Golden Czech Hands: cliché or reality?

Personally, I don’t claim to have the proverbial “Golden Czech Hands”. But I know someone, who definitely does. Miloš Sláma has been my friend for decades. In his workshop, he proudly demonstrates an invention he calls “Sláma Press”. He sends it and sells it all over the world and here is his story:

Milos Slama |  Photo: Irena Šarounova, Český rozhlas

“I’ve been making a living as a freelance graphic designer for about 30 years. These days when you talk about graphic art, most people will think of computers and digital art, but my work is very different. I create linocut or linoleum art, pictures, which can be hung on the wall, to put it simply. This is how I make money and work most of the time.

“Graphic designers working with linocuts can use several types of presses. Traditionally, they used a simple one, of the kind that Gutenberg already used in the 15th century to produce the greatest invention of modern times: the printing press. Or they can use different types of cylinder presses. My press – or Sláma Press – uses a large number of small steel balls placed in a flat circular base that can spin in any direction.

Photo: Slama Press

“The reason why my press has been recognized as a utility model is that it is installed in special cages so that it does not fall and at the same time can rotate in an infinite number of directions. It allows the artist to apply very gentle pressure evenly and gradually over the entire surface of his image.This is my contribution to the world of graphic design 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 for now. In total, we have sold Sláma Press in around 40 countries.

So, does Miloš Sláma, this successful artist and inventor, think that the Czechs still have these “golden hands”?

“In the 1990s, I traveled a lot and spent a year in France. I think at this time I would agree that there is such a thing as “golden Czech hands”. I saw that the French would not bother to repair certain instruments or electronic devices because it was easier and probably cheaper to buy new ones. We, on the other hand, were used to shortages and were much more adept at repairs of all kinds. Now even we Czechs can buy relatively cheap new products and so they are gradually losing that.

Photo: Slama Press

“So nowadays I’m personally not entirely sure whether we can still talk about these ‘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 in this or that. But I also see that a lot of Czechs just prefer to go out and buy what they need.

Miloš Sláma, linocutist and inventor, is therefore a little skeptical. In the 19th century, Czechia was part of Austria-Hungary and it was the most industrialized part of the Central European Empire. Supposedly, that’s when the saying about “Golden Czech Hands” was born. The Czechs, we learned in school, have become renowned the world over for their manual skill and inventiveness. However, historian Milan Hlavačka, a professor at Charles University in Prague, explains that one could successfully question the “checity” of these golden hands:

“First of all, we have to define what ‘being Czech’ meant at the time. A significant part of the population spoke German and yet considered themselves Czechs, or “Bömisch”, as they would say. In 1945 we expelled them because we didn’t consider them Czechs, and today we don’t have a name for them.

A very good example of such a Czech who spoke German and became famous for his talent and inventiveness was Josef Ressler. This 19th century polymath is credited with inventing and designing one of the first fully functional ship propellers. Although there is no doubt that he had his roots in today’s Czechia, his nationality is somewhat ambiguous:

Josef Ressel |  Photo: National Technical Museum

“He was born in Chrudim in East Bohemia but had his secondary education in Linz in today’s Austria and later a higher education in forestry in Lower Austria. From there he went to present-day 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 proposed a working prototype of a ship’s propeller and obtained an Austrian patent. Unfortunately, due to incredible bad luck, he never received a UK patent and was therefore deprived of worldwide recognition for his invention.

“So, born in the Czech Republic, 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 to find his monument? In Austria in front of the Technical University of Vienna. Only later did we celebrate him with a statue in his hometown of Chrudim.

Likewise, 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 so far as to deny the validity of the general belief in the manual skills and inventiveness of this nation:

“There is still some truth in that. The Czechs have always been and can still absorb innovations, imitate them and improve upon them. So, I agree with this saying.

Today, in the 21st century, there is no doubt that the Czech Republic’s relative prosperity is largely based on its manufacturing industry. Together with the development of the service sector and the general adaptability of the Czech labor force, it is believed that this is the main reason why this country has a higher GDP per capita than not only Poland, Slovakia and Hungary, but also Italy.

I visited one of the most successful Czech companies to get a sense of the supposed skill of this nation. The Linet Group company mainly produces hospital room equipment: for example, beds, stretchers, chairs and mattresses. It also develops smart health care products and applications and exports them worldwide. Tomáš Dvořák is the director:

“The Czech Republic has a long and wonderful history of manufacturing. I get allergic to people who say our industry is just one big assembly line that doesn’t produce anything really new. That’s just not true, it’s a gross oversimplification. If you look closely at companies that are often labeled as mere assembly lines, you will see that they have their own research and development departments, are sophisticated and add value to products. Okay, maybe they only produce parts for cars and not complete cars, but that doesn’t mean they’re just assembly lines. We are long past that stage.

Tomáš Dvořák disputes the oft-repeated assertion that the success of the Czech automotive industry is based solely on cheaper labor and not on adding value in Czech factories:

“Czechia has a great tradition of technical education which has its roots in the industrial revolution of the second half of the 19th century, when all technical colleges and universities were founded. And it’s not just about institutions. It is also a social tradition, of families where vocations and technical trades have been shared across generations. This tradition passed from the Austrian-Hungarian Empire to independent Czechoslovakia after World War I and survived 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 was not sexy, so to speak, and most young people wanted to study business, law and the humanities. It’s as if we forgot for a while that technical skills and the ability to innovate in other products are absolutely crucial.

To sum up: the popular saying “Golden Czech Hands” is not a hollow cliché.

” It makes sense. It’s just a matter of how you explain it. I don’t think Czech workers are genetically different from their German or Polish counterparts. Personally, I believe in the power of tradition that I have spoken about. This is why we had a better starting line after the fall of communism, and this is also why, figuratively speaking, we have our own place at the top of the technological pyramid,” says Tomáš Dvořák, CEO of one of the most successful Czech manufacturing companies. Linette.

Berta D. Wells