Inventions–Timely and Untimely

About a month ago, two friends from Vienna—the architectural historian Ursula Prokop and her husband Peter, a first-rate archivist—came to visit me in New York.  They have been a help with my research in Austria for many years.  I was glad to have them with me just as I was beginning to delve into the Siemang/Guttmann partnership. When I asked them the question with which I concluded the last post–what could have prompted the connection between First Lieutenant Stefan Siemang and my great-grandfather, the jeweler/watchmaker Leopold Guttmann–Peter immediately cited an Austrian saying: “Schulden wie ein Stabsoffizier.” (Debts like a Field Officer) In other words, the soldier needed money.  Peter’s intuition was confirmed when I deciphered Siemang’s military record and found he owed a great deal.

Stefan Siemang had an interesting background. His father, Georg, was the librarian and curator of one of the largest mineralogical collections in Europe, one accumulated over many years by his employer, the Archduke Stephan von Habsburg-Lothringen and displayed in his castle Schaumburg Lahn in Germany. Stefan was born there in 1854,  but shortly thereafter his father became ill and left the archduke’s employ. Perhaps this was the reason why young Siemang was sent to a military boarding school when he was ten years old. He went on to a Military Technical College and by 1888, when he and Guttmann must have met, he was a First Lieutenant in an artillery division of the Imperial Army.  By then Siemang had already established himself as an inventor and small manufacturer with an important patent for the safety of petroleum lamps. In a booklet he published to stress the value of his discovery, he described thirty-five cases of near-fatal accidents caused by the gas leakage his new device was designed to prevent.  Alas, Siemang’s enterprise, set up  eight years after Edison patented his light bulbs, and five years after they were shown at the 1883 Electrical Exhibition in Vienna,  might have been the source of his debts.  Petroleum lamps, safe or not, were on the way out.

Undeterred, and with obvious faith in his own ingenuity, Siemang continued to experiment with devices of containment. In January 1888, he patented a closure for ink bottles that prevented spillage and in March of that same year, took out the patent, shared with Leopold Guttmann, on the hygienic closure for the ubiquitous domestic commode. Guttmann, on his part,  had made considerable progress by 1889. He was no longer listed as just a watchmaker and jeweler, but also as a manufacturer of watches and clasps. Could it have been as the owner of a  factory capable of handling small parts that Leopold attracted  the Lieutenant’s attention?

By 1895, the  new line of odorless commodes with their hermetic seals was a run-away success. They were advertised as available in a variety of furniture styles, priced in a range from 12 florins to 100 and were on view in a showroom on the Bäckerstrasse that Guttmann called the “leading and largest establishment of its kind in Vienna.” Siemang’s name continued to appear on the patent whenever Guttmann advertised their product, but he was never listed as part of the company.  Nonetheless, their partnership, however brief, attested to Vienna’s cosmopolitanism–a city where an army officer and a self-made entrepreneur could join forces to a productive end.

That broad-minded urbanity was under threat, however, in the 1890’s and Leopold Guttmann was aware of it. In 1896, he was elected vice-president of the Verein zur Hebung Der Gewerbe (Society for the Advancement of Business). This group of Jewish entrepreneurs were intent on protecting themselves from the growing influence of the anti-Semitic Christian Social party which had been on the rise since the mid 1880’s. Jewish businesses were seriously threatened by the party’s propaganda which encouraged the boycott of Jewish shops and warned Christians against working for Jews. How did Leopold Guttman and his fellow businessmen meet this challenge?

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One Response to Inventions–Timely and Untimely

  1. Cozinus says:

    How did they meet the challenge? I hope you won’t keep us in suspense!
    A lovely piece, Cozina!

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