Franz von Gerstner
František Josef Gerstner was a Bohemian physicist and engineer. He is responsible for constructing the first the horse-drawn railway line in continental Europe.
Born February 23, 1756
Died on July 25, 1832
During his secondary education the young Gerstner made himself known to the local tradesmen in his home town. From 1773 to 1779 he studied at the University of Prague where he heard lectures on philosophy, theology, Greek, Hebrew, elementary mathematics, astronomy and higher mathematics. Some of his earnings came through playing the organ and private mathematics and physics pupils. Despite his speech impediment, he undertook two public doctor examinations on astronomy and Newton’s Principia, which he passed with flying colours.
Afterwards, he served as a surveyor on a royal commission which was set up by Emperor Joseph II in the course of abolishing serfdom. Inspired by the Emperor’s vision, Gerstner studied medicine but still retained a serious interest in questions of astronomy and mathematics.
In 1789 he published his introduction to structures and architecture, which became an important document in the initial phase of structural theory. That same year saw him appointed professor of higher mathematics at the University of Prague, where he was soon able to raise the numbers of students attending lectures from three or four to 70 or 80.
One of those who attended was the later mathematician and philosopher Bernard Bolzano (1781–1848), whose genius was recognised by Gerstner and who did everything he could to help him. Five years after the death of his mentor, Bolzano wrote a biography as a tribute. Gerstner’s interests focused more and more on “advancing the commerce of the Fatherland through scientific teaching”. With this in mind he founded the Prague Polytechnic in 1806 on behalf of the Bohemian Parliament and remained its director until 1822, responsible for mathematics and mechanics.
In 1811 the Emperor appointed him director of hydraulic engineering of Bohemia; Gerstner became a valued adviser for countless engineering projects in his country of birth.
First Railway in Continental Europe
In the 1820s, together with his son Franz Anton, Gerstner built the first railway line in continental Europe – the horse-drawn railway between Linz and Budweis.