Text and interview: Magdalena Gigova
Video: Tsvetan Ignatovski
It is after Prof. Vasil Gerov that the square in Lozenets is today named; the very one where the house that he bequeathed along with all his property to NЕF ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’, is located. Few in the neighbourhood know any details about this remarkable scientist; however, at the Technical University, his spirit is still alive, thanks to his student, Prof. Valentin Obretenov.
Over a period of 15 years, he rebuilt the laboratory destroyed during the relocation of the Higher Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering to its new building, created by the legendary professor who was given the soubriquet ‘The Water King’ for his services to Bulgarian hydraulic engineering. The place where students can still see the first turbine for training designed by Prof. Gerov is respectively called ‘The Water Kingdom’.
But who really was the scientist, one of the establishers of the State Polytechnic in Sofia, who laid the foundations of modern engineering education in Bulgaria?
Vasil Gerov Mitev was born on 24 October 1904 in the village of Skalsko in the Dryanovo region. From an early age, he was enchanted by technology and seized with the desire for education. While studying in Dryanovo, he would walk the 8 kilometres to his home every week. When he moved to the Dr Nicholas Vasiliadi School of Mechanical and Technical Engineering in Gabrovo, the kilometres became 12, but he invented a unique methodology for learning foreign languages while walking. In his so-called ‘foot-mobile system’, the young Vasil silently repeated a word in German at every step, and made significant progress.
Like many of his classmates, he was attracted to Socialist ideas and was expelled for a year, but was then allowed to graduate.
Although his parents did not have the means to support his higher education, Gerov departed for Sofia to pursue his dream. His golden hands and in-depth knowledge of engineering helped him find jobs as a mechanic at the airbase in Bozhurishte, an electrician at the tram depot, on a threshing machine. At the age of 21, he drove a locomotive in the mines of Pernik. And he never ceased reading—breathlessly and concentratedly.
The economic crisis forced him to seek subsistence, along with a friend of his, on construction sites in Turkey. What he learned there later helped him design and supervise the building of his own house. In Ankara, he began working for a German company, where they appreciated his mental alertness, his prowess in German, and especially his knowledge in the field of engineering. However, young Vasil Gerov wanted to study.
With the money he had saved in Turkey, he landed at the port of Toulouse, not knowing a word of French, but convinced that he should become an engineer. The Bulgarian students there helped him find lodgings and employment in the black economy, as the stamp in his passport only allowed him the status of student. He enrolled in a course to study French. A year later, and he was already a student in Nancy; graduating with honours, he was employed in the production of pumps at the Diebold plant, where he remained for nine years, reaching the position of chief constructor. Unfortunately, the Second World War broke out and he was forced to return to Bulgaria.
Prof. Gerov declared: ‘I have always been interested in turbomachines, specifically turbines and pumps, such as those produced by the factory in the town of Nancy.’
Meanwhile, the scientist had become a polyglot, mastering English, Romanian and Russian in addition to French, German and Turkish.
This enabled him to peruse a wide range of foreign literature in his engineering speciality and to constantly enrich his knowledge.
In France, Prof. Gerov also had the opportunity to devote himself to his hobby—music. An avid music lover, he progressed beyond the level of listening, and enrolled in evening courses for the flute, an instrument he later continued to study at the Sofia Conservatoire.
Highly regarded in his homeland also, the proficient engineer achieved self-realisation. Initially, he worked with the Bulgarian Air Force and at the Ministry of Public Works and Health.
With the opening of the State Polytechnic in May 1946, Vasil Gerov was appointed professor of hydraulic machines at the Faculty of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering and elected Chairman of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He was the founder of the department, which he headed until 1973. His students remember him as a strict but understanding man, ‘married to his work’—he came in at 7 in the morning and sometimes stayed overnight in the laboratory.
His entire professional and creative activity was focused on research into pumps and water turbines, the management of scientific and applied research projects and the development of engineering education.
He not only wrote 17 textbooks but also coined Bulgarian scientific and technical terms in the disciplines he taught, such as machine dynamics, water turbines, displacement and turbo pumps, compressors and fans. The scientific works he created remained for years as unsurpassed and valuable reference books. He was elected Dean and Vice Rector of Research and Development at the Higher Institute of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering.
As soon as he was appointed professor, Vasil Gerov organised his associates in the design and construction of the first laboratory in Bulgaria devoted to research into hydraulic machines and equipment. He was convinced that students in the engineering specialities could not progress if they did not ‘touch’ what they were learning.
The scientist sent an enquiry to Germany regarding a project for the facility that was well ahead of its time. The response was that it would cost 2 million levs, and so he designed the unique laboratory himself. In his memoirs, Prof. Gerov wrote: ‘There isn’t the like of such a hydraulic training laboratory anywhere in Europe.’ Perhaps that was why he acquired the sobriquet of ‘The Water King’ in academia, while his laboratory was known as ‘The Water Kingdom’.
Prof. Gerov’s research and engineering developments, chiefly in the field of hydraulic turbomachines, are a model of erudition, precision and the elegant connection of science with practice.
Among his students are numerous eminent scientists, statesmen, constructors and researchers.
In recognition of his lifelong work, he was awarded the Order of Cyril and Methodius, First Class.
An ardent patriot, towards the end of his life he donated all his property—a house with a yard in the Lozenets neighbourhood—to the ‘13 Centuries of Bulgaria’ National Endowment Fund. The wish he expressed in his will was that the living room of his home, where he so often gathered to play music with his friends, should become an exhibition and concert hall, a venue for holding cultural events. The last will of the donor has already been respected.
In his honour, the square in front of his house is named ‘Prof. Vasil Gerov’.
For authentic memories of the scientist, as well as a virtual tour of his restored laboratory, you can watch Magdalena Gigova’s interview with Prof. Valentin Obretenov.