Obituary: Ernest Michel Vlasto (1848-1900)


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Translation, from the French, of an Obituary (c.1900) to Ernest Michel Vlasto.

Ernest Vlasto, who died on 26th March 1900, was born 2nd January 1848 at Jassy (Romania), the son of a Greek national [Dimitri Vlasto]. Sent to Paris, he was an excellent student at the Lycée Henri lV before entering the Ecole Centrale in 1868.

On the outbreak of the Franco-German war, Ernest Vlasto immediately chose to serve his adoptive country. He was a lieutenant of artillery at the battles of Coulmiers and Beaune-la-Rolande, under the command of General d'Aurelles de Paladine. Under Clanzy, he took part in the painful retreat and battle of Le Mans, where France's honour at least was saved.

The Ecole Centrale opened its doors immediately after the armistice but, soon after, the [Paris] Commune forced it to turn away its students. Thanks to his foreign nationality, however, Vlasto was able to remain in Paris until the end of the tragic year of 1871 and to leave the Ecole with his degree in engineering.

The young engineer began his career at Hayange, in the wilds of Lorraine, at de Wendel's, spending eighteen months there as a metallurgist. He then worked on Romanian railways and later on the construction of new developments in Constantinople. He returned to France to collaborate on the construction of the Trocadero Palace for the 1878 [Paris] Exhibition.

Soon after, working for a French company, he left for Brazil and the High Amazon to assess and exploit a gold mine. On his first voyage he fell seriously ill with [Yellow] fever. He recovered to make a second trip when he was severely weakened by a serious case of pneumonia. However, his robust constitution saved him again. He then became executive director of the Société Centrale de Produits Chimiques where he was the inventor of numerous technical apparatus.

Already French at heart, he now formally adopted French nationality.

Ernest Vlasto, son of Dimitri Vlasto and Nathalie Winkler de Dwernika, married Helen Zarifi on 28 Jan 1882 in London. They settled at 7 Rue Lamennais, Paris, where they had three children: Fanny Marie Nathalie Vlasto, b. 28 Nov 1884; Marie Antoinette 'Netta' Vlasto, b. 29 Sep 1886; and Michel Ernest Theodore Demitri Vlasto b. 12 Feb 1888. He died 26 Mar 1900 in Paris, apparently after spending his last six years largely in a clinic.

A member since 1873 of the Société des Ingénieurs Civils de France he published, in the society's 1886 report, a notable study on Les Origines de l'Alchimie by Berthelot.

Inexhaustible, he became the chief executive of the Société des Téléphones, now running the telephone system that it had installed in France. In 1889 he was also appointed joint chief executive responsible for the Hellenic section at the Exposition Universelle. In the same year, at the Bézons factory of the Société des Téléphones, Ernest Vlasto was responsible for the construction of the 100-mile long Martinique to Guadeloupe undersea cable. Assembled at Bézons, it was carried by barge to Le Havre, on a German ship to Halifax and was finally laid by the Ponyer-Quertier. This was the first such cable entirely constructed in France.

In May 1890, Ernest Vlasto built the factory at Calais which was to specialise in cable-making. While the land was still being acquired, the company accepted an FFr. 8 million order for undersea cables (Cayenne - Brazil and Marinique - Cayenne), half to be delivered in May and half in June 1891. In eight months (May - December) the fledgling factory was in full production and fulfilled the order on time

Max de Nansonly, in 'Génie Civil', said in 1891 of the development of this industry:

"The honours go to M. Vlasto for his elegant technical organisation and his exceptional work on this patriotic and useful project. Both the methods and machines required were closely guarded secrets in England which he had somehow to imagine and then recreate, piece by piece."

Thanks to his extraordinary energy Ernest Vlasto was able to combine responsibility for the Société Centrale de Produits Chimiques and the factories at Bezons and Calais, often involving two or three journeys per week. Between times he somehow managed in addition to be a Professor at the Association Polytechnique and to translate from German 'Traité Practique de Chimie Métallurgique' (Gaulthier-Villars 1891) by Baron Hanns Jüptner de Jonstorff.

In 1892, while laying the Marseille - Oran undersea cable, he was first affected by the symptoms of the illness that was to kill him. Refusing to rest, he was struck down by the illness in 1894. For six years his robust constitution resisted. He died at the age of 52, lamented by his loved-ones.

In a short career from 1871 to 1894, Ernest Vlasto covered all branches of the art of engineering: metallurgy, construction, mining, chemistry, electricity and mechanics. He left his mark in all of them in numerous projects.

He will be remembered by all who knew him as a brilliant man with an encyclopaedic spirit, whose warm and eclectic conversation was well-known to all his friends, his colleagues and workers.

As his friend G. Dumant – former president of the Société des Ingénieurs Civils de France – said with emotion at his graveside:

"Vlasto went out of his way to help younger colleagues whenever he could and by his manner and money in all circumstances. He was known only as friend and what will never be forgotten was his great kindness."

Translated from an anonymous printed Obituary which may in fact have been written by G. Dumont.

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