An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Herman Potocnik

Posted on January 20, 2014

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There seems to be a fairly grizzly recurring theme with Great Slovenes. France Preseren died aged 49. His great influence, Matija Cop, drowned only 38. National hero Karel Destovnik was a youthful 22. Not wanting to be left out of this list, the father of modern day Astronautics, Herman Potocnik, passed away at the age of 36. Much like the others, he also died penniless and alone. He was practically unrecognised during his lifetime, but his reputation and influence has grown considerably in the years since his death.

Born in the lovely Istrian town of Pula to a staunchly Slovene family, Herman Potocnik entered this world on December 22nd, 1892. His father, a high ranking navy officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy and a doctor, passed away when Herman was only two, so the family upped and moved back to Slovenia. They headed to the village of Vitanje, then to Slovenia’s second largest city, Maribor. It was Maribor that young Herman went to high school, before going on to military secondary schools in Czechoslovakia. His mum was a descendent of Czech immigrants, and the daughter of a well-known wine merchant. His uncle Heinrich was also a major-general in the army, so Potocnik’s connections were plenty. Between the years 1910 and 1913 he went to study at a technical military academy near Vienna, where he graduated as an engineers second lieutenant specializing in the building of railways and bridges.

It was in this very same area that he would come to the fore in World War One. He served in Galicia as well as Serbia and Bosnia, and was one of the finest bridge and railway construction experts going. He was eventually assigned to the South-Western Soca front, before being pensioned off in 1919 because he contracted tuberculosis. This might not sound so hot, but then you must remember that the vast majority of people involved in World War One got pensioned off because they contracted bullets to the face. A bit of ol’ TB ain’t so bad. Actually, it’s usually a bit of a drawn out death, so maybe the bullet would be the better way out. Either way, war is silly.

Following his military retirement he went back into academics, studying electrical engineering in Vienna where he would finally found his niche, his speciality. Rockets. Is there anything cooler than rockets? I mean, no, obviously there isn’t, but I should still ask the question. From 1925 onwards this interest would take on the role of obsession, and he became completely devoted to rocket science and the question of space. He was always ill, he never had any money, he never really had a job and he certainly never married. He spent most of his retirement living with brother in Vienna. Despite all this, he left an indelible mark on the world. Or, more precisely, the world outside of our own.

Herman Potocnik, by now going by the pseduonym Herman Noordung, only ever published a single book. It was never truly cleared up the reasoning behind the psuedonym, but most believe it’s a play on words for the german word ‘ordnung’, which means order. The ‘N’ at the beginning could be to act as a negation, so his pen-name was something along the lines of ‘no order’. Maybe. Who really knows.

He only published a single book, but what a book it was. Entitled ‘Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: der Raketen Motor’ (‘The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor’), this 188 page book planned a permanent human presence in space, including the detailed design of a space station that would orbit the earth. It was the first example of space architecture, and would be the groundwork for eventual exploration of space. The 100 detailed illustrations in the book showed wild imagination and concise science all in the same boat. Being such a far flung idea, he was only really taken seriously by amateur German rocketry folk. Viennese engineers described his plans as pure fantasy. Maybe it was, but it was fantasy that would eventually become reality and would eventually change how we viewed our own world.

His book delved into finding a way to overcome gravity, an idea way ahead of its time. He looked at ways of using space technology in every day life, all the while warning against its misuse for military purposes. Potocnik envisioned the geostationary satellite that would eventually orbit the globe. This was space travel as a real possibility, not just the day-dreaming of a poor and unwell engineer. He made it a scientific possibility.

Herman Potocnik truly had an extraordinary technological imagination. Similar to Nikola Tesla, he conceived future technology way ahead of its time, and was met with giggles and derision. His influence would grow after his death however, and his book and plans were instrumental in the work of Wernher von Braun, the first director of NASA. Von Braun described Potocnik was the ‘catalyst’ for space technology. His idea for a space station would directly influence Stanley Kubrick in the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Herman Potocnik is as influential as any character in the history of space science.

Still, this probably mattered little to ol’ Potocnik, as he died miserable and poor in Vienna at the age of 36. His lungs would eventually contribute to his doing in, as pneumonia took it upon itself to deprive Potocnik of the capability of living. Much like Preseren, Potocnik’s life certainly could not be described as a happy one, but the mark he left can’t be denied. Good job he evaded those damn World War bullets.

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