Alexandre "Sacha" Horowitz was born in 1904 in Antwerp, Belgium to parents of Russian Jewish heritage. His father was a diamond trader and Antwerp was the centre of European diamond trading. The family fled to The Netherlands, to escape the German occupation of Belgium during World War I in 1914. In neutral Holland, they settled in Amsterdam which became another centre of diamond trading.
Horowitz attended the Hogere Burgerschool or high school and, after graduating, attended the University of Technology in Delft where he majored in both mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. The study of electro-technical engineering was then new and Horowitz was a brilliant student. He graduated in 1927.
He joined Philips in 1929. The story was that Anton Philips himself hired Horowitz who began his career at Philips in the research department of the radio factory. One of his developments was an interference-free band selector switch which was used on Philips radios through the 1950s. In developing the band selector a.k.a. the "Horowitz switch", Horowitz used silver for the contacts which increased the cost of making this part. But quality was more important than cost at that time. The Philips advertising and marketing executives created the slogan "Philips puts silver in their radios" which helped make Philips radios successful.
Philips, like other companies in the 1930s, suffered in the world wide Great Depression. In search of other products to make and market besides the radios (radio listening was considered a seasonal hobby in those days) and the light bulbs Philips made at that time, a Philips executive traveled to the USA in search of ideas. Among other things, this executive came back to Holland in 1937 with a box full of electric shavers. The electric shaver was invented by an American named Jacob Schick a decade before. Horowitz became interested in the box of shavers and started development of his own shaving system. The Philite factory, which made the bakelite radio cabinets, would make the housings for the new shavers. The first Philishave rotary electric shaver, using rotating cutters instead of the reciprocating cutters Jacob Schick used, was introduced to the European marketplace in 1939 just when World War II was beginning in Europe.
Early advertisements for the original Philishave shaver
This time, Nazi Germany invaded and occupied The Netherlands. Despite the obvious risks of being Jewish in a Nazi-occupied country, the Horowitz family remained in Holland. They survived because Alexandre's brother-in-law had good contacts with the resistance and was able to provide false papers for the entire family.
Horowitz stayed with Philips until 1948 when he felt he was increasing unable to get his new ideas realized and this caused some friction between him and Philips management. Horowitz joined another Dutch company called Polynorm that year where he designed prefabricated steel components for building houses.
At the beginning of the 1950s, Horowitz started his own engineering company but it turned out not to be a big success and Horowitz lost a lot of money invested in several inventions which were commercial failures. He did have success in developing an acoustical ceiling for The Netherlands' first road tunnel.
In 1958, Horowitz joined the faculty of the Eindhoven University of Technology as a professor teaching product design and mechanical construction. In academia, Prof. Horowitz considered inventing the same as making a piece of art. The creative process, according to Horowitz, consisted of three steps: perception (the gift of observation), conception (the idea), and construction (realization). Horowitz thought that the modern engineer was too much of a rationalist, leaving not enough room for imagination and creativity. He thought imaginative power was essential in developing new ideas.
Besides his work as a professor, Horowitz also served as an advisor for variety of companies, including his old employer Philips (headquartered in Eindhoven) where past problems were forgotten and, besides being a technical advisor, did promotional work as the inventor of the Philishave shaver. He also developed a small lawnmower for Philips, which operated like a Philishave shaver, which was not a success. Another Dutch company Horowitz served as an advisor to was the automobile company DAF which was the only car manufacturer in The Netherlands at that time. Horowitz developed an automatic transmission or gear box with an infinite number of speeds. DAF was also based in Eindhoven and was later acquired by Volvo.
In 1969, Prof. Horowitz founded the Centre of Construction and Mechanisation. It's a think tank where he shared his experiences with a number of fellow workers. The CCM continues to function in the spirit of Prof. Horowitz.
Prof. Horowitz's other achivements include co-founding the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Nsukko in Nigeria and his involvement in the development program for agricultural mechanization in cooperation with the Universities of Bandung and Bogor in Indonesia.
Prof. Alexandre Horowitz retired from the Eindhoven University of Technology in 1974 at the age of 70. In his farewell speech, he pleaded again to encourage the combination of rationality, intuition and creativity in the design process. He died in 1982 at the age of 78. Prof. Horowitz got 136 patents awarded to his name over a period of 50 years in a wide variety of products including farm machinery, oil industry equipment, radio components, a machine which makes cotton swabs and his most famous invention, the Philishave rotary electric shaver.
Thanks to Sergio Derks who wrote the original Dutch text and Peter de Weijer for providing the translation which I adapted and edited for use on this page.
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