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  • Ilinca Stroe

Romania’s Treasures: the Inventors

What have Romanians been up to, innovation-wise, over the last two centuries? In no particular order but some for-fun categorisation, let us sample some landmarks in the field.

In a possibly “duh” category, engineer Aurel Perşu was the first in the world to come up with the idea of placing a car’s wheels inside its body, building, in 1922-23 in Berlin, “an automobile with an incredibly low drag coefficient of 0.28 (same as a modern Porsche Carrera)” [1] and thus opening up a major window into aerodynamic car design.

Similarly, French Résistance activist and flight pioneer Traian Vuia built in 1906 the world’s first tractor monoplane which, trivial as it may sound today, successfully proved “that a flying machine could rise into the air by running on wheels on an ordinary road.” [2] (Yup, this is, originally, the guy to thank for all those exciting, within-reach weekend escapes to Barcelona, Istanbul, Copenhagen, Qatar, you name it…)

Moving on to a straightforward “down-to-earth” category, Paris- and Vienna-educated polymath Petrache Poenaru invented the fountain pen (the world’s very first, ever), acknowledged by a French Government patent in 1827.

Along the same pragmatic lines, inventor Anastase Dragomir co-designed the earliest version of today’s ejection seat for pilots, for which he obtained French patent #678566 in 1930. And Vienna Polytechnic Institute graduate Nicolae Teclu invented a gas burner in 1892 which produces a hotter flame than the classic Bunsen burner, and is probably used, nowadays, in tens of thousands of chemistry labs around the world.

In a fancier last category, maverick artillery officer and flight aficionado Henri Coandă built the (debatably) world’s first jet airplane in 1910, as well as several Bristol-Coandă monoplanes (1912-1914) which came in handy to the British War Office and Royal Flying Corps during WWI.

With similar political side-effects, biologist Ana Aslan discovered the eon-awaited “youth without age” under the guise of procaine and the Gerovital drugs based on it, which drew scores of 1950s VIPs (from Soviet leader Khrushchev to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and Saudi Arabia’s founding monarch Ibn Saud) to Ceauşescu’s treasured scientist’s anti-aging ministrations.

Last but not least in the fancy category, a personal favourite: physicist Nicolae Vasilescu Karpen (1904 PhD, University of Paris) invented the Karpen Pile, which experts have rated as either an incredibly efficient device (according to the information available, the battery supplied energy continuously between 1950 and 2010), or just a hoax, or else a “second-kind perpetuum mobile” with possibly military and space agency applications.

Of all that not unimpressive breakdown of inventions, discoveries or otherwise merely innovative scientific aspirations, let’s now zoom in on a fine, fine trio.

Nicolae Păulescu – physiologist and professor of medicine

Born: 30 October 1869 in Bucharest, Romania

Died: 17 July 1931, Bucharest

Career highlights:

* 1888: graduated from the “Mihai Viteazul High School” in Bucharest, with high marks in subjects as varied as chemistry, physics, Latin, Greek and French.

* 1888-1900: studied and practised medicine in France, at Faculté des Sciences de L’Université de Paris (where he obtained two doctoral degrees), and hospitals Hotel Dieu and Notre Dame du Perpetuel Secours, respectively. All this while, Paulescu worked closely with Prof Etienne Lancereaux, President of the French Academy of Medicine.

* 1900: returned to Romania and took up the post of Professor of Physiology at the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest.

* 1903, 1906, 1912 & 1928: co-authored with Prof Lancereaux four volumes of the Traité de Médecine, published in Paris.

* 1921: published in Archives Internationales de Physiologie (Liège) an article on the discovery of the anti-diabetes active principle in the pancreas, which he called “pancreine”. Half-a-globe away around the same time (still, 8 months later, i.e. Feb 1922), Canadian researchers F.G. Banting, C.H. Best and J.J.R. Macleod published their account of the discovery of what they called “insulin”. The two publications show without a doubt that pancreine and insulin were one and the same thing.

* 10 April 1922: the Romanian Ministry of Industry and Trade granted Paulescu the patent for “pancreine” and related products.

* 1923: the Nobel Prize for Medicine went to the Canadians, which has caused uproar culminating, especially on the Romanian/European side of the scientific community, in the claim that that Nobel had meant “an incredible usurpation in sciences”!... [3]

While some see conspiracy theories in the omission of Paulescu by the Nobel Committee back then, today it seems just wise and fair to say, along with the Medical News Tribune/17 September 1971, simply that “The Credit for insulin should have been shared,” that the Romanian went “unnoticed”, and that the whole incident was “unfortunate”. [4]


* 1990: posthumously elected a Member of the Romanian Academy

* “Nicolae Paulescu” Department of Physiology at the Carol Davila University of Medicine and Pharmacy in Bucharest

* Nicolae Paulescu monument (statue) near the Carol Davila University

He was...

little known. Apparently immersed in science, medical practice and research while living in Paris, little is known of his personal life in France. More is known, unfortunately, about his political life in Bucharest after his return, i.e. his regrettable affiliation with a Romanian far-right anti-Semitic party.

At the end of the day, however, Paulescu stands as Romania’s great(est) “no-Nobel”; a meritorious, dedicated scientist; a bachelor who lived with his widowed sister and her four children; a personality of whom historian Nicolae Iorga said, “he lived as a martyr and died like a saint”; and a man whose funeral procession was attended by 30,000 fellow citizens. [4]

Aurel Vlaicu – engineer and pilot

Born: 19 November 1882 in Binţinţi (today Hunedoara County), western Romania

Died: 13 September 1913 in a plane crash near Câmpina, central Romania

Career highlights:

* 1902: passed high school graduation exams in Sibiu

* 1907: was awarded his engineering diploma by Technische Hochschule München in Germany

* 1908: took up an engineering post in the Opel factory in Rüsselsheim

* 1909: returned to his village and built a glider

* 1909-1910: moved to Bucharest and secured financial support from the Romanian Ministries of War and Public Education to build the A. Vlaicu No. I aircraft, which he flew successfully as part of a military exercise

* 1910-1912: designed A. Vlaicu No. II, with which he signed up for the International Flight Week contest in Aspern-Vienna, competing against pilots as famous as Roland Garros; won prizes for “precision landing, projectile throwing and tight flying around a pole” [5], and was issued a pilot license by Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

* 1916: during the German occupation of Bucharest, aircraft A. Vlaicu No. III, finished posthumously by his friends, was confiscated and sent to Germany.


* “Aurel Vlaicu”, a film made in 1977 by director Mircea Drăgan, starring Radu Beligan

* The “Aurel Vlaicu” Memorial Museum in his native village near Deva, west Romania, where memorabilia like the pilot costume he was wearing when his plane crashed, or his hand-made motorbike await the technically-minded visitor.

* The current 50-lei (around 10 euro) banknote.

He was...

called “Prince Charming of the Air”. Handsome, daring, impetuous and yet determined, he was the Royal House’s protégé and a much appreciated friend to quite a few contemporaries. It is again historian Nicolae Iorga who best portrayed this Romanian Icarus: “Whenever human daring shall score elsewhere brilliant victories against defeated nature, we shall not step aside, but we shall state proudly: «We, too, had Vlaicu.»" [6]

Emilia Moroşan - Professor in Physics ans Astonomy, Chemistry and Materials Science

Born: 1976 in Suceava, north-east Romania

Career highlights:

* 1999: graduated from the Faculty of Physics at the “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University in Iaşi, north-east Romania

* 2005: PhD at the Iowa State University, USA, followed by a postdoctoral term at Princeton University

* 2007-present: Assistant Professor of Physics, Astronomy and Chemistry at Rice University, Texas, USA

* 2010: received Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers from President Barack Obama, for innovative research and commitment to the community

* 2016: invented with her team a new metal four times harder than titanium, “the hardest known metallic substance compatible with living tissues” [7], with promising medical applications such as implants, as well as possible uses in the drilling and sports industries.

She has been...

scared of, then passionate about, and then inseparable from physics and lab experiments, as a high-schooler; appreciative of the US education system which paved her way to achievement in scientific research; inclusive and inviting towards her talented students; nostalgic about her youth and high-school friends in Romania; above all, hopeful that her success story will inspire young Romanians to follow in her footsteps.

Now, are you ready for some vintage flying? ;)

Photo credits


[1] Aurel Persu. Wikipedia. Accessed 5 June 2018. Par 2. <>

[2] Traian Vuia. Wikipedia. Accessed 5 June 2018. Par 1. <>

[5] Aurel Vlaicu. Wikipedia. Accessed 5 June 2018. Par 7. <>


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