After Hours

Emerging Europe is the mother of invention

Central and Eastern Europe might not be famous for its discoveries, but in some ways it is an unfair stereotype. On my first walking tour of Budapest I found out that behind the most difficult puzzle to solve in the world, there is a Hungarian, Ernő Rubik, who gave the name to the well-known cube in 1974. The walkie-talkies I liked so much as a child were actually invented in Poland by Henryk Manguski in 1941. While the anti-ageing creme my grandmother used to wear was patented by Ana Aslan, a Romanian biologist and physician.

Over the years I have spent in the region, I realised how many objects from our everyday life were  first discovered in Central and Eastern Europe.

Like all good Italians, I start my day with a coffee. The acid flavour and the intense aroma make everyone instantly thinks about Italy. Can you imagine my surprise when I found out that Francesco Illy’s original name was actually Ferenc and that the Illy company has actually been Hungarian since 1933? And what about the fact that sugar cubes were patented in the Czech city of Dačice by Jakub Kryštof Rad in 1843? Coffee will never taste so Italian anymore. Let’s move on.

I am blind as a bat, so before anything else I need my contact lenses. Another Czech invention, patented in the 1960s by chemist Otto Wichterle.

Then, everyday I usually like to do a little bit of sport. Mens sana in corpore sano (a healthy mind in a healthy body), as ancient Romans used to say. So I wear my digital wristwatch and I start running. And now, whenever I check the time I always think about the Bulgarian inventor Peter Petroff, who created and sold the first digital wristwatch in 1969.

After running there is nothing better than a shower. And if I can dry my hair today, it is thanks to Armenian Gabriel Kazanjian, who officially registered the invention of the hair dryer in 1911. Then I wear my favourite pair of jeans, first made by Latvian tailor Jākobs Jufess in 1870, and it is time to go to work.

Living in a small town has its advantages. I can take a taxi for a very cheap price. My first option is Taxify, founded in 2013 by Estonian student Markus Villig, who was only 19 years old back then. And during my ride, I am going to just focus on the car. The airbag was invented by Bulgarian engineer Asen Hristov Yordanov, who designed it for the first time in 1957. The first prototype of the CD that the driver is listening to, was invented in Ukraine by the post-graduate student of the Kyiv Institute of Cybernetics Viacheslav Petrov in the late 1960s. Finally, every taxi is now equipped with a GPS system. Although the inventor was born in New York, Alexander Getting’s real origin was from Slovakia, and he then developed the GPS while working as president of the Aerospace Corporation in 1960.

Whatever your job is, I am sure everyone uses, at some stage, a computer. One of the first prototypes of the modern laptops we use today was the Commodore 64, the best-sold computer in history. It was invented by Jack Tramiel, whose original name was actually Jacek Trzmiel, born in Łódź, in the central part of Poland. After having survived the concentration camp of Auschwitz, he moved to the US where he founded Commodore International.

And there are many other objects that we often use in the office without thinking who invented them. Paper clips, for example, were first made by the most famous Polish pianist Józef Hofmann. And when using a photocopier we can thank Bulgarian academician Georgi Nadjakov, who created the first during his studies of photo electricity in 1937.

And what if we have a call with a colleague who works remotely? No problem, three Estonians invented Skype for this exact purpose. Now used by over 600 million users each month, the software was written in 2003 by three classmates Jaan Tallinn, Ahti Heinla and Priit Kasesalu and was then acquired by Microsoft.

Then it is Hungary’s turn again. If you want to impress your boss or your colleagues with a beautifully-done presentation, Prezi is the right solution. The cloud-based presentation and storytelling software was invented in 2009 by co-founders Ádám Somlai-Fischer, Péter Halácsy and Péter Árvai. And also Hungarian is the invention of the soda water, patented by Ányos Jedlik in 1826, for all those hot days at the office.

Going back home, I always like to take a bus and listen to some music while just enjoying looking outside from the window. Croatian programmer Tomislav Uzelac was the first one to create an MP3 player, starting a new way to listen to music.

And when I arrive home, it is already dark. Thankfully, Croatian chemist and metallurgist Franjo Hanaman patented the first cost-effective electric light bulb with a metal filament in 1903.

While preparing dinner, I like to turn the TV on. Not because I understand anything, everything being in Hungarian, a language still obscure to me, but it keeps me company. Now, the TV is surely an American invention, you are probably thinking. Actually, it was Hungarian engineer Peter Károly Goldmark who was behind the first colour TV in 1940, while in 1936 Kálmán Tihanyi described the principle behind the first plasma TV and flat-screen TV. And if television has sound today, we owe it to Polish engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner, the first to show a movie with synchronised sound. Speaking about movies, although it might feel like 3D cinema is a recent invention, it was patented by Romanian physicist Theodor V. Ionescu in 1936.

The day is finally ending. But the list of the things discovered or invented in our region is far from be concluded. From the safety match invented by Hungarian János Irinyi in 1836, to space food created by Bulgarian Cvetan Svetkov in 1972; from the parachute patented by Croatian Faust Vrancic, to the first bulletproof vest invented by Polish Jan Szczepanik in 1901, to the character of Spider-Man, co-authored since 1962 by Slovak writer Steve Ditko.

But I have to admit, maybe inventions were the reasons behind my willing to stay in Budapest. The ball point pen was invented by Hungarian journalist László József Bíró, and curiously enough in my native dialect we call the pen biro. Additionally, another famous name linked to the world of journalism was Hungarian,  and I am talking about none other than József Pulitzer, who gave the name to the most wanted prize for outstanding journalism nowadays. Isn’t all this a sign that I chose the right country?