Five Days in Salzburg -- May, 1999

by Mike Fall
Timber Cruiser, Nanaimo, BC

In the July 1999 issue of this newsletter I described a trip to Germany and Austria with Dr. Kim Iles. In that submission I promised to recount the five days we spent in Salzburg visiting Dr. Walter Bitterlich, the inventor of Variable Plot Sampling. Written English was not my favorite subject at school or at university. I struggled with it then and still do, so I’ve been procrastinating. Kim told me yesterday “the time is now!” and I don’t very often argue with Kim.

Kim and I arrived at our Salzburg “gästehaus” (a bed and breakfast) late in the day after a long drive on the autobahn. It was unobtrusively tucked away on a tiny lane in a purely residential area half a block from the Salzach River that runs through the middle of the city. Finding it without the address and a street map would have been completely impossible. As Kim was registering us I decided go to the car for another armload of our “stuff.” An elderly gentleman with a cane and a surprisingly springy step passed by as I locked up. Unbelievable! I’ve been in Salzburg for five minutes and I see Dr. Walter Bitterlich walk by. Kim hadn’t told me our gästehaus was directly across the street from Walter’s home. For a gentleman of 91, and still recovering from a serious illness, Bitterlich keeps a schedule that would put many of us to shame. He normally rises at 5:00 AM to exercise and work on his current projects until 8:00 AM. At 8:30 AM his secretary arrives and makes breakfast. After 9:00 AM he continues to work, or entertains visitors.

Kim had made arrangements with Gerlinde Ruthner for us to visit Dr. Bitterlich the following morning. At 9:00 AM we timidly pressed the bell button labeled “Bitterlich” and announced ourselves. The latch clicked almost immediately and the door opened, not by someone’s hand but by a system of strings and springs. We had just been introduced to the inventive brilliance of Walter Bitterlich. The exterior door opened into an entranceway because other parts of the house were occupied by other family members. The door to the part occupied by Bitterlich was up a small set of stairs. To save constantly navigating the stairs, a “gadget” had been invented and installed to open and close the front door.

Our first morning visiting Dr. Bitterlich was gone in a flash with introductions, wonderfully interesting conversations over coffee, and detailed discussions about current projects and ideas. Kim and I had brought several small gifts for Bitterlich who reciprocated with an autographed copy of his book “The Relascope Idea” for myself and a number of prints of his very special paintings for Kim. Dr. Bitterlich suggested to Kim, in a manner resembling a professor giving a student his next assignment, that a system for measuring total biomass was required and that he should give it some thought.

On the second day we were joined by the third member of our party, Chris Cieszewski from Athens Georgia. On this morning, Dr. Bitterlich gave the three of us a magical tour of his workshop where he keeps all of the prototypes of his inventions. He still has some of his first angle gauges, the oldest being a stick with a crosspiece at the far end. Then came a stick using a rectangular brass blade at the far end, with each of the four sides of the blade giving a different angle. A similar application was a string with a knot (to be held near the eye) at one end and the rectangular brass blade at the other end.

Next came a slope correcting angle gauge made with a small pendulum connected to a brass blade. As the slope changed, the pendulum remained vertical and turned a small gear which rotated that blade in proportion to the slope. The first Relascope, called a ‘pendelrelascope’ used the same idea, but had a graduated scale in place of the brass blade to give a much larger selection of angles. The most fascinating of all was the wooden Relascope that included an optical caliper for directly reading diameter. Finally, we were shown the very first “spiegel” Relascope (spiegel meaning mirror in German). Pure magic for all three of us! A “once in a life time” opportunity to see the development of an idea into one of the most useful pieces of equipment a forester can own (all of which is documented and photographed in his book “The Relascope Idea”).

Dr. Bitterlich found it quite humorous when I described Kim, who was deeply immersed in the boxes of inventions and prototypes as being like “a kid in a candy store.” The remainder of day two was spent with Dr. Benno Hesske (who founded the Relascope factory), his soninlaw, and his grandson who gave us a fabulous tour of the castle overlooking Salzburg.

On the morning of the third day there was a special celebration in Salzburg, a “once every ten years” affair. It was a stroke of pure luck that our visit to the city coincided with the event. Dr. Benno Hesske insisted that we should see it. Benno and the Ruthner family all wore their traditional alpine costumes. A huge parade proceeded through the streets of Salzburg, huge horse-drawn beer wagons, marching bands, and small regiments of men in native alpine costume carrying antique muskets. Apparently these delegations come quite a distance to be involved in this tradition. There were even young ladies who’s job was to carry “shot” glasses and small barrels full of schnapps to serve the spectators.

After the parade, Benno, the Ruthner family, the three of us and Dr. Bitterlich went to a special restaurant selected by Benno to celebrate a belated 90th birthday luncheon for Bitterlich. He is actually 91 years old, but in 1998 when he turned 90 he suffered a nasty reaction to some medication and this birthday celebration had to be delayed. Kim presented Bitterlich with a specially made porcelain figure of a forest Gnome and the 90th issue of a print by the Society of American Foresters signed by about a hundred biometricians from North America. In the afternoon Dr. Hesske treated Chris, Kim and I to a marionette performance of Mozart's magic flute at the famous Salzburg Marionette Theater. Mozart was born in Salzburg, and the residents of that city are very proud of it.

After the activities and the excitement of the previous day Dr. Bitterlich was quite tired and needed a quiet day to rest, so day four was spent touring the special sites in the area with Benno and the Ruthner family. In the morning we toured the part of Salzburg across the river, a palace where the pope stays when he visits Austria, and numerous other spectacular buildings, parks and monuments. We were invited to lunch at the home shared by Hesske and the Ruthner family. (There is a photo in the July 1999 newsletter of Kim, Chris, Benno Hesske and myself on the balcony of their home with a nearby castle in the background). After lunch, we drove to Hellbrunn Palace and toured the buildings and the famous water gardens. Hesske and the Ruthners invited us to their home for dinner where we had a gorgeous traditional Austrian meal, lots of very fine wine and schnapps, and wonderful evening of story telling and reminiscing years gone by.

On day five Kim and Chris needed to discuss really detailed stuff with Dr Bitterlich. I decided to spend the morning strolling along the river. In the afternoon, Hesske and the Ruthners took us to the forest where a much younger Dr. Bitterlich was the “Forestmiester”, and where he developed the anglecount sampling idea. Dr. Hesske (in his 70s, but with the legs of a 25 year old) led the two hour charge to the top of an Alp. The view from up there was worth the hike and burned off some of the fabulous Austrian food from the night before. This was the same mountain where John Bell celebrated Bitterlich’s 80th birthday, but without the embarrassment of being totally outwalked by Dr. Hesske. Even the fit youngster Chris couldn’t keep up with him (both John Bell and Benno Hesske were in the mountain troops during WWII).

Sadly, that was our last day in Salzburg. We bid farewell to Dr. Bitterlich and headed for a short stay in Vienna. I could have stayed for at least another week. We were all treated like royalty by our hosts and can only hope they come to Western Canada one day so we can return the favor. Words of thanks can’t begin to express our gratitude.

Dr. Bitterlich lives quite frugally in a modest home that is literally packed full of his inventions (and we didn’t have time to see the basement). Did he chose forestry because his father was a forester or was it something else? Anyone with his inventive brilliance, in any other profession, would be a world famous multi-millionaire. There is something about this forest measurement profession that attracts the most amazing and humble people. It must be the forest.

Originally published April 2000

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