Golden Czech Hands: cliché or reality?
“Czechs have golden hands,” boasts a popular saying meaning, that Czechs are generally manually a very skillful nation. Economists do not doubt that the Czech economic success is based on a long tradition of manufacturing and other industries. But can there be any truth in such a claim in the highly globalized, high-tech economy of the 21st century?
I, personally, do not claim to have the proverbial “Golden Czech Hands”. But I know someone, who most certainly does. Miloš Sláma has been my friend for decades. At his atelier he proudly demonstrates an invention he christened “Sláma Press”. He is sending and selling it all over the world and here is his story:
“I have been making my living as a freelance graphic artist for about 30 years. These days, when you mention graphic art, most people will think about computers and digital art, but my work is very different. I create linocut or linoleum art, pictures, that can be hung on the wall, to put it simply. That is how I earn money, and how I work most of the time.
“Graphic artists working with linocut can use several different types of presses. Traditionally, they used a simple one, of the kind that was used already by Gutenberg in the 15th century to produce the greatest invention of modern times: the printing press. Or they can use various types of cylindrical presses. My press–or Sláma Press–uses a large number of small steel balls placed in a flat circular base that can rotate in any direction.
“The reason that my press has been recognized as a utility model is that they are settled in special cages so that they do not fall out and at the same time can rotate in an infinite number of directions. It allows the artist to apply very smooth pressure evenly and gradually over the whole area of his picture. That is my contribution to the world of graphics and its instruments.
“We are already on four continents: Europe, America, Asia, and Australia. We also had an order from Africa, but it has been put on hold, as yet. All in all, we have sold the Sláma Press in some 40 countries.”
So, does Miloš Sláma, this successful artist and inventor think that Czechs still have those “golden hands”?
“Back in the 1990s, I traveled a lot and spent a year in France. I think that at that time, I would agree that there is such a thing as “golden Czech hands”. I saw that the French would not bother to repair some instruments or electronics because it was easier and probably cheaper to buy new ones. We, on the other hand, were used to shortages and were much more skillful in repairs of all kinds. Now, even we Czechs can buy relatively inexpensive new products and so they gradually lose that.
“So nowadays, I am not personally quite sure, whether we can still talk about those “Golden Czech Hands”. On the one hand, I know a lot of Czechs who still have their little workshop in a shed or their basement and still like to spend their time dabbling into this or that. But I also see that a lot of Czechs prefer to simply go and buy what they need.”
Miloš Sláma, linocut artist and inventor, is thus a bit skeptical. Back in the 19th century Czechia was part of Austria-Hungary and it was the most industrialized part of the Central European Empire. Supposedly, it was then, that the saying about “Golden Czech Hands” was born. Czechs, we were taught at school, became renowned all over the world for their manual skills and inventiveness. However, historian Milan Hlavačka, professor at Charles University in Prague explains that one could successfully question the “Czechness” of those golden hands:
“First, we need to define what ‘being a Czech’ meant at that time. A substantial part of the population spoke German and yet considered themselves to be Czechs, or ‘Bömisch’, as they would say. In 1945, we expelled them, because we did not consider them Czech, and today, we do not have a name for them.”
A very good example of such a Czech who spoke German and became famous for his skill and inventiveness was Josef Ressler. This 19th-century polymath is credited with inventing and designing one of the first fully functioning ship propellers. Even though there is no doubt he had his roots in today’s Czechia, his nationality is somewhat ambiguous:
“He was born in Chrudim in Eastern Bohemia but got his secondary education in Linz in today’s Austria and later a higher education in forestry in Lower Austria. From there he went to today’s Croatia and Slovenia where he worked as a forester but being an incredibly curious and imaginative person, he also observed ships on the Adriatic Sea. In the 1820s he came up with a working prototype of a ship propeller and received an Austrian patent. Unfortunately, due to incredibly bad luck, he never received a British patent and was thus deprived of world recognition for his invention.
“So, born in Czechia, educated in Linz, he worked in today’s Croatia and Slovenia, and he tested his invention in Trieste, which is part of Italy. And where can you find his monument? In Austria in front of the Vienna Technical University. Only later did we celebrate him with a statue in his birthplace of Chrudim.”
Similarly, many other Czechs with the proverbial “golden hands” could speak German and were trained or educated in other countries. Nevertheless, professor Hlavačka would not go as far as denying the validity of the general belief in manual skills and inventiveness of this nation:
“There is still some truth in it. Czechs have always been and still can absorb innovations, imitate them, and improve them. So, I agree with that saying.”
Now in the 21st century, there is no doubt that the relative prosperity of the Czech Republic is largely based on its manufacturing industry. Together with the development of the service sector and the general adaptability of the Czech workforce, this is believed to be the main reason why this country has a higher GDP per capita than not just Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary but also Italy.
I visited one of the most successful Czech companies to get one more take on the supposed skillfulness of this nation. Linet Group company produces mainly hospital room equipment: for example, beds, stretchers, chairs, and mattresses. It also develops products and applications for smart healthcare and exports them all over the world. Tomáš Dvořák is its director:
“The Czech Republic has a long and wonderful history of manufacturing. I am growing allergic to people saying that our industry is only a vast assembly line that doesn’t produce anything really new. It simply isn’t true, it’s a gross oversimplification. If you look carefully into the companies that are often labeled as just assembly lines, you will see that they have their own research and development departments, they are sophisticated and add value to the products. All right, perhaps they produce just parts for cars and not complete cars, but that doesn’t mean that they are just assembly lines. We are long past that point.”
Tomáš Dvořák disputes the often repeated claim, that the success of the Czech automotive industry is based only on cheaper labor and not value added in the Czech factories:
“Czechia has a great tradition of technical education which has roots in the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century when all the technical colleges and universities were founded. And it’s not just about the institutions. It’s about a social tradition as well, about families where technical vocations and professions were shared across generations. This tradition passed from the Austrian Hungarian Empire to independent Czechoslovakia after the first world war, and it survived the Nazi occupation and communism in the second half of the 20th century.
“I think it was seriously threatened during the first decade after the fall of communism. Technical education wasn’t sexy, so to say, and most young people wanted to study business, law, and humanities. It is as if we forgot for a time, that technical skills and the ability to bring innovation into other products are absolutely crucial.”
To sum it up: the popular saying “Golden Czech Hands” is not an empty cliché.
“It does make sense. It’s just a question of how you explain it. I don’t think that Czech workers are genetically different from their counterparts in Germany or Poland. I personally believe in the power of tradition that I talked about. That’s why we had a better starting line after the fall of communism, and that’s also why, figuratively speaking, we have our own place at the pinnacle of the technological pyramid, ” says Tomáš Dvořák, CEO of one of the most successful Czech manufacturing companies Linet.