Talk about dedication. In the 19th century, safe experimental scientific methods had not been developed yet. Jan Evangelista Purkyně, a Czech physiologist who formulated the cell theory, among other discoveries, tried to learn about everything by conducting tests on himself. He swallowed various herbal infusions, drugs and poisons to find out how they affect the human body and subjected his body to other conditions, like the effects of vertigo.
Purkyně is just one inventor waiting to be discovered at the National Museum’s very cool Inventors and Inventions exhibition being held in their New Building.
“The National Museum is, among other things, a scientific institution; we deal with the world of science,” Dr. Vanda Marešová, the exhibition's curator, told Czech Position. “A key target group is kids and families. This theme is good to connect fun and education in an exhibition — the topic is very attractive because we can design special lectures, workshops, events, games, etc.”
You may be surprised what you will learn about Czech contributions to the world of science and beyond. The exhibition is divided into nine fields: engineering, medicine, chemistry, biology, printing, agricultural, humanities, and two “special categories”: curiosities, and objects from everyday life. There are three or four people included in each field, each with a panel sharing details about their life and work, plus a display case with objects connected to their efforts.
“These are personalities, some of whom have been forgotten by the public, and we tried to bring them and their inventions and discoveries back to life,” Dr Marešová said.
There are 200 exhibitions in all, with the biggest being a Tatra V855 sledge weighing more than one ton, and the smallest being a contact lens. The sledge is actually located in the lobby for obvious reasons, said the curator. “We had to take out the windows to get it in; it was difficult … and expensive.”
The Tatra sledge is a blue-and-white beast with skis instead of tires and a propeller in the back. Originally created in Russia, the German army tried to replica them and this model is the result. This object came from the Regional Museum in Kopřivnice, and Marešová said they collaborated with about 15 other institutions.
Examining fingerprints, matching blood types
There’s lots to see and do in this exhibition. When you first enter, be sure to pick up a slip of paper to play the “Journey to the Nobel Prize” game. Each exhibition is divided by a gigantic “book” related to the field you are currently “studying.” On the book’s spine, you’ll see a set of numbered doors, open the one that corresponds to the number on your paper and you’ll be rewarded with a number of points based on something that happened in a scientist’s life. At the end of the exhibition, add up your points and match it with the chart on the wall explaining if you were skilled enough to earn a Nobel or not. There are also comics on the books’ covers; spin the wheel on the side to rotate through them.
Many of the scientific discoveries are demonstrated with activities. For example, you can try to give someone a blood transfusion by matching a donor’s blood type with the receiver’s. If a green light comes on, the blood types are compatible; if it’s a red light, oops. You can also make an imprint of your fingerprint in clay and examine it under a microscope. At the end of the exhibition there’s a fun room complete with Merkur pieces to construct, microscopes, lab coats to wear and more. ‘I would leave my daughter with the polarograph enthusiast at night alone without any fears since he would keep talking about his mercury drop all the time.’
Many of the scientists and the inventions are known — Otto Wichterle and the contact lens, Gregor Johann Mendel, founder of genetics — but it’s the interesting tidbits you learn that make it fun. Like Wichterle, who at home on Christmas Eve 1961, using a Merkur children’s construction set, built a prototype for a machine to cast the first four contact lenses. Or Jaroslav Heyrovský, one of only two Czech Nobel Prize winners (his for the discovery of polarography, a simplified method of chemical analysis, in which a dropping mercury electrode is used to determine the amounts and types of substances contained in the examined solution)who was known for his tireless work habits. His wife apparently said of him: “I would leave my daughter with the polarograph enthusiast at night alone without any fears since he would keep talking about his mercury drop all the time.”
František Burian, the first person to get plastic surgery acknowledged as an independent surgical specialization; Jan Jánský, who classified the four blood types and Karel Raška, who worked at the World Health Organization (WHO) to help eradicate small pox are just some of the other scientists to be discovered in the first room.
From Egypt to Polka
The second room offers an overview of Czechs’ contributions in a number of fields, including agriculture, brewing and sugar. Sugar here in the 19th century was called white gold according to Marešová because not only did the country have about 400 sugar refineries, they also created new machines and methods of processing the sugar beet which they then exported. One of the better internationally known scientists is Jaroslav Černý, the famed Egyptologist. You can read about his life, work and struggles under communism. One of the first to study everyday life in ancient Egypt, he is still considered one of the greatest global Egyptologists.
Times become more modern when you see the section on everyday life. Czech cubism, glass, Nohejball (the football tennis type sport invented by Czechs), the string bag and more are detailed. Yes, we can thank the Czechs for the polka – it first appeared in 1835 and quickly gained popularity. It wasn’t only a folk dance, Bedřich Smetana and Johann Strauss both composed polkas. It began to be seen in theater and ballet productions and eventually became one of the most popular dances of the 19th and 2oth century. There’s also a panel on Semtex, the industrial plastic explosive, but none on display.
Whether you win a Nobel Prize or not, Dr. Marešová hope you’ve learned something. “We would be glad for visitors to know how many amazing people came from the Czech Republic and motivate children to discover new ideas and use their education,” she said. “Science isn’t boring, scientists aren’t weirdoes. The scientific profession, chemistry, biology, medicine, is useful and helpful; things from laboratories we use in every day life.”
Inventors and Inventions
Through April 30, 2012
National Museum New Building
Vinohradská 1, Prague 1
— Jacy Meyer is a Prague-based freelance journalist