Jan Szczepanik: 'The Polish Edison'

more than a year ago
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 Przemyśł, 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.

Wanda Dzikowska, the local beauty
that captured Szczepanik's heart.
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 Dzikowska, 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 and was widely respected by his peers in the scientific community. American writer Mark Twain was a close friend of Szczepanik and wrote about him in two articles, one of them describing him as the 'The Austrian Edison', due to the fact that the inventor was born and raised in the Austrian Partition of Poland.​ Perhaps Twain didn't even know he was Polish!​​​​​​

The Bulletproof Vest

Szczepanik is often acknowledged as being the inventor of the bulletproof vest in 1901, though in reality he was only half the brains behind its production. Każimierz Żegleń, a Polish Catholic priest and part-time inventor from Tarnopol (now Tarnopil in Ukraine), had been researching and developing a bulletproof vest leading off the research of American wild-west physician George E. Goodfellow, who had been experimenting with the anti-ballistic properties of layered silk. Żegleń implemented more weaving techniques and eventually produced a single centimetre-thick vest that he publicly demonstrated in 1897 (the priest-inventor wore the vest and his assistant fired the bullet!). Szczepanik was introduced to Żegleń around the turn of the century and helped him make some refinements, introducing his own automated-weaving technology, which made the vest a viable commercial product for mass-production. Publicity assisted the vest's popularity when Spain’s King Alfonso XIII survived an assassination attempt after Szczepanik had gifted him with his very own. It's been alleged that Szczepanik also offered one of his vests to Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose refusal lead to the Archduke getting gunned down - a small event that literally triggered the Great War.

As for his relationship with Żegleń, the two Poles eventually had a falling-out over business relations, and though Żegleń never relinquished his authorship, it was Szczepanik's weaving production and entrepreneurship that made him profit more off the success of their product - so much so, in fact, that Żegleń's contributions are all but forgotten today. Although Żegleń's legacy may live in Szczepanik's shadow today, Szczepanik's contributions to science and technology have likewise been eclipsed by name-brand brains like Edison, Tesla, Franklin and Da Vinci. 

Tarnów Remembers Szczepanik

Jan Szczepanik fell seriously ill in 1925, and died of liver cancer in his adopted hometown of Tarnów 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.


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