this day. My grandmother used it almost daily.”
Mine too. And what are these huge exhibits here?
“This is a very popular part of the exhibition because it features instruments used in the brewing industry and sugar industry.”
“Yes, to process sugar and brew beer.”
And beer bottles, dating back to God knows when – I have never seen bottles like these.
“Yes, that’s a collection of 19th century beer bottles. And here we have clogs that were used in breweries.”
“This is an interesting instrument –used to extract honey from the honey comb –in Czech it is called medomet.”
How does it work. You turn this handle presumably....
“You turn the handle and the rotating movement empties the honey comb sending the honey to the bottom of this barrel.”
Was this actually used on a daily basis or is it one of those crazy inventions?
“Oh, it was used. Of course.”
And this thing hanging from the ceiling here?
“That’s the ornithopter. This one has four wings and they were all meant to be in motion.”
Well, it looks amazing, but I wouldn’t get on anything like this! And what is Swarowski jewellery doing here?
“That’s because Daniel Swarowski was born in Jiretin pod Bukovou – a small town in the Czech Republic. So he has got a mention.”
I think many people would be surprised by some of the things they find here...
And you even have Czech words....
“Yes, we have Czech expressions that are widely used in foreign languages –everyone knows the word “robot”, but there is also “polka” or the “dollar”.
The polka is a Czech dance?
“Yes, it appeared in 1835 and then spread around Europe and around the world, thanks to the work of Czech composers.”
And here we have football-tennis....
“Yes, that’s a Czech game called noheyball. Its something like volleyball played with your feet.”
So could you tell me, in conclusion, why you chose to feature this exhibition?
“We wanted to present Czech inventions and inventors to the broad public and let people –in particular the young generation - know what their country gave Europe and the world.”
The exhibition, at the top end of Wenceslas Square, runs until the end of April 2012.