THERE is a widespread belief in Bulgaria that the country has never been able to keep its best offspring because they always leave to find a better place to make a living. Unfortunately, one can easily share this view, as most of the Bulgarians that have introduced anything of importance to the world have been from among those that left their homeland. Perhaps this is not such a problem, as long as Bulgarians do not forget those that brought the fame.
Following this line of thought, one name that was long ago forgotten in Bulgaria was that of Peter Petroff (Petar Petrov), and only the news of his death brought his name back to the minds of Bulgarians.
Peter Dimitroff Petroff, 83, an engineer at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and an inventor whose enterprises developed a heart monitor and the digital wristwatch 30 years ago, died on February 27 at his home in Huntsville, Alabama. He was a native of Bulgaria who moved to Canada and then to the US after World War 2, and in 1968 founded Care Electrics, a high-tech company that developed a wireless heart monitor for hospitals. The company became Electro/Data, which created the prototype of the digital watch. Marketed by the Hamilton Watch Company as the Pulsar, it sold for $2100 in 1971.
Petroff was born in the Bulgarian village of Brestovitsa, and, while almost nothing is known of his life in Bulgaria, his later existence was marked with the name of a great inventor. He was born on October 21, 1919 to the family of Dimitar Petrov, a priest of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and his wife Vasillia. After attending a religious seminary, Petroff enlisted in the French Foreign legion in October 1939.
He was captured by the Germans while defending the French Maginot Line in 1940, and sent to a German Prisoner Of War camp in Poland. He returned to Bulgaria in March 1941 and became an officer in the Bulgarian Army. His duties included being a palace guard to King Boris III of Bulgaria and participating in the Honour Guard for the funeral of Turkey's President, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
In 1944, he moved to Germany to study engineering at the University of Munich.
He graduated from Darmstadt and Stuttgart universities with a master's degree in electrical, mechanical, and civil engineering. While in Germany he also studied his life long passion, naval architecture, and designed and built the first of over 60 boats in 1947.
Petroff arrived in Toronto in 1951 via wartime France and Germany. He worked on arctic engineering and construction projects for the US Air Force at Goose Bay, Labrador, and Thule, Greenland.
He went to Indochina in 1956 for assignments in bridge and power plant construction. Three years later, he sailed a 65-foot catamaran of his own design to Melbourne, Florida, where he joined the space projects carried out by a precursor of the Harris Corporation. He helped design systems for early weather and communications satellites and organised the company's semiconductor division.
Moving to Huntsville in 1963, Petroff was recruited by Wernher von Braun to work on the new Saturn rocket for the Apollo space programme. During that period, his employers were NASA, and Boeing and Northrop, its contractors.
In 1975, Petroff and his sons founded ADS Environmental Services, a maker of computerised pollution monitoring equipment for the world market. He sold his interest in the company in 1995 but rejoined his sons as a consultant for Time Domain.
Petroff received numerous honours and awards throughout his professional career. His most unique distinction was to be officially declared an Enemy of the People by the communist regime in Bulgaria, for which he received a death sentence in absentia. The sentence was later lifted.
He continued his lifelong interest in boat design and naval architecture by renovating the Gemini II. The boat also served as the base of operation for Lee Taylor's successful assault on the world water speed record on Lake Guntersville in 1967. In 1991, he moved the Gemini II to the US Virgin Islands. It was donated to charity two years ago and now serves as a floating orphanage in Central America.
In its obituary for Peter Petroff, The New York Times quoted Ralph Petroff, one of his sons, who said it was ironic that his father had died a peaceful death.
"He always laughed at danger and he laughed at death. He should have never made it to his 83rd birthday, let alone his 20th," Ralph Petroff said. "I guess if you were to combine Indiana Jones with Thomas Edison, the result would be Peter Petroff."
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