Czech Made:The Sugar Cube

Memorial to the sugar cube in Dačice, photo: Harold, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

When was the last time you sweetened your tea of coffee with a cube of sugar? Today we take the small compact units of sugar, the exact size of a teaspoon, for granted, but it was not until 1843 that the sugar cube first saw the light of day on the territory of the present-day Czech Republic. Its inventor was the head of a sugar refinery in the town of Dačice, but the inspiration for the sugar cube actually came from his wife Juliana.  

The first sugar refinery in Moravia

Jakub Krystof Rad with his wife Juliana,  photo: Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

In the 1820s, after the end of the Napoleonic wars, attempts were made to revive sugar production from sugar-beet in the Habsburg Monarchy. The brothers Tomas and Frantisek Grebner established the first ever sugar factory in the western part of the Monarchy near Dačice in 1829. However, the soil in the surrounding area was not very suitable for growing sugar-beet and production stopped in 1832 due to a short supply of quality raw material.

However, the business failure did not deter the brothers and soon after they set up a sugar refinery in the very centre of Dačice which processed sugar cane transported from the Italian province of Trieste.

The refinery, the first of its kind in Moravia, brought the town a revival of economic activity, bringing in skilled professionals and creating new jobs. However, in 1839 the enterprise again ran into financial trouble, and in the spring of 1840 Grebner sent for a new director from Vienna.

Jakub Krystof Rad – the inventor of the sugar cube

Marie Kučerová,  photo: Ivan Studený / Czech Radio

The man selected for the job was Jakub Krystof Rad- as Marie Kučerová from the Dačice Museum explains.

“Jakub Krystof Rad came here from Vienna, but he was actually a native of Rheinfelden, Switzerland. He was clearly a very able man and was handpicked for the job by the company management. He proved to be very talented and authored several inventions in the course of his life.”

The new director was expected to bring a fresh wind into the company and turn around its fortunes. Rad succeeded beyond the owners wildest expectations. He expanded the existing production premises, acquired new machines, and in 1842 he also put the first steam engine to work in the production process. Under his management, the company thrived. Sugar from Dačice was supplied to all corners of Moravia, to Vienna, Pest and Lvov. But it was Rad’s wife Juliana who inspired him to make a change that would put Dačice on the world map – as the place where the sugar cube was born.

“Cherchez la femme”

Sugar refinery in Dačice in 1840,  photo: Marie Kučerová / Dačice Museum

In 1840 sugar was produced in huge loaves which were inconvenient for everyone. The loaves of sugar were hard to pack and were often damaged during transport. Even worse, in the kitchen one either had to scrape sugar off the huge loaf or cut off random pieces to put on the table at tea time. It was impossible to cut off the exact size one wanted and often people at the table would take a chunk, melt a bit of it in their tea and let the remaining piece dry on their saucer for later use. The whole process also involved a lot of waste and resulted in plenty of accidents. Marie Kučerová says it was one such unfortunate accident that inspired the invention of the sugar cube.

“One day – in the summer of 1941 - a furious Juliana ran to show her husband her bleeding finger, demanding that he do something to make her life easier. She herself reportedly suggested the idea of producing sugar in the form of small units that would be easy to count and stock. Rad went to work, made a sugar press, and just a few months later he had a surprise gift for his wife presenting Juliana with a box containing 350 white and red cubes of sugar.

Sugar loaf with a sugar scraper and sugar tongs,  photo: Xocolatl,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC0

“At the end of 1842 he asked the Court Chamber in Vienna to have the privilege of manufacturing cubed sugar at Dačice. It was granted to him on January 23, 1843. This gave him hope that the production of sugar cubes would put the refinery on the map and bring economic profit. The next few months were filled with hectic preparations for the launch of sugar cube production and the first cubes off the new production line appeared on the market in the autumn of 1843.”

The Dačice refinery started producing cubed sugar under the name “tea sugar” which soon appeared in Vienna. The patent rights for sugar cube production were soon bought by Prussia, Saxony, Bavaria, Switzerland and England. Today Rad’s invention is used by sugar refineries all over the world.

How the sugar cube was produced

Photo: Marie Kučerová / Dačice Museum

Sugar powder obtained from incompletely dried white sugar-loaves with the use of a cutting machine was passed through sieves and distributed onto a brass plate with a total of 400 holes shaped in the form of a square, and it was then imbedded on a lower clear brass plate. Both the plates were set forward under a pressing machine where shape forming elements mounted onto a press head were forged into the holes of the brass plate by means of a spiral spindle and a rotary beam. Thereby the volume of sugar fed into the holes was reduced by a half. Eventually, the machine-pressed sugar cubes were pushed out onto a wooden board, which was then placed onto shelves in a drying house where they were left to dry for 10 to 12 hours. Then the sugar was packed in little parcels, each weighing one pound.

The refinery wound down, but the sugar cube survived

The sugar press

Despite his revolutionary invention the economic situation of the Dačice refinery deteriorated, and the sugar cube production that Rad pinned his hopes on failed to bring an improvement. In 1846 Rad left Dačice together with his wife and nine children. The sugar-refinery continued operations until 1852 when production was stopped. Although the sugar cube survived, and spread the world over, Rad’s name was forgotten and for a time the invention was attributed to others. But historic research in the 1930s clearly identified Jakub Krystof Rad as the inventor of the sugar cube.

In 1983, a small granite memorial to the sugar cube was built in Dačice to commemorate the invention and in 2003, a memorial plaque was unveiled on the facade of the building of the old refinery. The Dačice Municipal Museum now houses a permanent exhibition devoted to the production of the sugar-cube.

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