Professor Balthazar’s biggest flops: how the cult 1960-70s Yugoslav animation series portrayed failure in science

Some of professor Balthazar’s many frustrations

If you’ve ever watched or heard of Professor Balthazar, the lead character of the eponymous cult Yugoslav animation series from the 1960-70s, you likely think of him as a successful inventor whose discoveries easily solve any problem he is confronted with.

Created by Zlatko Grgić and produced at the renowned Zagreb Film animation studios, the show follows a middle-aged inventor who solves problems with his “miraculous machine”.

We usually think of him as a genius who always finds the solution to every problem—but this view ignores his more human side, the many mistakes he makes, and the lessons this potentially holds for how children perceive science and innovation.

In terms of science education, focusing solely on Balthazar’s successes misses a trick, since the history of science and technology is packed with mishaps, missteps and failures, many of which have helped scientists and engineers find the way forward.

In what is perhaps an unlikely early example of the now popular fail-fast mantra, Balthazar made some big blunders, but he never gave up.

Here I’ll examine some of Balthazar’s mistakes, what led to them and how they got solved in the end—if at all.

Extreme weather nearly kills the professor

The article follows a renewed interest in the series in his native Croatia where the character now features in primary school textbooks, and at exhibits such as at Rijeka’s Ljeto na Gradini cultural programme (2021) and Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art (2020). A new episode was produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the series (2019), and,  all of the original episodes are currently being made freely available for the first time on the official Youtube channel.

“This time his thinking got stuck… Balthazar could no longer think at all”

The image you probably have of Balthazar is of him pacing up and down his study before rushing into the lab to start up his colorful invention machine that funnels solutions into a flask from which he is able to summon them at the desired location.

You most likely think he does this in every episode, but he doesn’t.

For example, in Of Mouse and Men, his successful speech in London allows him to ask for a government favour which solves the housing problem of Igor the mouse, without any new invention. In Two Top Hats, he also doesn’t invent anything; he simply guides two men who mistakenly took each other’s hats to get their hats back.

And, in Happiness for Two, he “calculates scientifically” that an alternative world exists and he then tells people who are unhappy in the current world how to get there to indulge their “irrational urges” guilt-free. A piece of chalk and a blackboard are all he needed for this, perhaps communicating the power of mathematics and theoretical science.

In The Grave Little Taylor, we also learn about the importance of having a good breakfast and the limitations of a genius that runs on food. We hear: “He began to think,” as professor paces up and down the room and eventually holds his head in despair and then shrugs his shoulders, “but this time his thinking got stuck…because he hadn’t had his customary fresh egg for breakfast. There was no egg the next morning either.  Balthazar could no longer think at all.”

You might also think his inventions are all quirky, out-of-this world contraptions, but some of them are quite ordinary technologies that already exist, like when he makes a car for a newly wedded couple to drive away in, or when he makes a screw to fix a broken down car. Or when he glues a ripped note together, or makes a simple motor boat to visit an island.

In one episode, he acts as a shrink, listening to a depressed rich apple producer and advising him on what to do. Invention is not all rocket science, we can deduce, and some problems need simple solutions, not techno-fixes.

Sometimes Balthazar is the source of the trouble, as in You’re Fired, when he forgets a cake in the oven and triggers a fire alarm that eventually causes two firemen to lose their jobs. “Professor Balthazar had in fact completely forgotten that he had put a cake in the oven,” we’re told, and we see he dozed off in his garden until the firemen came and warned him. But the firemen get sacked being clumsy and not putting out the fire, and we’re told that Balthazar’s “carelessness had caused [their] plight”.

The forgetful professor causes fire

“Even the professor was a bit confused at first”

At other times he is so wrapped up in his inventions he doesn’t even realise what’s going on outside his lab, in the real world, for example in the Two Bees or Not Two Bees episode. As the city suffers from ever more industrial pollution, and the beekeeper leaves town, the professor doesn’t notice what’s happening. The narrator tells us: “During this time Professor Balthazar had been so preoccupied with his inventions that he hadn’t even noticed what was happening…It was only when the other townspeople asked him to help that Professor Balthazar discovered what had happened.”

He only responds to the real-world problem when his fellow citizens come to ask for his help, when the situation is already quite desperate, perhaps offering a lesson in science’s imperfect forecasting powers and scientists not always being geared towards solving the problems people want them to. It’s an example of a scientist stuck in his ivory tower, though one who is willing to come out and help when called upon. And he doesn’t always immediately know what the problem is or how it came about. In the same Bees episode, when the fruit disappears from the city, we’re told “even the professor was a bit confused at first”.

“No one knew what had happened, not even professor Balthazar”

In another example, when the wind in his city stops in A Windy Story causing all sorts of problems, we’re told “no one knew what had happened, not even Professor Balthazar”. Indeed, scientists and inventors are not omnipotent: they need information and data to come to conclusions and find solutions.

In that episode he solves the first two problems that appear just by thinking, not by deploying inventions (he ships hats and umbrellas that start falling onto the city where they are needed around the world), and is only forced to invent something when high winds prevent him from reaching a neighbouring city to examine the source of problem (he then invents a sort of perpetuum mobile that utilises incoming wind to propel the machine forward into high winds. I’ll leave it to experts to tell us if this breaks any laws of physics).

“Not even Professor Balthazar knew the answer”

Haplessness also features in Bald is Beautiful episode, when all the dolls in the city go bald overnight, leaving everyone puzzled. “Not even Professor Balthazar knew the answer to this riddle,” we’re told. (He sets up an ambush, and pretends to sleep to catch the culprits, which turn out to be bald aliens.)

In Cloud with Brawlstorms, the professor becomes ashamed and confused about his sudden ill temper, and when he sees the whole town is arguing for no apparent reason, he is lost for an explanation. “Professor Balthazar was at his wits end,” we’re told.

And in Steeples are Funny, when foul weather hits the town for three days straight and makes citizens utterly miserable, “professor Balthazar tried, and tried, and tried to think of the way to help, but even he was overcome”, we hear, as his house floods. When he checks out the weather from his rooftop observatory he’s hit by lighting and looks dead momentarily but somehow recovers as the weather improves.

Almost killed by lightning

Inventions don’t always come quickly: sometimes even the best scientists can’t come up with an immediate solution would be a sound take-home message from these episodes.

His mishaps go beyond just being forgetful, or too slow to clock a problem.

“A slight error in the calculations”

Contrary to popular perception of him as a successful inventor, Balthazar sometimes fails spectacularly.

The 1967 pilot episode is also the first one where he gets it wrong: after shouting “Eureka, Eureka, I’ve discovered it!” there’s an explosion and we’re told “’There must be something wrong, there’s a slight error in the calculations,’ thought Professor Balthazar”.

Later that episode he blows up his whole house and ends up in a cast in hospital due to another “slight error in the calculations”.

The “famous inventor” who “worked on many curious inventions” seems not to be such a great mathematician, this suggests, and it communicates the real-world dangers of making mathematical errors, perhaps also communicating the importance of maths.

An experiment goes wrong and sends the professor to hospital

His first inventions “were a little less than perfect”

In The Rise and Fall of Horatio, we’re told that Balthazar’s “inventor’s talent was beginning to show” when he was a small boy in school, though “his first tries were a little less than perfect” we’re told as he causes another explosion.

“In time however,” the narrator says as we see young Balthazar with his school bag and a ruler levitating behind him attached to a flying pinwheel, “his inventions improved magnificently”.

The theme of an experiment gone-wrong returns in Of Mouse and Men, when we see the professor sitting somewhat depressed in his lab, with a failed experiment fizzling out in smoke. We learn he is sad for his friend Igor the mouse, who is disappointed because he doesn’t live in Big Ben (Location, location, location…). Balthazar eventually deploys his oratory and diplomatic skills to solve the problem, rather than inventing a technological solution.

An experiment fizzles out

Similarly, the Starlight Serenades episode starts with him “finishing his newest invention, and his new suit” in a puff of smoke after an another failed experiment shreds his suit into pieces and sets the storyline in motion.

This all suggests that experimentation can fail—and potentially be dangerous, though the message never really progresses to him wearing a labcoat and safety goggles, which is arguably a big comms fail for the series but it does avoid the clichéd image of a scientist.

“Professor Balthazar had failed”

“Professor Balthazar had failed,” we similarly learn in the Somewhat over the Rainbow? episode, when his rainbow machine makes a wonderful rainbow that is soon destroyed by the rain and melts all over the city. “He was ashamed that in planning the rainbow he hadn’t foreseen the possibility of rain,” we’re told as the professor is brooding all alone, having been applauded for his beautiful invention just moments earlier.

“Professor Balthazar had failed”

Here we see both an invention that went terribly wrong, causing pollution, as well as an admission of failure to foresee what is an obvious possibility, that of rain. Inventors are fallible. Technology can backfire.

In Bim Bam Bum, his giant vacuum cleaner invented to get a couple of citizens out of a huge hole, is later used by the devil to emerge from Hell, which is perhaps the ultimate warning about the potential unintended consequences of new technology.

The giant vacuum cleaner is used by the devil as an elevator

There are other examples showing the professor’s fallibility, imperfection (his Stone age wheel that isn’t round), reliance on serendipity (cactus pot hitting his head gives him an idea) and hard work to fix his “not completely infallible” method that went “wrong” (in the Vanilla Monster).

All this shows the complexity of Professor Balthazar: he is not simply a successful inventor.

Also, while he is largely rational, relying on thinking, maths, books and labs to solve problems, his world is also populated by aliens, ghosts, magicians, a Nessie-like dragon living in a city pond, and talking animals, all of which arguably depart from the scientific worldview.

And while the creators of the show are rightly celebrated for its ingenuity, and “The lasting popularity of the professor fifty years later is testament to Grgić and company’s inventive approach to the series” said a recent article, they also sometimes got their scientific facts wrong. For example, we see dinosaurs living alongside humans in the Stone Age, and penguins are sometimes placed at the North Pole.

Like the Balthazar they created, and like all of us, they were just human.

Mićo Tatalović

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