The short-lived legacy of industrial giant Emil Kolben

Emil Kolben

In this edition of Czechs in History, we reflect on the life and work of Emil Kolben. He was born on November 1, 1862, to a Jewish family in the little village of Strancice near Prague and became one of the most important electrical engineers, inventors, and industrial giants in Czechoslovakia.

In the Czech capital, we come across an acronym related to Emil Kolben almost every step we take and yet only the older generation would be able to tell you who or what the acronym CKD or CKD stands for. Persecuted by the Nazis, the legacy of the Kolben family was tragically very short lived.

Arno Parik from the Jewish Museum in Prague explains how Emil Kolben became the founder of Czechoslovakia's biggest heavy engineering plant:

"Kolben was born in a small village. He was one of nine kids in not a very wealthy family. In the 1880s, he studied at the Technical University in Prague which is a very high standard university and then he left for the United States where he worked for Thomas Alva Edison for four years. At first, he was an inventor. He was one of the first people involved in the development of the generator and alternator. But he came back to Europe at the start of the 1890s. Back in Prague, he established a plant for the production of dynamos and electrical motors and electrical machines of different kinds. For example his alternator for the production of electricity and the first Prague power station, were very successful."

CKD,  photo: Jewish Museum
On October 29, 1896, in Prague's Vysocany district, the industrial legacy of Emil Kolben was born when he established the Kolben a spol - Kolben and Co. engineering works. Thanks to the experience he gained at the electric companies of famous inventors like Edison and Tesla, his Prague factory boomed. It became a classic example of combined European and American workshop practices and it soon specialised in the production of power plant machinery as well as steam engines and locomotives. The factory also supplied special machinery to the Austro-Hungarian fleet of battle ships. By the time the First World War broke out, the Vysocany factory boasted a car-assembly line, had produced over 10,000 electrical machines, 70 large power stations, and employed over 1,000 people. The Jewish museum's Arno Parik:

"There were the Kolben plants, there was the Skoda factory in Pilsen and these two were the most modern industry and machinery plants in the Republic.

In London, for example, they had rotors [used in large electrical machines] that were nine or ten metres in diameter. So, these were very incredible constructions that were sent to England, Australia, Tasmania, France... and he was all the time in touch with Edison and with Westinghouse. In those days it was very easy, all the inventors were in touch and published inventions and you had to buy the patents and everybody was very involved to produce the things quickly for the people and sell them. So this was the generation - Edison, Kolben, etc. - that created the world that we're living in until now, with the exception of computers."

CKD in 1899,  photo: Archive of ČKD
Take a closer look at Prague's trams and you'll find a small logo with the letters CKD. The C stands for Ceskomoravska, which means Bohemian and Moravian; the K stands for the name of its founder, Emil Kolben, and the D stands for Danek the name of the business partner with whom he merged after the First World War.

It was in the inter-war period that CKD experienced its golden years. It supplied engines and heavy machinery to power plants all over the world. Most of the city's trams and the funicular that takes visitors to and from Prague's Petrin hill have all come from the CKD works.

But Emil Kolben's golden years were very short lived...

Of Jewish origin, Emil Kolben lost ownership of his factory in 1939. Production at CKD continued but concentrated on arms - mostly tanks - for the German Wehrmacht.

On June 9 1943, Emil Kolben - with a hidden black suitcase filled with 180 CKD shares - was transported to the Terezin ghetto in north Bohemia, where he died three weeks later. In Czechoslovakia, twenty-five more members of the Kolben family perished during the Holocaust. Emil Kolben's grandson Jindrich survived.

But Jindrich Kolben, who was the direct grandson of Emil Kolben did not get anything because the plants were a Joint Stock Company and other personal property was confiscated and lost during the war so they didn't get anything back after the war. Then, under the influence of the Communist party even before 1948 but especially after 1948, he was also persecuted.

After the Communist takeover, the factory was reconstructed and nationalised. Several branches were created around the country with the most important being the locomotive plant in Vysocany and the tram manufacturing plant in Smichov - both districts of Prague. The latter soon became the biggest tram manufacturer in the world with over 50,000 employees. Some 20,000 trams were exported to the Soviet Union alone, some of which even ended up across the ocean in New Orleans, USA.

Emil Kolben
Jindrich Kolben, a member of a capitalist family only managed to get a university degree and a job thanks to the help of former employees of his grandfather. He even worked in the factory that once used to belong to his family. But after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he left the country for good. He now lives in Munich, where he is an expert on aircraft engines.

I'm standing in front of the Kolben villa - a functionalist building that was erected within the complex of the CKD factory in the Vysocany district. The protected building is one of only a few buildings that remain part of the legacy of the Kolben family today. Labelled capitalists the Kolben family enjoyed little recognition throughout the Communist period. The honorary citizenship that was taken away by the Nazis from Emil Kolben in his birth place of Strancice was not returned to him until the Communist regime fell.

It was not until 1989 when a street in the Vysocany district was renamed Kolbenova, and the local metro station was given the same name in 2001. On the occasion of the 110th anniversary of the birth of the Kolben and Co works, the Vysocany town hall put up a commemorative plaque in honour of Emil Kolben and gave his grandson Jindrich Kolben, the only family member in Czechoslovakia to survive the Holocaust, honorary citizenship of Prague 9.