A full decade ahead — Poles who were ahead of their time

November 9, 2019

It turns out that the first vending machines, a great convenience for travellers and hotel guests, devised at the beginning of the 20 the century, were not invented across the Atlantic. Similarly, mine detectors and military aircraft improvements, which helped shape the course of war, were not constructed by the greatest military powers. In the period between the two World Wars, Polish inventors surprised the world with their innovative ideas.

Let’s talk about patents, inventions and innovations which were designed in the period between the wars. What was the Polish contribution? The period between the two World Wars was a remarkable time for Poland. The country, restored and unified after the partitions, did not want to cling to the past. Poles had the ambition to demonstrate their spirit of enterprise to Europe and the world as soon as they could. People, most notably the nation’s elites and intelligentsia, craved international success. Nothing was impossible for Poles after the restoration of their country’s sovereignty!

How are these people remembered? Do the inventions and innovative technical ideas of that period still have an impact on the present? We’ll present some remarkable stories and people, whose concepts were ahead of their time. Today some of these inventions may seem bizarre or even ridiculous.

However, you need to remember that there is always a method in madness and only the most daring achieve success…

45,000 patent applications filed in less than 20 years!

After more than 100 years of partitions, when Poland once again appeared on the map of Europe, everyone wanted to contribute to the restoration of the country. No one imagined the fate of the state and its people in the forthcoming decades. It was “here and now” that mattered so Poles wanted to be active and visible in every field.

Do you know that between 1918 and 1934, 45,000 patent applications were filed and many of these inventions were granted a patent?

The need to push technology forward was so strong that the Polish Association for Promoting Invention was founded in 1933. Today some innovations designed at the time may at first seem ridiculous or even absurd. Still, we need to consider the possibilities, or rather restraints of the era, especially when it comes to technology… The truth is, each of those pioneers contributed to some extent to technical progress. Even if they had to begin by going three steps back, in the end they always went at least one step forward.

You may well ask what the Poles of the time wanted to create. For decades, Poland had been divided between three different political and economic systems, which had been at different stages of advancement. Once the country was unified, there was a lot of catching up to do. The technological pioneers of the time wanted to improve products used every day and develop projects to advance industry significantly. Some designs, which were way ahead of their era, were produced in less than 20 years! Let us also recall some imaginative ideas that had no real chance of implementation.

“We, Poles, have invented almost everything, though we sometimes forget about that…”* — on inventions that changed the course of history.

Did you smile reading that sentence? Actually, it expresses quite a lot of truth. Polish technological thought had not been idle during the partitions. It had developed in exile and following the country’s independence, it exploded into activity. Let us start with Jan Czochralski. Scientists still joke that without his accidental experiment, the development of electronics would have been impossible! Born not far from Bydgoszcz, he had been interested in chemistry since childhood. What did he do for a living? In 1916, two years before the restoration of independence and three years before the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, Czochralski was studying in Berlin, where he devised a method of measuring the velocity of the crystallization of metals. According to the story, he accidentally put his pen in a crucible containing molten tin.

Photo from the movie set

Accidentally or not, monocrystals produced according to the 1916 method are nowadays the basis for all electronic devices, from mp3 players, to most advanced laptops and game consoles.

Once Poland was unified and its territory was regained, associations of talented people and inventors cropped up in larger groupings. People met to discuss how to improve absolutely everything. Certainly, inventors were greatly inspired by the events of World War I, as the memory of the conflict was still very fresh in people’s minds.

It would be a shame not to mention the Polish contribution to the development of aviation. Zygmunt Puławski managed to overcome the visibility limitations which had troubled Polish pilots during their missions. It is worth remembering that in the 1920s biplanes were the most common type of aircraft. The positioning of their wings hindered the pilots’ view. It was impossible to observe what was going on under and over the wings, which was crucial during air battles. The situation was somewhat improved by the introduction of the monoplane. Still, it was impossible to ensure sufficient visibility in both directions.

Puławski designed a wing which was narrowed with a prominent bend near the fuselage. It gave excellent visibility in every direction!

At the beginning of the 1930s, Polish aircrafts equipped with the “Pulawski Wing” were considered some of the most modern planes in the world.

Another invention, which was of the utmost interest to the greatest armies at the time, was patented in 1925 by Tadeusz Świątecki. The Swiatecki bomb slip was a bomb-release system used in combat aircraft. In those days, Polish aviation had to deal with malfunctioning bomb slip devices, but unfortunately, Świątecki’s invention was not used in Polish aircraft…

The Swiatecki bomb slip was successfully used in English and American bombers. The system was installed in the famous Flying Fortresses and Lancasters.

Photo from the movie set

Józef Kosacki was another young and talented engineer and an officer of the Polish army. After the outbreak of World War II, he served in France; then he continued his service in Scotland. The course of history was changed the day he witnessed the death of Polish soldiers on a minefield… He created the “Polish Mine Detector”, a device that uses radio waves to locate landmines.

The “Polish Mine Detector” was used by armies all over the world until the end of the 1990s. Its inventor gave up his patent voluntarily and came back to Poland, where he worked and retired in the 1990s.

Tele-superheterodyne receiver — pre-war television (almost)!

1952 is considered the beginning of the television era in Poland. Few people know, however, that this form of entertainment almost appeared in the houses of the most affluent in the period between the wars. Reading the 1929 patent list, under number 11084, you can learn that Stefan Manczarski invented “a manner of television broadcasting of images, using radio and wire”.

Manczarski created both a transmitter and a television receiver! The image quality was far from what you may imagine and the screen size would not satisfy contemporary cinema lovers.

However, you need to remember that it was just the beginning of this technology. The Ministry of Post and Telegraphs quickly bought the patent and presented the device the very same year during the Polish General Exhibition in Poznań. Television transmission fascinated many manufacturers but none of them managed to improve the image quality. Unfortunately, the following attempts failed because of a lack of sponsors. In addition, the deepening crisis held back work for some years… Yet, this story has a happy ending! The turning point came in 1935 when the State Telecommunication Institute opened its Television Department and the development of a film receiver unit began.

Suffice it to say that the first model, known by the unusual name of “Telefunken”, went into production in 1936. It could be purchased for the significant price of 5,000 zlotys! It was nearly as costly as the Polish version of the Fiat 508.

Photo from the movie set

Polish fantasies about the future…

Stories about ingenious inventions got into daily papers as press interest brought inventors fame and renown. Pre-war tabloids reported on new inventions practically every week. Do you know what a “handy sleeping” was? It was an easy solution, which helped rail passengers rest during their trips. Even today, we experience the problem of having a nap in a railway carriage. It seems that what you need is just a planed plank with handles attached to a luggage shelf, on which you can rest your head.

In 1930, “Dziennik Lubelski” reported that Michał Petrychorski from Warsaw was working on a postal air rocket. In fact, the first attempts to send letters via missile had taken place in 1902, but the mail did not survive the flight, which was toward Fiji. It seems that the Polish inventor was also pursuing the idea of fast shipment, which is basically the task of today’s couriers. The technology available at the time rendered it impossible for Petrychorski to design a working rocket. Still, you cannot say that the idea was completely absurd. Rocket mail may not have become common, remaining at an experimental stage, but…

In 1931, a year after a report on Polish inventions was published, Friedrich Schmiedl successfully launched a rocket which transported 102 envelopes and cards from an Austrian town to a nearby village. This event marked the beginning of the rocket mail. Did the Polish constructor inspire Schmiedl? We can only guess.

The idea of vending machines selling snacks is hardly a wonder today. You could not have said the same in the past, given the fact that for the interwar inventors a snack meant… a hard-boiled egg! In 1929, a Warsaw paper, “Dobry Wieczór”, wrote about a vending machine that could present you, for the price of 1 zloty, with a set containing: a small bar of soap, toothpaste, a needle and thread, a thimble and some buttons! Are you surprised? The design was impossible to produce at the time, though nowadays it poses no problem at all. Today vending machines sell absolutely everything. Unfortunately, the interwar inventor used only his initials, F. S., so we don’t know who came up with this innovative concept.

In the period between the wars, Poles craved knowledge, followed technological progress and even wanted to be one step ahead of it. Of course, there is still a long way to go from an idea to its realisation. Yet, every revolution, regardless of its field, has to start with a concept. The lack of advanced industrial technologies definitely prevented implementation of many of the abovementioned 45,000 inventions. Many of those technologies had to wait for their own designers…

Bibliography:

  1. *The quotation comes from the book by J. Wróbel, E. Wróbel: “Historia Polski 2.0: Polak potrafi, Polka też…, czyli o tym, ile świat nam zawdzięcza”, Znak Horyzont, 2015.
  1. M. Borucki, “Wielcy zapomniani. Polacy, którzy zmienili świat”, Wydawnictwo Muza, Warsaw 2015.
  1. A. Karwowska-Lamparska, “Rozwój Radiofonii i Telewizji” w: “Telekomunikacja i techniki teleinformacyjne” 2003, no. 3-4.
  1. R. Piotrowski, “Absurdy i kurioza przedwojennej Polski”, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warsaw, 2016.
  1. M. S. Fog, “Absurdy Polski Międzywojennej”, Warsaw 2008.

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