Sometimes significant, sometimes minor, and perhaps sometimes disputable, people (or occasionally things) from the Czech lands have made varying contributions to global culture and technology.
On occasion the contribution has been an idea which has been carried around the world. Other times, it has simply shared the stage with the more famous for a brief moment. These are among the more interesting, perhaps lesser-known:
One of the world’s best known and popular dances, the polka, is of Czech origin. It is said to have appeared in 1834 in Týnec nad Labem, a town about 50km east of Prague. From there it moved to Prague and then to Vienna where is soon became a ballroom staple. There is some dispute over the origin of the name. One theory is that it comes from polka, meaning a Polish woman, or from půlka, the Czech word for half.
You will no doubt recognize this magnum opus when you hear it. That is “Entrance of the Gladiators”, composed by the prolific Czech composer Julius Fučík. This piece remains his best known work and is frequently used in circus clown performances.
The Miami Vice Theme Song
Speaking of well-know tunes, the “Miami Vice Theme” is a relatively recent Czech cultural contribution for which we have Prague born Jan Hammer to thank (or blame), though he did win a Grammy for it. In his time, Hammer has collaborated with some of the big names in music such as Mick Jagger, Jeff Beck, and Ringo Starr among others.
New York Punk
Another musician from this part of the world and who inspired and wrote and produced songs for scores of musicians from the ’80s New York art rock scene, most notably Iggy Pop and Patti Smith, is Ivan Král. “Dancing Barefoot” from 1979’s “Wave”, co-written by Smith and Král, was named one of the The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time by Rolling Stone.
Resonet Futurama Guitar
There was even something Czech – or rather Czechoslovakian – joining The Beatles in their early days. George Harrison first recorded on the Resonet Futurama, a locally built guitar which was marketed at the time as the most advanced in its day. Jimmy Page also played the Futurama in his younger years.
If you’ve listened to music on vinyl, chances are it was pressed here. GZ Media, based in Loděnice formerly Gramofonové závody have been manufacturing records since the 1950s. In 2013 production reached a little over 10 million.
Gustav Machatý’s 1933 film Ecstasy, which was partly filmed outside of Prague, is credited with being the first non-pornographic film to feature a sex scene.
Other spheres outside of music have seen an influence from Czechs or those with Czech roots. In film Prague-born Jan Pinkava came up with the idea for the film Ratatouille, though he was replaced part way through production.
Stylized Special Effects
The Czech director, who can perhaps be credited with having the most influence, might well be Karel Zeman. The sci-fi and fantasy adventure film director who worked from the 1950s to the 1970s is famous for his imaginative stylized effects and set designs. Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson all consider him an influence. Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Anderson used Karlovy Vary’s Grandhotel Pupp as an inspiration for his acclaimed film The Grand Budapest Hotel.
In the area of architecture, you can’t look past Jan Kaplický. Though the architect sadly never got to see his designs for the National Library built, his company Future Systems did leave its mark on Lord’s Cricket Ground, designing the award winning media center which now stands there, and the equally celebrated Selfridges Building in Birmingham.
Kaplický is not the only influential Czech architect. At the beginning of the 20th century, Josef Gočár and Josef Chochol brought Cubist ideas into building design. Famous structures include the House of the Black Madonna in Old Town and the Cubist apartment block in Vyšehrad. Cubist architecture may not have spread but it did bring us the world’s only Cubist lamppost, located in Prague at Jungmannova náměstí.
Words Beyond Robot
Pistol comes from píšťala, which also means pipe in Czech. The weapon – a type of hand-held cannon – gained notoriety during the Hussite War. Howitzer also dates to the Hussite War when the howitzer or houfnice was used against infantry formations (houf is Czech for a large group.) Dollar is from the Czech tolar the name for silver coins minted in Jachýmov. The concept of tunneling from the Czech tunelování, which itself comes from the English word tunnel, refers to the process of selling a company’s assets at a cheaper price to a second company owned by (or connected to) the owners of the first company. The unit used for supersonic speeds – the Mach – comes from the physicist Brno-born physicist Ernst Mach. Mach’s principle helped inspire Einstein’s general theory of relativity.
In fact, there have been many other Czechs who have made a contribution in the field of science and technology. One we forgot to mention in our previous article on the subject is Oldřich Jirsák, who has made significant advances in nanofiber technology; the development of nanofibers has helped make important advances in medicine.
Josef Průša is a young Czech innovator who as a student was one of the first contributors to the RepRap open source 3D printer movement and an early advocate for the maker movement. Průša has also appeared at TEDx talks spreading the word about the fascinating world of 3D printing. He is currently developing a “nozzle” component that is highly anticpated by open source fans.
Some lesser-known scientists and thinkers deserve to be on the list. For example, where would the modern celebrity culture be without František Burian, who is credited with establishing plastic surgery as a separate medical field?
Crazy Cat Theory
A more recent medical contribution has come from Jaroslav Flegr, and this contribution is more a theory than a procedure. Flegr contends that the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite that is typically found in cat owners and is the cause of the disease toxoplasmosis, may manipulate the behavior of cat lovers making them reckless or, depending on sex, well-dressed and outgoing (women) or poorly dressed and introverted (men). Flegr won an Ig Nobel prize (a pardoy of the Nobel Prize) for two studies connected to the theory.
What (or who) have we missed?