Frits Prakke (1908 – 2004)

By Frits Prakke jr., adapted from his column in Technisch Weekblad, March 2004

The story of Frits Prakke, who died on January 4, 2004, shortly after his 96th birthday, is also the story of technology in the twentieth century. His birth year 1908 is a magical time. In Detroit Henry Ford produces the first model T Ford. In Leiden Kamerlingh-Onnes liquefies helium. The first rigid airship is launched by Graf Zeppelin. The brothers Wright introduce their airplane to cheering crowds in Paris. What a sight it must have been. In 1925, long before he became Frits Prakke Senior, he left Eibergen and the HBS-B high school in Winterswijk to study Chemistry at the Technical University in Delft. That seemed useful for later in the tannery of his father, Jan E. Prakke (1871-1938).

As a student in Delft his eyes were opened to the darker side of technological progress. Exploitation of factory workers, unemployment and alienation as a result of industrialization were on the minds of the students in Delft in a way that we can now hardly imagine. Yet these were the themes of the Delft University Lustrum theatrical production, D.16M.M in the year 1928. Frits Prakke was the producer of the play and joined wholeheartedly in the social critique with contemporaries as Henriëtte Roland Holst, playwright, poet and political activist. She was a good friend of Leon Trotsky and honored guest in Moscow. (Later she would clash with Stalin and become a voice of Christian socialism.) 1929 was the year of the Wall Street crash, followed by the Great Depression. From that year on the only objective of technology in his eyes was the building of new factories that would provide employment and social improvement.

In December 1932 Frits Prakke came back home from the University of Darmstadt with a PhD in chemical technology. But even in the factory of his father and brothers Jan and Carel there was no work for him. For more than a year he was unemployed, finally ending up at Philips Electronics in Eindhoven. In the year 2002 a number of his grandchildren, who were out on the streets due to a downturn in the Internet economy, could always count on a sympathetic ear from their grandfather. He knew all about having a fistful of diploma’s, but unable to even get a job interview.

Later on in the1930’s Frits Prakke lived the engineer’s dream of working on the development and manufacturing of radio tubes, later radar and television. During the Battle of Britain in the fall of 1940 the German bombers that he heard flying over Eindhoven on their way to London were awaited over Dover by radar installations to which Philips had made an important contribution.

In the Fall of 1945 he was sent by government DC3 to New York to negotiate with General Electric to acquire patents for television technology for new Philips factories. In 1947 the Prakke home on the Boschdijk 588 had a television set to receive experimental broadcasts. That was five years before the public introduction of TV in the Netherlands.

In 1948 AKU, forerunner of the present Akzo-Nobel, asked Frits Prakke to develop an experimental factory for nylon fibers in Arnhem, followed by a full-fledged manufacturing plants in Emmen, and in 1957 in Asheville in the US. This was post war industrialization, with jobs for everybody.

Technology giveth and taketh away. The chrome leather tannery of the Prakkes, cutting edge in 1925, could not give him a job in 1933 despite his specialization. Frits Prakke gave his most creative years as an engineer to radio tube technology, now only an antique curiosity. The factories for synthetic fibres that he built, first in Emmen and Breda, later in Spain, North and South America and in India, had become fodder for the raging globalization at the end of the century. The engineer had to standby idly as his factories were squandered by profit maximizing economists, bankers and lawyers. Since the 1930’s he had become less political, but not less a moralist. He lectured his grandchildren that greed was not good.

Toward the end of his life he looked on with admiration as, from California to Copenhagen, Raleigh, Eindhoven and Amsterdam, no less than 9 of his 18 grandchildren worked with passion on the technology of the digital grandchild of the radio tube, the Internet. But he had lost his hart to his factories.

Left, Frits Prakke aged ca. twenty. Right, Frits Prakke visiting a factory in Prague in 1968.