Jan Szczepanik, aka 'the Polish Edison', was born of peasant stock on June 13, 1872 in the small village of Rudniki (now in Ukraine just on the other side of the border from Przemyśl, PL). An extraordinary man with an extraordinary moustache and a wild head of hair, Szczepanik was your classic troubled genius, dropping out of high school despite having a planet-sized brain. Starting his adult life as an unassuming teacher, the young Szczepanik took an interest in the primitive weaving technology of the day, and after a series of innovations, lucky breaks and accolades he was able to abandon his academic life in 1896 and focus all his time and energy on his passion for collecting patents, of which he possessed several hundred for the 50-some inventions to his credit over the course of his career. The visionary pioneer of motion pictures, colour television, colour photography, early flying machines, submarines, the wireless telegraph and a whole host of other things we take for granted today, moved his workshop from Vienna to Tarnów after falling in love with Wanda Dzikowski, the daughter of a Tarnów doctor, whom he married in Tarnów Cathedral in 1902. Managing to combine a life that involved working for several of the world’s top companies while immersing himself in his own private work and fathering no less than five children, Tarnów’s adopted genius was feted by royalty (among his many achievements, Szczepanik invented the bullet-proof jacket in 1901 at the personal request of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII, whose life it later saved from an assassination attempt) and was a personal friend of Mark Twain, who visited and wrote about him in Vienna during the early days of his career. The sadly overlooked inventor fell seriously ill in 1925, and died of liver cancer in his adopted hometown on April 18, 1926.
In 2002 a rather charming bust of the great man was unveiled in Tarnów on Plac Szczepanika, directly north of the Old Town near the central post office, while an identical bust stands over his tomb in the Old Cemetery. In 2011 Plac Szczepanika was completely renovated with a new two-level fountain, landscaped walkways and new benches. Szczepanik has been given better exposure than ever before with his monument prominently displayed before a new installation with information and photos of his life and inventions, as well as a long curving wall that includes a large mirrored bust of his iconic head, his signature and some important dates from his career. Make a detour in your wanderings to give it a look.