poppy image   The life and times of John Bruecker poppy image
The Forgotten Genius - a Biography

John Bruecker

Johann Brücker was born on September 3, 1881 in Neu-Passua, a Danube-German community in what was then the dual-monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

After World War I the region was arbitrarily awarded to Yugoslavia. He was the fourth of eleven children of Heinrich Brücker and his wife Elisabeth, nee Fleiner. The father, whose ancestors had come from Weyer, the county of Zabern in Alsace, was a tailor and furrier by trade. The mother traced her ancestry to Marbach-on-the-Neckar in Germany.

After graduating fro the town’s elementary school at age 12, Johann was apprenticed to a local mechanic and locksmith, where he completed the four year apprenticeship required at the time. From 1895 to 1901 he worked as a journeyman toolmaker and mechanic in Werschetz, Neusatz and Budapest.

In 1901 he was drafted into the army. However, because of his technical ability, he was not assigned to the traditional ‘house-regiment’ of Neu-Passua, the k.u.k. Infanterie-Regiment Nr. 70, in which practically all the sons of “borderers” (soldier-farmers) had served since 1790. This regiment was stationed in nearby Petrawardein. Instead Johann was sent to the 12th Regiment of Ulans (cavalry) in Tolnau.

When he completed his training he applied for admission to the Royal and Imperial Armorers’ School in Vienna. He easily passed the tough aptitude test and was accepted for the three year course on January 1, 1902. Even in his old age Johann always spoke glowingly of his days in Vienna, the gracious city on the Danube and the beloved Emperor Franz Josef, whom he once saw going by in his carriage. From Vienna he was transferred to Petrawardein where he served as armorer sergeant until his discharge from the army in 1907.

At the turn of the century many young people from Neu-Passua and other Danube Swabian settlements in Hungary, emigrated to the United States.

Among them were two of the Brücker’s sisters. In the letters they wrote home they were effusive about conditions in the United States. It didn’t take long for Johann to make up his mind.

Instead of looking for a job after he got out of the army, he decided that he, too, would emigrate to America. With a light heart and great hopes he left Neu-Pasua and in due time joined his sisters in Sharon, Pennsylvania.

The New World made a great impression on Johann. It was his type of country, a land of freedom and opportunity. Here the work ethic was to his liking because it was very much like his own. There were no social barriers in the US and with his accumulated knowledge, his inborn know-how and work ethic, there was no limit to what he could achieve in his adopted country.

Opportunities for his skills were limited in Sharon and he soon left for Cleveland. But when a better job was offered in Lansing, Michigan he moved to that city and worked in a large automobile plant. He made friends with like-minded people, sang in a Lutheran church choir, gathered young people around him and became their friend and benefactor.

While in Lansing, he became an American citizen. At this time he also anglicized his first name to John. Because English has no Umlaut, he now spelled his last name Bruecker, the accepted spelling in lieu of an “ü”.

The years 1911 to 1923 which he spent with General Electric in Fort Wayne, Indiana, were perhaps the most gratifying and rewarding in his life. In 1916 while he was an assistant to the great electrical engineer Chester J. Hall he became acquainted with physicist and inventor Charles Proteus Steinmetz, the crippled German immigrant often called “The Genius of Schenectady” who gave the world alternating current which makes it possible to transmit electricity over great distances.

In Fort Wayne, Bruecker also met the celebrated inventor Thomas Edison, a man with a grade three education who was blessed with a consummate analytical mind and is still regarded as one of the world’s greatest inventors.

Bruecker’s association with brilliant men in the electrical field no doubt helped him to accumulate the knowledge that enabled him to design and patent the electric shaver in 1913. This is a commonplace article today, but in 1913 it was way ahead of its time.

In 1924 he moved to Chicago and set himself up as an independent patent consultant and worked for many years with other inventors and patent lawyers on projects that eventually found their way into the marketplace.

He spent his free time improving his electric shaver and other inventions he had patented.

His big break came in 1937 when Sunbeam Corporation produced and marketed the “Shavemaster” the first practical electric shaver. Initially a million shavers were produced annually. After World War II electric shavers were manufactured under license in 17 countries. Although 3000 improvements were made on the electric shaver, they still operate on the principle patented by Bruecker in 1913.

The royalties earned by Bruecker made him a wealthy man. But wealth did not go to the unassuming Danube Swabian’s head. When soliciting funds for charities, he often quoted the words “Give till it hurts”. As far as he was concerned, he could now give more than he ever gave – and it certainly didn’t hurt as much as when he had a more modest income. In the end he gave most of his wealth away to good causes and people in dire need.

Like most Germans in the United States during the two World Wars, he was probably a victim of harassment during the anti-German paranoia so prevalent at the time. As a righteous person, of a much higher moral character than his pestering imbeciles, Bruecker let the barbs fall from him like water off a duck’s back. If he was affected by insane anti-German attitudes he kept this to himself and never gave any indications of it in public.

In 1945, after the war ended, he became aware of the cruel fate that had befallen the townspeople of Neu-Pasua and all Danube Swabians in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Unknown to the world, they were driven from house and home and died in droves from systematic starvation in partisan concentration camps.

Some were lucky enough to escape to Austria and war-battered Germany, where they found refuge. When he received word that his younger brother Peter was a refugee in Schönaich, Germany, he traveled to that small town near Böblingen, where he also found other people from a hometown he had left over 40 years earlier, and had never been back.

Due to bombed out cities and the influx of refugees, there was a great housing shortage in Germany, to put it mildly. Bruecker decided then and there to sponsor the construction of 10 homes in Schönaich for the refugees. This generous act received the attention of the Allied-controlled German press. For his generosity the town of Schönaich named an elementary school and street after him, the State of Baden-Württemberg honored him with a state dinner in the Villa Reizenstein and the Swabian writer Karl Götz wrote a richly illustrated biography about him. And, he received many other honors as well.

In Glendale, California, where John Bruecker lived from 1951 to 1961, he became one of its most respected citizens. The “Committee for the Glendale Memorial Center”, a group dedicated to the cultural enhancement of the city’s core elected him as their chairman. The Historical Society of Glendale gave him a “Best Citizen Award”. In turn he donated a marble bust of General Dwight D. Eisenhower to the City Hall.

While in Germany, he commissioned a two meter bronze statue of Christ, which he donated to the First Lutheran Church in Glendale. He also donated a smaller white marble statue of Christ to the same church.

Well into his later years he remained a friend and promoter of youthful causes. At his own expense he brought eleven German students to Valparaiso University in Indiana and paid for their upkeep and tuition as well. He also sponsored many student exchanges between the U.S.A. and Germany.

John Bruecker was a profound Christian all his life and was an active member of the Lutheran Laymen’s League in the U.S.A.

Between 1953 and 1962 he made 30 trips to Germany where there were many family members. Bruecker never married and wanted to be close to his relatives in later years.

In 1962 he took up residence in one of his project homes with the intention of staying in Schönaich. While there, he suffered from a chronic illness and had to have one of his legs amputated, which committed him to a wheelchair for the remaining years of his life.

He died in a Stuttgart hospital on June 3, 1965 at age 84, and was buried in the cemetery of Schönaich, a town that loved him for what he was, a kind, gentle, Danube Swabian who was always willing to help his fellow man.

Very few Danube Swabians in the USA know that it was a member of their own ethnic community who gave the world the electric shaver, a most useful – even indispensable appliance – now used daily by millions of people throughout the world. Danube Swabians in the USA can point with pride to one of our own, a creative genius who also exemplified the best in our people: industriousness, inventiveness, benevolence, tolerance, humility and humanity. John Bruecker was an exemplary man who brought credit to our Danube Swabian community and to America.

Let us remember him and honor his memory.


by Frank Schmidt


Copyright Heimat Publishers 1996
Reprinted with permission from the author

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