CZ/SK verze

Railway Giants: Exceptional Scientist, Unfortunate Entrepreneur - The Czech Genius Křižík Tamed Electricity

Railway Giants: Exceptional Scientist, Unfortunate Entrepreneur - The Czech Genius Křižík Tamed Electricity
photo: NoJin / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons/Bust of František Křižík
15 / 12 / 2023

In the 10th jubilee episode of the 'Railway Giants' series, we delve into the story of František Křižík, the tamer of electricity. He grew up to become one of the greatest scientists of his era, a boy whose genius took him from the fringes of society to its absolute pinnacle.

Complicated Youth

The year is 1847 in the West Bohemian town of Plánice. On the threshold of the national revolutions that would engulf the Austrian Empire the following year, a boy is born and named Francis. He is the only child of shoemaker Václav Křižík and his wife Marie. After studying in nearby Klatovy, where his family had moved, František left for Prague at only 12 years old, joining the school there. His family, being poor, could not finance his studies, although they tried to support him as much as possible, so he ended up living with family friends.

Young František had to earn his own living. He decided to tutor, but it consumed almost all his free time. Unable to devote enough time to school, he failed German. Realizing this was not the right path, he transferred to a Czech real school and moved in with his cousin. Here, his studies improved, but his finances limited him once again. He successfully entered his final year of high school but couldn’t attend the graduation due to the inability to pay the fee.

Despite lacking a high school diploma, he was accepted at the Prague Technical School as an exceptional student. Here, one of the greatest scientific minds of his time, physicist Václav Zenger, lectured him. Still, he had to earn money for his studies, teaching, transcribing music, and eventually securing a job that would change his life.

Chances of a Lifetime

In 1868, a 21-year-old student at the Prague Polytechnic was looking for another job. By chance, he met Mr. Holub, who was seeking a replacement at the Markus Kaufmann factory, where he was leaving. František joined the company that year. His first task was to repair broken railway signals in distant Transylvania. Not only did František repair this equipment, but he also improved and modernized it. His extraordinary creativity finally had the chance to shine and was duly rewarded. In 1870, after selling his patent for a signal system that automatically returned to the stop position in case of malfunction—an invaluable step in railroad safety—he received 1,000 guilders. This allowed him to marry his love, Pavlína Štulíková, with whom he would have a total of seven children.

By 1872, František was recommended for the construction of the key railway project of the time, Emperor Ferdinand's Northern Railway, as a clerk for the telegraph and security service. His success in this role led to a promotion in 1875, enabling him to financially secure his family and attend the world exhibition in Paris in 1878. There, he was utterly captivated by the arc lamp, showcased by Russian inventor Pavel Nikolayevich Yablochkov. This experience would shape his life's work in the years to follow.

J. Dostál / CC BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons

After returning home the same year, he began to invent a series of improvements for this lamp, leading to its patent in 1880 and gaining him immortality. For this lamp, František won a gold medal at the world's electrical exhibition in Paris in 1881, where he outperformed the greatest scientific minds of his time, including Edison and his light bulb, Bell and his telephone, and the legendary Siemens with his dynamo. However, not everything in Křižík's life was rosy. In 1879, František's father died, a significant blow to the sensitive physicist, but one he was determined to overcome. As early as 1880, he founded a company in Pilsen in cooperation with businessman Ludvík Piett, who helped him introduce the lamp to the Austrian market. After another success at the exhibition in Munich, he took a risky step by selling the license to manufacture the arc lamp to England, France, and Germany, earning him enough money to make his business independent.

In 1883, Křižík moved back to Prague, located his new company in the Stará Daňkovka building in Karlín, and started production the next year. He also thought about promoting his work. When he provided free lighting for a technical exhibition in Vienna, he received additional medals and honors, which were significantly more valuable than orders, a problem for a young entrepreneur.

However, fortune smiled on František again in 1887 when he was tasked with lighting the streets of Jindřichův Hradec. The next year, not only Jindřichův Hradec but also nearby Písek would light up with arc lamps.

Electricity on the Rails

But the ambitious František was already thinking about another project. Electric trams, a complete novelty in surrounding states, fascinated him, and he decided to introduce them to his beloved Prague. Initially, he faced a setback, as the horse tracks had an exclusive contract for transport operation in Prague. A unique opportunity presented itself to František in 1891, with an economic, cultural, and social exhibition in Prague. For this event, Křižík provided lighting and built an electric tram running from Letná to the royal park above Výstaviště, where the exhibition was held. Despite the line being only 800 meters long, the people of Prague fell in love with it, and the line remained operational even after the exhibition, where Křižík presented, among other things, his light fountain, which became synonymous with beauty.

PatrikPaprika / CC BY-SA / Wikimedia Commons

This success brought many new orders to František. However, it wasn't until 1906 that Křižík put another tram line into operation, connecting Florenc with Karlín, Libeň, and Vysočany.

NTM archive / Public domain

But now, let's go back a few years. The year is 1889, and the Viennese Ministry of Railways rejects a railway project from Vodňany via Týn nad Vltavou, Bechyně, Tábor, and Vlašim to Kutná Hora. Due to local mayors' pressure, only the section connecting Tábor with Bechyně is implemented from the originally intended route. When the Parliament of the Kingdom of the Czech Republic took over the guarantee for the railway's construction, it was decided that it would be electric. The company František Křižík was chosen to construct the track. It coped well with the task, and when operations started ceremoniously in 1903, Křižík became a legend, having built the first electrified line in Austria-Hungary. The fact that the train traveled at an average speed of barely more than 20 km/h was of little concern, while in England, for example, some trains were exceeding speeds of 100 km/h.

NTM archive / Public domain

New People, New Times

However, others could not build on Křižík’s success. František was a supporter of direct current, similar to the American Edison. But now, a new generation of scientists, led by Emil Kolben, was growing up, convinced of the superior efficiency of alternating current. This dispute in our territory was decided by the contract for the construction of the central Prague power plant in Holešovice, which was won by Kolben and his concept. This loss marked the beginning of the end for Křižík. The imaginative scientist and his company experienced a decline, caused by a complete lack of orders. This gradually led the company to bankruptcy, and in 1917, the disappointed inventor withdrew into seclusion.

Křižík saved his last public appearance for the eve of World War II on Christmas Day 1937, when he uttered the following words during a Czechoslovak radio broadcast: “Professor Einstein, we are so far away, yet so close. I believe that science can bring all people and nations together. Above all, I believe in a happy future for the world. In the end, humanity must understand that it owes itself respect and love.” Křižík died in 1941 at the age of 93, in seclusion in Stádlec, South Bohemia, near Tábor. He spent his final years in a Baroque mansion with his son Jan, where nearly 30 years earlier he had experienced one of the peaks of his career. His funeral became a silent demonstration against the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia.

This concludes the chapter of one of the greatest Czech scientists. A boy who grew up in poverty, he worked his way up through diligence and intellect to become one of the most respected scientists of his time. The man who brought light to the urban darkness.