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Tiny Country, Big Ideas

11/15/2011 at 8:46 am

1980 Rubik’s Cube, made in Hungary. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The Rubik’s Cube, the iconic brainteaser introduced to the world in 1974 by Ernő Rubik, originated in Hungary. So did the ballpoint pen in 1938; that portable metal tube encasing an internal reservoir of ink is courtesy of László Bíró who grew weary of refilling his fountain pen. And today humanity benefits from holography. Holograms, impossible to duplicate, are instrumental today for security purposes, particularly to help prevent banknote counterfeiting. The science was first discovered by the late physics Nobel Prize winner and Hungarian citizen Dénes Gábor in 1947. This country has produced an astonishing number of geniuses: composers like Béla Bartók (1881-1945) and Ferenc (Franz) Liszt (1811-1886), and physicians like Ignac Semmelweis (1818-1865), who deduced that something not visible to the eye (bacteria) was making pregnant women sick and therefore became known for his advocacy of hand-washing before child delivery. I’m not even surprised anymore when my Hungarian husband points at something mundane and common, but often a necessity for modern life, and says, “Did you know that a Hungarian thought of that?” 

Magnified tip of a ballpoint pen. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Ferenc (Franz) Liszt in 1843, at the height of his career. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Ingenuity is an important part of the country’s pride. The people who live here know that the intellectual and artistic contributions they have made to the world have been significant. We are able to keep our food cool and fresh because Leó Szilárd worked closely with Einstein between 1926 and 1930 to develop the world’s first refrigerator. Thanks to István Győrffy’s work in 1959, those of us who always felt self-conscious and nerdy in our thick, bottle-bottom glasses can wear soft contact lenses. For two generations the United States music industry recorded albums on long-playing microgroove vinyl phonograph discs (otherwise known as LPs), developed by Károly Péter Goldmark in 1948. In 1940 Goldmark also gave us the color television, of which at least one is found in every household in America—and in many cases, found in every room of every household. József Petzval invented opera glasses in 1843, which led to telescope and microscope lenses, as well as binoculars. And the world-famous prize awarded to those people possessing special journalistic, literary and musical merit was established by Hungarian-born József Pulitzer before his death in 1911 and first awarded in 1917.

Porro-prism binoculars. Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

The list of historical inventions is long, but Hungary also continues to produce a unique wealth of clever ideas. Last decade, Áron Losonczi developed light-transmitting concrete, a combination of concrete and optical fibers (each one of which is pure glass no wider than the width of a human hair). As strong as traditional concrete but semi-transparent, the energy-saving possibilities for high-rise lighting are enormous. The material has even been considered as a protective casing for New York’s Freedom Tower. Also, in 2010, Dániel Rátai created a virtual reality kit called Leonar3Do, allowing users to fashion 3D drawings on the computer and move them around “in the air.” And the Hungarian company iPont has created a screen that allows several people, positioned at different angles from a television, to view images in 3D without glasses.

Hungary is tiny and most people don’t even know where it is. It’s been through a rough patch since the beginning of the 20th century when it was drastically partitioned to a pea size of its former glory. But that hasn’t stopped the people of this country from continuing to do what they have always done. They dream and pioneer, blazing trails. They invent.

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