Who was the Czech Elon Musk? A new exhibit explores the forgotten innovator's villa

Emil Kolben had a lasting impact on Czech industry; an exhibition celebrates the 160th anniversary of his birth.

Ioana Caloianu

Written by Ioana Caloianu Published on 22.10.2022 11:42:00 (updated on 22.10.2022) Reading time: 2 minutes

Despite being as influential as internationally-known figures of Czech industry and trade such as Tomáš Baťa or Laurin & Klement – the duo behind the Škoda automobile manufacturer – Emil Kolben has been largely forgotten both at home and abroad. An exhibition celebrating the 160th anniversary of his birth plans to change that.

Kolben "was the architect of a spectacular business that influenced economic development in the Czech lands for decades," the website devoted to the exhibition notes.

The brilliant mind behind the Czech industry breakthroughs

After studies at the Technical University in Prague, the Prague-born Kolben won a scholarship to study in the U.S. Aged only 25, he became the chief engineer of innovator Thomas Edison's development laboratories. 

One of Kolben's breakthroughs came in 1891, when the team he lead engineered the longest transmission of three-phase current from Laufen to Frankfurt with the least loss, a proof that large-scale electrification was possible.

Upon his return to Czechia in 1896, Kolben founded a factory for equipment and machinery in Vysočany, then a suburb of Prague. In three decades, the factory developed into an industrial empire, known by its acronym ČKD, that had the same production volume as Škoda's did in Plzeň.

At its peak, the company had 12,000 employees, euro.cz reports. Its very wide product range translated into its slogan between the two world wars: "We make everything, from pins to locomotives." The first trolleybuses in Prague were the company's products.  

Kolben's accomplishments played a lesser role than his Jewish origin after the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. Together with several other members of his family, he was sent to the Terezín concentration camp together with his entire family, where he died aged 81.

Kolben's 'red villa' hosts escape game

The exhibition, which opened at Kolben's former residence in Vinohrady on Sep. 27, is structured like a comic with elements of an escape game that requires a smartphone with an internet connection, a format that is likely to appeal to the younger generation.

"We wish that his story inspires the younger generation above all. We wish that our children will one day also become skilled inventors, successful entrepreneurs and future philanthropists, benefiting the entire society," the exhibition's organizers said about their mission.

An informal poll taken by the organizers revealed that young people are not familiar with Kolben at all, despite unanimously being knowledgeable about Elon Musk, a contemporary entrepreneur of Kolben's caliber.

The Kolben villa is located at Hradešínská 1, in Prague 10 – Vinohrady. The duration of the visit is up to 60 minutes, and the exhibition is in Czech. The capacity of the premises is 10 people.

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