Opposites attract

The work of two pioneers of industrial design is the subject of current exhibitions. Hugh Pearman compares the differing worlds of Bosch and Bonk.

Robert Bosch and Pär Bonk. Two industrial giants of the 20th century, men of a calibre that, try as we might, we in Britain seem incapable of producing. You will find the work of Robert Bosch in a suitably nuts-and-bolts style exhibition at London’s Design Museum. Most of us are familiar with the Bosch marque and products, but Bonk, however, a Finnish inventor and entrepreneurial genius, remains mysteriously little-known. In an unusual foray into industrial design, an enjoyable exhibition at Bradford’s National Museum of Photography, Film and Television attempts to rectify this.

Bosch was a clever, profusely bearded and, arguably, dour engineer, who, towards the end of the 19th century, grasped the new possibilities of the electric age. Bonk, we’re told by Alvar Gullichsen and Richard Stanley, creators of this spoof exhibition, started out as a simple Finnish anchovy fisherman, and got as far by showing more flair and, yes, humour. While the Bosch company retains its founder’s admirable notion that quality matters above all else, Bonk Business Inc has maintained the equally effective belief that laughter is the key to success.

Where Bosch exploited the power of electricity, Bonk devised ways of generating clean power by tapping natural forces that today seem more relevant than ever. It is astonishing to realise that as long ago as 1893 – when Bosch was still tinkering with primitive magnetos – Bonk had harnessed shoals of Peruvian anchovies to generate power.

In trying to exploit these subtropical fish to re-stock the over-fished, but chilly Baltic, the Bonk family installed breeding tanks where electric heating wires ran through the water. One day Bonk noticed that the tanks were producing power rather than consuming it. He had stumbled upon what became known as the Anchovy Effect – where the movement of fish acted as a dynamo.

Bonk died tragically in a vast explosion in Siberia in 1908 (he was overseeing the construction of an over-ambitious anchovy-powered generating station), but his company thrived.

The BK50 Electromagnetic Balloon of 1928 was a breakthrough, not just because it allowed lighter-than-air travel without gas, but because it was the first of a sequence of inventions to derive power from existing natural force fields and even people.

Bosch, meanwhile, had done more prosaic, but necessary things like inventing the spark plug, the windscreen wiper, and the eight-hour day.

While the exhibitions in Bradford and London differ, as you would expect from companies with such divergent histories and founding characters, there are some surprising assonances. The early Bosch machinery looks very like the Bonk equivalents. The sepia photographs of Bonk’s Finnish workers standing around their equipment are dead ringers for the slightly comical archive pictures of Robert Bosch’s staff, who perpetually sport bowler hats and unduly stern expressions.

Today the differences are more apparent. Bosch makes products that perform very specific functions very elegantly. Bonk is moving in an entirely different direction. Finding by accident that it could omit certain components from its machines without anyone noticing, it now openly produces equipment that does nothing at all, but which nonetheless looks great and is good to have around. “Defunctioned machinery”, as it is called, depends on its presence alone. This must make Bonk the ultimate post-industrial company.

Bosch will clearly continue along its careful and precisely-researched line of development, but the two respective merits are strangely congruent. Bonk and Bosch will, I am convinced, become the yin and yang of the 21st century economy.

Innovation by Design: 100 years of Bosch in the UK, is at the Design Museum, Shad Thames, London SE1 until 16 August

Bonk Business Inc is at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford until 28 June.

Latest articles