The Exner Spirit

On the occasion of Dr. Wilhelm Exner’s 60th anniversary as a member of the Austrian Trade Association (Österreichischer Gewerbeverein), the annual award of the Wilhelm Exner Medal was established in his honour. He himself and two other innovative minds in science and business in 1921, Carl Auer-Welsbach and Otto von Miller, were the first recipients of this award. In future, this honour was to go exclusively to such men “who, in the same way as Exner, through their scientific activities have promoted production, namely in commercial and industrial fields, in an outstanding manner.” In other words, the crème de la crème of applied science coupled with economic ambitions were to receive this prize.

That was now 100 years ago and in this short article we want to pursue the question of who Wilhelm Exner was and are his intentions still reflected today in the spirit of the Exner Medal?

We know from newspaper articles that Wilhelm Exner’s contemporaries paid homage to him as an extraordinary personality. His activities in the trade association were also described as extremely fruitful from the beginning of his membership at the age of 21 in 1861. He was an extraordinary phenomenon in an extraordinary time, a time of upheaval and change in all essential areas of life such as politics, the economy, industry and also in the structure of society.

A brief outline of the dynamic events of this time should make it clear how much Wilhelm Exner was carried away by them, how he not only knew how to adapt but how to become involved in all areas, how to make use of the new with an unbelievable eye for the future, be it technologically, politically or socially, for the enrichment of society, without forgetting the old humanistic values such as general education, virtue, decency and tolerance.

Wilhelm Exner Gemäld

Wilhelm Exner was born in 1840 in the Untergänserndorf station building, where his father was stationmaster. The boy grew up next to one of the greatest technical achievements of the 19th century, the railway. Only two years before his birth, in 1838, this “Kaiser Ferdinand Nordbahn” was opened. It was the first railway line within the monarchy, built to connect Vienna with the mining areas and industry in the north by a faster route. Wilhelm Exner was never to lose his fascination for this technical masterpiece, railway.

As an eight-year-old he experienced the revolution of 1848, when a large part of the European peoples revolted against feudal conditions, including the Habsburg Empire. In some countries, such as France, it was successful and the kingdom mutated into a republic. Not so in Austria, where the revolution was finally put down after bloody confrontations and the 18-year-old Emperor Franz Joseph was enthroned in place of Ferdinand I. The next few years saw the reign of the neo-liberal Emperor Franz Joseph. Neo-absolutism ruled for the next few years.

In 1851 the family moved to Vienna and in the course of the reforms of the 48/49 years, the education system also underwent a change. One of these was the founding of a new type of school, the Realschule. It was tailored to the new needs of the advancing industrialisation. The focus of this education was now on economics, manufacturing, mining and trade with a mathematical and scientific concentration.

Again with his finger on the pulse of his time, the pupil Wilhelm Exner transferred from the Hauptschule to one of Vienna’s two Realschulen in 1854. His teachers spoke highly of him and in 1857 he was allowed to skip a year when he transferred to the Imperial and Royal Polytechnic Institute in Vienna. His love of technology was nurtured here. Even before completing his education at the Polytechnic Institute, founded by Johann Joseph Prechtl in 1815, he passed the teacher’s examination in descriptive geometry, mechanical engineering and construction and entered the civil service in 1861 as a “Supplierender Lehrer”. From then on, education, the creation of new educational institutions and the adaptation of educational institutions to the requirements of the new era, especially with regard to industrialisation and technologisation, were to play an important role in his life. The ÖGV is still intensively pursuing this agenda, which is so important for society, in the spirit of Wilhelm Exner.

Even as a young head teacher in Elbogen, today’s Bohemia, he was involved with paper as well as teaching, and at the age of 25 he organised photo exhibitions locally. Here again the fascination for the new! From then on, paper production was based on wood, a material to which Exner devoted a lot of attention and published numerous papers on it. Photography, which was in its infancy in 1865, seemed revolutionary to a few visionaries. He too recognised the future in it.

Eventually he moved to Krems as a teacher, staying until 1869 to become a professor at the Mariabrunn Forestry Academy. In 1872 he achieved lasting success, Mariabrunn was moved to Vienna and became the new foundation of the Hochschule für Bodenkultur (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences) initiated by Wilhelm Exner, today’s BOKU (University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences). He was not only a co-founder, but was to become professor, later dean and even rector there in the years to come. Here, too, he was a visionary who recognised the need for improvement in the field of education and worked hard for it throughout his life.

His most far-sighted and brilliant foundation in the educational sector was the creation of the Technical Trade Museum, today’s TGM, on 26 October 1879 with the help of the Lower Austrian Trade Association in the premises of the same in Eschenbachgassse 11. Exner recognised the need for an educational institution in the field of technology in order to be able to guarantee economic progress. It was based on the three essential areas that were closest to Wilhelm Exner’s heart: exhibiting, technology and teaching. The basic idea of this institution was for him to exhibit the technical testimonies of the past as moments of experience, to try one’s hand at the technology of the present in workshops and to learn the theoretical foundations of technology in lessons. Initially, only the field of “wood industry” was taught, but gradually a wide variety of specialist fields were incorporated into this educational institution, such as furniture and construction carpentry in 1881, and metalwork and machine fitting in 1884. In the 90s of the 19th century, more than 1000 pupils attended the TGM. It received eight visits from Emperor Franz Joseph between its foundation and 1901, recognition from the highest authorities. Today, the TGM is the largest educational institution in Vienna with almost 4000 students and is still closely associated with the ÖGV, which is pleased to see Wilhelm Exner’s innovative achievements carried into the 21st century.

He lived out his love of technology and his unflagging interest in all the latest developments in this field particularly in his visits to the World’s Fairs from 1862 onwards.

The first World’s Fair was held in London in 1851 and for many decades its aim was to present new technical developments, to amaze contemporaries and to open up new markets for these products worldwide.

A small excerpt of examples:
New York 1853 OTIS freight elevator
Paris 1855 Matches, espresso machine
London 1862 Sewing machine
Philadelphia 1876 Telephone
Paris 1878 Icebox
Amsterdam 1883 Lipstick
Paris 1889 Eiffel Tower
Chicago 1893 Zipper, dishwasher

In 1862 Wilhelm Exner travelled to a world exhibition for the first time, sent by the Lower Austrian Trade Association because of his knowledge of French and English. The Lower Austrian Trade Association awarded him a scholarship to spend three months reporting from London and describing interesting technical innovations in articles. It must have been a real experience for the young man, from then on he hardly missed a world exhibition.

In 1867, only five years later, he succeeded in becoming part of the Austrian delegation to the World’s Fair in Paris as an official rapporteur. It was here that his incredible gift for socialising and, as a result, socio-political networking became apparent for the first time. It was here that the young man from Gänserndorf made friends with the star architect of the Ringstrasse, Theophil Hansen, the safe magnate Baron von Wertheim, bank director Karl Zimmermann, architect Heinrich Ferstl and many more. It was also here that the immensely fruitful friendship with Princess Pauline Metternich-Sàndor was born, without whose help the Institute of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences would not have found a location in Vienna.

Vienna danced in Paris and Wilhelm Exner danced with them, described by his travel companions as a “great salon speaker” (page 140), a “fascinating conversationalist” and a “dazzling charmer”. One is dazzlingly amused apart from the technically presented.

Fascinating, considering the political situation in Europe in 1866/67. The Monarchy was in shock, having just lost the German War against Prussia at Königsgrätz, Austria had to cede Veneto to Italy and acknowledge the dissolution of the German Confederation. Prussia, Austria’s great opponent, annexed the German states and formed the North German Confederation. Austria was badly hit both in terms of foreign policy and domestic politics.

For Austria, this political defeat also had internal political consequences; the Austro-Hungarian Compromise had to be recognised by the imperial house and the December Laws consolidated the power of the bicameral parliament (in force since 1861) with the House of Representatives and the House of Lords.

Wilhelm Exner also plays an important role here. He is not only involved in education, in the presentation of Austrian technical inventions at the World’s Fairs, but also sees it as his duty, as a German Liberal, to have a voice in Parliament.

From 1882-1897 he was a member of the Imperial Council and from 1905-1918 a member of the House of Lords. The parliamentarians were sent by the state parliaments of the monarchy, the members of the Herrenhaus were appointed by the Emperor. In 1883 the Imperial Council moved from the “Bretterbude” on Schottenring”, provisionally built in 1861, to the parliamentary building built by Theophil Hansen on today’s Dr. Karl Renner-Ring.

But back to his fascination for technology and its presentation! A wonderful field was offered to him for this in 1873. The World’s Fair came to Vienna! The famous Rotunda, built for this event in the Prater by the two architects of the Vienna Opera, Eduard van der Nüll and August von Sicardsburg, was the setting for the “Additional Exhibition” in 1873, which Wilhelm Exner was persuaded to curate. In only eight months, he succeeded in persuading 100 experts to help him and, with the help of many illustrative objects, to thematically demonstrate “the development of crafts and industry in Austria over the past centuries”. A comprehensive collection was created and with it the Technical Museum for Industry and Trade in Vienna, today’s Technical Museum in Penzing, was founded.

He made his last great appearance as Commissioner General at the World Exhibition in Paris. He created a fantastic neo-baroque building and let the Austrian monarchy shine in all its national diversity. The Austrian Pavilion became a great success and when the Philharmonic Orchestra under Gustav Mahler gave some concerts in the Trocadero, Exner was cheered.

It was “typical” of Exner that he refused the peerage offered to him in Paris on the basis of his achievements. He justified this decision by saying that he wanted to remain what he was by birth and did not want to join the ranks of the nobility of merit.

This fits in with that Wilhelm Exner, who as a member of the Reichsrat (Imperial Council) campaigned for the founding of the Arbeiterkammer (Chamber of Labour) from 1887 and demanded a 10-hour week for workers from the country’s industrialists, as well as the incorporation of wage workers into the bourgeoisie, with all its rights.

In 1915, his social support for the most needy in society is shown in a special way. He founded the association “Die Technik für Kriegsinvalide” (The Technology for War Invalids), this association was able to distribute adapted prostheses to war invalids through donations. In order to share his thoughts on peace with others and to make them known in public, he joined the peace movement of Berta von Suttner and Alfred Fried, whose most ardent admirers he was.

Finally, of course, Wilhelm Exner’s family situation should not be forgotten. He was married twice; at a young age his first wife, Emma Lauda, died of tuberculosis, and their son soon followed her. Wilhelm Exner marries a second time. The couple has two children, but the son, Friedrich Wilhelm, dies of scarlet fever at the age of five. His mother, Maria Klara, never gets over it and withdraws completely from public life. She does not take part in any social events. Their daughter, Maria Anna Wilhelmine, marries, so there is no named heir.

Perhaps this explains the later adaptation of the two children of his long-time secretary, Rosa Kryspin.

At the beginning of this chapter we find the question of finding out who Wilhelm Exner actually was and whether his intentions are still reflected in the spirit of the Exner Medal today?

Exner is one of the rare spirits who linked the past with the future in an outstanding way. The past in the sense of the educated humanist who, through his parental home, was fluent in two languages. He revered and recited the great poets such as Schiller and Goethe, regularly enjoyed musical and theatrical evenings, was a master of cultivated conversation, appeared as a worldly charmer, never lost his composure, in short, was a gentleman of the old school.

He saw the future in the burgeoning technology. In the innovative inventions that amazed him. For which he cherished the hope of improved living conditions, especially for the working population. But above all, he saw the future in a better educated youth. An education that was better suited to the industrialisation of the second half of the 19th century. He recognised that in the future only those will have a chance in the changing labour market who are also offered the chance to specialise for the modernisation of the world.

A great personality in a great time. A time that was politically full of upheavals, from the neo-absolutism of the vast imperial empire to the disintegration of the great power of Austria, a time that plunged the world into war and foreshadowed the beginning of the Republic of Austria. A time whose society and economic life had to reinvent itself after the war.

Dr. Wilhelm Exner not only lived through this time, he also helped to shape it in a lasting and exemplary way!

100 years after the founding of the Exner Medal, the aim is still to honour those people who reflect the spirit of this man and actively implement future-oriented ideas – in the spirit of Wilhelm Exner.