An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Slovak Inventors 4/4: Parachutes and Prosthetic Arms

Posted on March 24, 2014

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Surely that’s everybody? Not quite. Just a couple to go mind, but the impressive list of inventive Slovakians continues. Next up we’ve got a chap from Liptovsky Mikulas (in the Low Tatras) called Aurel Stodola who was an engineer, physicist and inventor in the mid to late 19th century. Stodola would go on to become one of Europe’s most respected voices on steam turbines. I know, the subjects get more and more exciting. In 1903 he published his landmark book, titled ‘Die Dampfturbine’ (The Steam Turbine), which would become a reference point for engineers throughout the world.  Stodola was a huge influence on Fridrikh Tsander, the Soviet rocket scientist, which isn’t so shabby.

Aurel’s great invention came to fruition in the First World War. In 1915, Stodola began collaborating with the German surgeon Ferdinand Sauerbruch. Their aim? To develop a mechanically advanced prosthetic arm of course! Unbelievably, this is one of the first documented examples of a surgeon and an engineer merging their efforts for a greater good. Indeed, Stodola had a great belief in science and the power it had to improve the lot of humanity.

 ‘If this engineering spirit were to be enshrined in our laws, the world would be astonished at how much of what seemed hopelessly utopian is achievable’

The guy even had Albert Einstein as one of his students.

Which bring us to our final clever bloke from the delightful country called Slovakia. Born on November 23rd 1870 in a teeny tiny village called Nestic, Stefan Banic had societal issues from an early age. He was dismissed from jobs and refused enrollment to high school because of his very aware Slovak consciousness. Frustrated at his lack of opportunities, Banic headed to the States like many of his peers. This was in 1907, and Banic settled in Greenville, Pennsylvania, where there was already a lively Slovak community. He found work as a coalminer, stonemason and in other industries, all the while attending technical school in the evenings. After viewing a plane crash in 1912, Banic resolved to creating something that could save lives in similar circumstances. Banic began to construct his parachute prototype. By 1913, it was ready for testing.

And test it Banic did. The myth runs that he did so by jumping from a 41-floor building in Washington DC. Some have argued that it was only from a 15-floor height, and whilst there is a large difference between 41 floors and 15 floors it’s still pretty darn high up. Either way, a year later Banic tried it from a plane, putting all doubts to bed. Months later, he was awarded his first patent on the parachute. Banic would donate his patent rights to the newly founded Army Signal Corps and his parachute would go on to become the standard for US pilots in World War One.  Banic received no fortune for his invention that saved countless lives. In 1921 he moved back home to Slovakia, where he would live until his death in 1941.

Slovakia is undoubtedly a small nation. Numbering only 5 and a half million, in the entire annals of history it has experienced independence twice, and even the first of those can be argued as existence as a puppet state. Despite this, it has given birth to a list of inventors as widely varied as they are vital to the development of humanity and technology. Good work Slovakia, good work.

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