Famous Romanians The World Barely Knows

If you ask someone with little knowledge of Romania for some famous Romanians, the answer is generally short, with Dracula being the favourite answer for most (and Gigi Becali being the one that you hope not to hear). We have applied a test on two occasions, when is tying to deter a persistent unwanted person that was trying to build enough of a relationship to sell something. Their favourite opening line is asking where you are from, their answer triggering a wave of familiarity. Trying Romania as a left field answer failed as everyone in the world seems to have heard of Hagi. As the gypsies are building an alternative reputation for Romanians across Europe as far north as Finland, we decided to have a quick look at Romanian achievements over the years.

Sport immediately sprang to mind, prompted by Hagi but also with an awareness of gymnastics tapping the subconscious. Gheorghe Hagi appears to be known throughout Europe having played at the highest level for Steaua Bucuresti in the days when they were a European contender, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Galatasaray. He represented Romania, earning 125 caps, and played in the World Cup tournaments of 1990, 1994 and 1998 and remains the highest scorer with a total of 35 international goals. After hanging his boots up, Hagi moved into coaching and has coached clubs in Romania and Turkey as well as the Romanian national side (beating Hungary for the first time).

Competing with Hagi for national honours is the gymnast Nadia Comaneci. Nadia shot to fame in the 1976 Olympics when she scored the first perfect 10. Only Bo Derek ever came close. Nadia also holds the record as the youngest Olympic gymnastics all-around champion ever, and due to revised age-eligibility requirements in the sport this cannot currently be broken. The next few years were tough partly due to family reasons and partly due to a new training environment. Natural determination saw Nadia come back to compete in the 1980 Olympics where she won two additional gold medals.

Life immediately after the success of the Olympics was bleak, to use her words, as the ruling communists kept her under strict supervision and she was barely allowed to leave the country. Life became so intolerable that Nadia defected in 1989, shortly before the revolution, and escaped the authoritarian yoke to the United States. Nadia is now settled with family in the United States and remains active with many charities and various international organizations.

The final famous sporting Romanian is actually a club, and not a person. The club has a long and illustrious history by European standards, as well as being the most successful in Romanian history. Domestically, Steaua counted a number of 104 unbeaten matches in the league between June 1986 and September 1989). This was a world record and still stands in Europe. Steaua also won the European Cup final in 1986, beating Real Madrid in a nail biting final that ended with a penalty shoot out as the game was drawn after extra time. The goalkeeper, Helmuth Duckadam, saved the day (sorry) for Steaua as he stopped four successive penalties from Madrid, leaving Steaua with a 2 – 0 win. No other club in Eastern Europe has achieved success, and there are few signs of this happening with the current power of clubs from Spain, England, Germany and Italy dominating the Champions League.

So, Romania has a lot of bragging rights associated with sporting success. But there are also a series of scientific discoveries that came from Romania. If you have ever flown from the international airport at Otopeni you may have noticed that it is officially called Henri Coanda. Otopeni is the location of the airport but it is actually named after the inventor of the first jet engine. Whilst working in France, Coanda built an aircraft that he presented at the International Aeronautic Salon in Paris in 1910. The plane was revolutionary as it used a compressor to provide propulsion through a combination of suction at the front and airflow out of the rear. No propeller required! There is some dispute as to whether the plane actually flew, with claims that the aircraft was destroyed during a test flight and other claims that it never left the ground. The truth may never be fully established but Coanda is widely regarded as having invented the jet engine. Later works included a flying saucer (of the non ET variety), several more conventional aircraft with propellers for propulsion and a turboprop propulsion unit for snow sleds (the first and probably most exciting Ski-doo) for the Germans during World War II.

In addition to the jet engine, a Romanian also invented the injector seat, although there is no direct link between the two developments. The modern version of the ejector seat is based upon a design from Anastase Dragomir in the 1920’s. There seems to be a theme developing here as the first test was near Paris, although the next test was at Baneasa near Bucharest (probably at the airport that is still the welcoming face of Romania to visitors using low cost airlines). Dragomir managed to register a patent for what he called the ‘catapult-able cockpit’ at the French patent office but then faded away as other developers perfected the idea.

As well as scoring some firsts in aviation history, Romania also has some medical discoveries dating back to when there was a functioning healthcare system. Nicolae Paulescu was the first person to isolate insulin, a feat that he achieved in 1916, naming the substance pancrein. When he injected pancrein into a diabetic dog he discovered that blood sugar levels were stablized. Further experiments were curtailed by the war that was being fought around the world, but Paulescu finally published papers on his discovery in 1921. This was followed by scandal and controversy when Frederick Banting claimed to have discovered insulin and was awarded a Nobel prize. The fact that Banting quoted work by Paulescu in his paper that won the prize was overlooked, and there is a widely held view that he was not recognised as the real inventor of insulin due to his anti-semitic views. This is a debate that continues into the politically correct days of the 21st century as in 2005 the Executive Board of the International Diabetes Federation declared that “the institute does not want to be associated with Nicolae Paulescu” because of his anti-semitic views – the fact that his discovery saves lives is apparently besides the point…

You may be familiar with the expression that the pen is mightier than the sword. If this is still the case (does Twitter count?) then another Romanian made a major contribution to the development of the good old fountain pen. There are references to fountain pens that go as far back as the 10th century when a caliph demanded and received a pen that would not leak ink and stain him. There are other historical references to fountain pens but the first major step was taken in 1827 when Petrache Poenaru managed to register his design for a fountain pen with a replaceable ink cartridge with the French patent office. It appears that there is a history of Romanian inventors and their links with France. It was another 20 years before the manufacture and use of fountain pens became widespread but the ideas of Poenaru led the way.

Moving from the pen to the PC, Microsoft appears to have been powered by Romanians. Getting an exact figure has proved difficult but there are hundreds of Romanians working at the headquarters of Microsoft in Redmond, California. Ever since the first Romanian turned up for work there back in 1992, Romanians have proved to be a major asset for the company. That’s nearly 20 years of either celebration or frustration depending upon your view of Bill Gates’ software empire.

Going back in time to an undetermined date, Romania also has a unique colour to its’ credit. Albastru de Voronet is a very special tone of blue that was invented at the Moldovian monastery Voronet (that mysteriously shares the name…).  There are not many places that can claim to have invented their own colour.

This shade of blue is similar to the shade used at the worlds only Happy Graveyard, Albastru de Sapanta. This is another unique claim for Romania as no other country (to our knowledge) has a graveyard with a happy reputation.  The graveyard is located in the village of Sapanta in Maramures County (which explains the name of the blue colour used). The graveyard currently contains more than 800 graves with some dating back as far as the 1950’s. Each gravestone has a picture of the dead resident and their requested last words, and bright colours are used. The last words are often laced with humour, and the villagers are most happy to have this unique monument.

Being in a place full of the dead brings us nicely back to the undead, and the most famous Romanian of all, Vlad Tepes. Much has been written about the historical character, and far more about his alter ego, Dracula. As we have already written about the Count, we have reached the point where we need to push the switch for the ejector seat, James Bond style, and leave you to ponder on these remarkable contributions made by Romanians over the years.