Desperate for modern civilian heroes to counterbalance the grand old military figures and aging ex-partisan fighters in its national pantheon, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia embarked on a quixotic quest to honor an obscure Serbian inventor and tinkerer.
Radmilo-Henrik Petrovic, born to a minor noble and his Norwegian wife, had been an embarrassment to his family in the years leading up to the independence of Serbia in 1878.

Setting himself up in a workshop outside Niš, Petrovic squandered his share of a large inheritance (having split it with three older brothers) on a variety of mechanical and technological projects. A polymath, and largely self-taught (his family had hoped for him to become a priest and trained him as such), Petrovic applied himself to a study of the principles of magnetism, electricity, and gravitation. Though he corresponded with many other inventors and thinkers (including his fellow countryman Nikola Tesla), Petrovic’s most lasting contribution to engineering and mechanics was a water fountain powered by barometric pressure that he build for a public square on the outskirts of Niš. There was plenty of speculation by townsfolk about the nature of his doings, but Petrovic, and all of his notes, perished in a 1901 workshop fire.

That would have been that, save for Joseph Tito’s need for an inventive hero for his regime. Beginning in the late 1960s, Petrovic was lionized in the SFR Yugoslav press as a visionary inventor in much the way that Tesla was eventually feted in the West (Tesla’s immigration to the United States, incidentally, made him unsuitable for the government’s propaganda). Every rumor that had ever been spread about Petrovic, every surviving letter and item of correspondence…they were accepted up front with bold sincerity.

At the height of the campaign, just before Tito’s 1980 death, Radmilo-Henrik Petrovic was said to have invented a workable incandescent lightbulb, an elecromagnetic dynamo capable of producing and storing energy, a heavier-than-air flying machine and a parachute to escape from it, and a host of other inventions “before their time.” A museum in Niš, and many items of official SFR Yugoslav propaganda, celebrated him as the true inventor of those items, with his fame unjustly usurped by those who came after. His later eccentricities, documented in letters, were carefully concealed. It would not do to have a shining beacon of scientific progress known to be afraid of a race of spectral shadow-harvesters, would it?

After the breakup of the country, the funding dried up and Radmilo-Henrik Petrovic plunged back into obscurity. His museum is now in ruins, regularly looted for scrap metal and an occasional destination for urban explorers. No Serbian history books mention his name, while Croation texts mention him only as a straw-man example of misrule from Belgrade.

And his fountain in Niš? It still runs like a Swiss watch, more than 100 years after its construction, and having never been cleaned.

  • Like what you see? Purchase a print or ebook version!
Advertisements