Slavoljub Eduard Penkala: The Reason We Write

It seems hard for us nowadays to imagine a life without technology, laptops, mobile phones and keyboards. Before life as we know it today, people used to write to each other. Pen and paper were the only communication tools. Yet, to be able to write, somebody needed to invent a pen – and you would have probably never guessed that the inventor was Croatian. Let me introduce you to Slavoljub Eduard Penkala.

Slavoljub Eduard Penkala – The Life of a Master Mind

Slavoljub Eduard Penkala
Image by Medias Politika

Eduard Penkala was born in 1871 in Liptovsky Mikulas, then part of Austria-Hungary, but today’s Slovakia. He had a Polish father and a Dutch mother, both of whom urged him to become a doctor.

According to his parents’ wishes, he moved to Vienna to study medicine, but eventually changed course as he felt he made the wrong choice. Penkala moved to Dresden where he graduated with a degree in Chemical Engineering from the Dresden University of Technology. During his studies there, he attended violin lessons where he met his future wife, pianist Emilia Stoffregen.

Finally, he moved to Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, with his family. He had four children who were his inspiration for new inventions. In the center of Zagreb, he opened a workshop where he did his inventing. He was later appointed Royal Technical Controller.

Penkala loved Zagreb. To show loyalty to his new homeland, he decided to change his name to Slavoljub, which is why we all know him as Slavoljub Eduard Penkala. Croatians showed him loyalty in return, because almost one hundred years after he died, we still call a pen “penkala” in Croatian.

He invented the automatic mechanical pen in 1906. This was by far his biggest and best-known invention. Back then, it was called an “automatic pencil” and soon after it was invented, the pen was patented in over 70 countries around the world. He collaborated with entrepreneur Edmund Moster, who started the Penkala-Moster Company that would soon become one of the biggest pen and pencil companies in the world. This company still exists today and is called “Toz Penkala.”

Wings to Fly

First Croatian airplane built by Penkala
Image by Genius Croatia

Slavoljub Penkala showed interest in natural and technical sciences from an early age. He spent his time in nature surrounded by butterflies and birds. He would spend hours outdoors with his son, Eduard, watching and chasing the butterflies, as he was obsessed with flying. He was amazed by the first flights of the Wright brothers and had a big interest in aviation. The butterfly Neptis lucilla inspired him to build a plane.

Penkala constructed the first Croatian two-seat airplane. All the money he made by inventing the pen was invested into construction of this plane. The aircraft was completed in 1910 and was flown by the first Croatian pilot, Dragutin Novak. The airplane was named after his favorite butterfly and his inspiration, Neptis lucilla.

Penkala’s Other Inventions

Having such a creative spirit, Penkala invented more than 80 inventions and innovations we use everyday.

One such invention was inspired by his daughter who didn’t like to brush her teeth. He watched her struggling for a while, thinking about how could he make tooth brushing easier for her. He was then inspired to invent a rotating toothbrush.

His patented inventions also include a hot water bottle “Termofor”, laundry detergent, the anode battery and a remedy against rheumatism. As he traveled a lot, he would often stay in hotels and was surrounded by the nature, so he invented pesticide too.

A Tragic End

During the First World War, he ended his research and focused more on patenting his innovations. However, everything stopped for him in 1919 when he got malaria. Nobody knew where the mosquito bit him.

He fought for his life and his family thought he would not survive. After ten days of high temperature and fever, he managed to recover.

Slavoljub Penkala's resting place in Mirogoj cemetery in Zagreb
Image by Lice Grada HR

Unfortunately, his health didn’t last long. One of his travels was fatal for him. He died in 1922 at the age of 51, after catching pneumonia on a business trip. His resting place is in Zagreb’s famous cemetery, Mirogoj.

Some of his work can be found at Tehnički muzej Nikola Tesla (Zagreb’s Technical Museum) and Muzej grada Zagreba (Zagreb’s City Museum). Though he has not been alive for almost hundred years, his inventions are still used daily around the whole world.

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