Alois — the beginning

On July 19, 1888, a child was born in Wellheim, a town in the southern German state of Bavaria. He was one of six siblings, three male. The town is located in the so-called “Ur-Donautal”, the original valley the Danube carved out some 300,000 years ago on its way to the Black Sea.

Wellheim in 1865 — copper engraving (click or tap to enlarge) by C. Zimmermann
Look mom, no cars! An aerial photo of the center of Wellheim from the middle of the last century.
Wellheim today (2018), with the house in which Alois Friedl was born in 1888 still standing, smack in the middle. That’s his granddaughter’s hand pointing to it.

The family was called Friedl, and the child was named Alois, which is the most Bavarian name you can think of. At the time there was no electricity, little running water, no cars, with only occasional transportation by carriage. People married partners from within the town, or from neighbouring hamlets which could be reached on foot.

Residents of Wellheim at the time. They were mostly farmers and land workers, and feuding was common.

The Friedl family was not the most pleasant group. Like most of the other people they were engaged in farming the land, and feuding with each other and their neighbours. Every Saturday night they went on drinking sprees, with adult males consuming up to twenty litres of (weak) beer until the wee hours of the morning. The rest of the week was spent in heavy manual labour.

A school class of boys in Wellheim at the end of the 19th century. One of the boys could easily be Alois.

Alois was an exceptionally bright boy, learnt to read and write early, and became very keen on mathematics and science. He enjoyed school and the teachers appreciated his enthusiasm. When he was thirteen he was eager to attend a higher school, but alas his family — his father, mainly — decided it was time for the lad to learn a trade. He was to become a shoe-maker.

Searching the attic of the Friedl house in 2018 we found an original shoemaker machine from the time.

This was not at all what Alois wanted. The boy argued and fought, sulked and cried, to no avail. His father purchased “lasts”— wooden forms that have the shape of a human foot, used in the making and repair of shoes. It was decided.

These are two original pairs of the 1901 lasts, painted over by the great-grand-nieces of Alois.

One day, during the winter of the first year of the new millennium, Alois’ father told the boy to go buy coffee, from the neighbouring town, a dozen miles away. He was given cash to pay for it, and set out in bitter cold weather. Alois bought the coffee, took it to the post office and had it dispatched to his house. Then he continued his trek through the Bavarian winter, southwards towards Munich.

It was a highly dangerous enterprise, lasting a number of days. One night he had no shelter and was close to freezing to death. He crawled under a fir tree that was covered with snow, down to the ground. The small enclosure at its base provided enough insulation to keep him alive. In the end he arrived in Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria — on Christmas Eve.

In Munich Alois had no place to stay, and he wandered around the town, hungry and cold, looking for any kind of shelter. He passed a house and, through the window, he could see the family inside celebrating Christmas around a candled tree. He stood there watching, filled with envy and longing, when suddenly a man emerged and yelled at him. “What are you doing here? Why are you looking into our house? Go away, go home immediately.” — “I have no home,” Alois replied. A short discussion followed, which ended with the man saying: “Okay, come in for the time being, we’ll find out what to do.” And Alois got a warm Christmas meal and a bed to sleep in.

Munich in the year 1900 — scan by Reinhard Bauer, Bavarica-Verlag. Click to enlarge.

Four years later he left the house, thanking the family gratefully for adopting him, sending him to school and providing a basis for his future life. Of course they had contacted his parents in Wellheim, informing them that the boy was safe and healthy, only to receive a reply telling them to send him back home where he would get the thrashing of a lifetime.

A watch made by Alois Friedl in the first part of the 19th century

Alois had remained with the Munich family, finished school and started an apprenticeship as a watch-maker. He learnt how to build the very accurate chronometers that were needed to calculate longitude in ocean navigation — a technology pioneered by John Harrison in the 18th century. Alois also did a fair bit of astronomy, required to set the chronometers accurately by celestial observations.

Soon a big Swiss company saw samples of his work and hired the young German mechanic as part of a project to provide navigational instruments to naval vessels, first in Italy and then in the ports of Asia. In 1911 he set off for the city of Bombay. There he spent three years building up the facilities that supplied ships with highly accurate chronometers, set to the exact time. I have described the process in this article.

This is the first of a number of stories describing Alois Friedl’s life. I am his son, born in second marriage when he was quite old. I learned most of the things I am writing about from the stories he told me, mainly during dark nights in the jungle (he went on to become a herpetologist with a research facility in the Western Ghats of India). He also started writing a biography, which was never completed. It is the story of his life, and the beginning of mine.

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Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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