When walking through Ouseburn on a wintery Sunday afternoon, I noticed a plaque on a wall that had previously escaped my attention.
Instead of the usual blue you'd find at heritage sites, this one was black and made the extremely outlandish claim that the person it was dedicated to had donated Jesmond Dene to the people of Newcastle after winning it in a game of cards. Determined to find out more, I did a bit of digging to discover that the building houses a museum dedicated to a Czech national hero, Jára Cimrman.
The sign on Stepney Bank, dedicated to the Bohemian philosopher, adventurer and inventor, reads: "Jára Cimrman invented the electric light bulb assisted by local inventor Joseph Swan. Thomas Edison later copied the idea and patented it in his name.
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"Cimrman is also noted for donating Jesmond Dene to the people of Newcastle after winning it from Lord Armstrong in a game of cards."
A little more research shows that he invented yoghurt, narrowly missed out on becoming the first person to reach the North Pole, and created the first ever puppet show in Paraguay, all while advising Edison, Eiffel, Einstein, Chekhov and Tchaikovsky. He took the title of The Greatest Czech in 2005 in a TV competition in his home nation in 2005, but he was disqualified, leading to outrage.
According to the Cimrman English Theatre, which is based in Prague: "Jára Cimrman was the quintessential Czech polymath: scientist, researcher, mathematician, sportsman, inventor, playwright, all-round genius and self-taught gynaecologist.
"It is highly probable that few non-Czechs will have heard of this great Czech whose creative genius has, without doubt, impacted on all of us in some way by smoothing and facilitating the progress of mankind and at the same time enriching it culturally."
They also concede that few non-Czechs will have heard of him. So why is there a museum dedicated to him in Newcastle?
Especially since the second part of the plaque celebrating him isn't quite correct, since the Victorian industrialist Lord William Armstrong gifted Jesmond Dene to the public after it had originally been a private park for him and his family. However, could one little (okay, massive) inaccuracy be reason enough not to celebrate this miraculous prodigy of a man?
Further information on the Jára Cimrman House website reads: "He also invented the front door, but insisted they were only used externally on the first floor of buildings. As a result he received little acclaim for his invention during his life time.
"It was later adapted for use internally as well as on ‘street’ level and they have since become widely popular. Entry: Via the blue door* (just ring the doorbell and wait). * always remember Cimrman’s 9th Commandment."
Is any of it true? I guess you'll find out if you manage to enter the museum through the door... which is floating at least ten feet above street level. Let us know if you make it.
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