Raoul Bott was born in Budapest in 1923. His lineage fully reflects the geopolitical complexity of the region at the time. His mother's family was Hungarian and Jewish, while his father's side was Austrian and Catholic. His parents divorced soon after his birth, so he grew up with his mother and stepfather. Raised as a Catholic, Raoul spent his childhood and adolescence in Slovakia, which seventy years later, after alternating between Hungary and Czechoslovakia, is today an independent country.
In the first five years of school Raoul was not a good student. This should give comfort to all parents of late bloomers. In fact, he did not earn a single A except in singing and in German. Nonetheless, he showed an early talent for breaking rules and for generating sparks--electrical sparks, that is, rigged up with wires, fuse boxes, vacuum tubes, and transformers. The schools were formal and strict, and one could get slapped or have one's ears pulled for misbehaving. For a budding original thinker, Raoul survived the schools relatively unscathed. He recalls a friar hitting him on the hand once and a teacher cuffing his ear another time, for horsing around too much.
It was by all accounts an idyllic existence, complete with a family villa, English governesses, and music lessons. This world came to an abrupt halt in 1935, when his mother died of cancer. In time his stepfather remarried.
Raoul's experimental talent found its full flowering in adolescence. He and a kindred spirit Tomy Hornak built a small box with a slit for coins. When someone dropped a coin through the slit, a display lit up saying ``Thank you.'' In this way they funded their early experiments.
Raoul struggled with some subjects in school and a tutor was hired to help him a few hours a week in his house. At the time Raoul and Tomy had built a gadget to communicate by Morse code. As he was being tutored, he would hold the gadget under the table and Tomy would be sitting in the basement. Raoul received the code by getting short and long electric shocks in his hand. He then responded by pressing a button to light up a bulb in the basement. While the tutor believed that his student was listening intently to the lesson, Raoul was chatting away in Morse code under the table. In retrospect, Bott calls this his first attempt at e-mail.