By Krzysztof Slowinski
Jan Szczepanik was born on 13 June 1872 in Rudniki, near Mosciska, to family of poor peasants. Having become an orphan in early age, he was bred by his aunt. Szczepanik began his education in elementary school in Krosno, with further stage - in Jaslo, and then in a seminary in Krakow. During the years he showed great amount of talent for mathematics and special skill for designing various technical constructions that would improve the existing state of technology.
In his early twenties he made a living for several years as a teacher and in 1896 moved to Krakow where he worked in a photographic warehouse owned by Ludwik Kleinberg. Klienberg backed him financially in his various experiments. The following years were full of new ideas that turned into inventions.
As early as 1899, he worked out a photographic color process which was later adopted as the Kodacolor method in 1928, and in further years, by Agfa for manufacturing reversal photographic paper. Some samples of his photographic prints are kept in various museums, for example the Museum of Craft in Vienna (Illustration no. 1), as well as other examples of his works. One of his documentary color films presented to the public showed surgical operation and caused shock to the audience due to it being considered as "too bloody". For his photographic and film experiments Szczepanik used equipment of his own design and make (illustration no. 2). He brought also his contribution to image/sound synchronization in movies using his unique method. His "photographic" inventions comprised also a system for obtaining tri-color photographic screens.
Some of his ideas influenced the development of television, such as the telectroscope (an apparatus for distant reproduction of images and sound using electricity). The New York Times of 3 April 1898 described it as "A scheme for the transmission of colored rays". The device was presented publicly in Vienna in March 1898 and "Neue Wiener Tagblatt" and other newspapers (Illustration no. 3) published some articles on this. Although this invention likely never existed as a complete working design, it fascinated Mark Twain, as well as some other inventions, who tried to buy some of them while visiting Europe. No bargain was made but the two men became friends and two of Twain's stories were devoted to the inventor whom he met personally in Vienna. Examples of Mark Twains articles included a sci-fic story from "The London Times" of 1904 and the other "The Austrian Edison keeping school again" about Szczepanik's living problems as he several times worked as a teacher in schools in neighboring villages. Szczepanik gifted him a gobelin with Twain's portrait embroidered on it using his method to copy photographic image onto a woven fabric (See our reference information for excerpts of Mark Twains articles mentioned here).
His most important inventions that proved to be of practical use included a so-called "photosculptor", a device to copy shapes and dimensions of 3D objects, particularly sculptures; colorimeter, a tool to control colors; an efficient method of multicolor weaving allowing for much faster manufacturing of gobelins and carpets (invention patented in 1896 in Great Britain and Germany); bullet-proof fabric (in collaboration with Casimir [Kazimierz] Zeglen) used to make bullet-proof vests and armour (Illustration no. 4). The vest saved the life of the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, during an assassination attempt in 1902. The king rewarded him with high Spanish order - Medal of the Catholic Isabel; also other royal courts offered him awards - Russian emperor, interested in his bullet-proof fabric offered him order and precious pocket watch decorated with diamond s and Austrian emperor Franz Josef relieved him from mandatory service in the army.
Szczepanik applied various improvements to Jacquard looms - which introduced a fast attachment method making image patterns for weaving and simplified transferring the patterns onto fabric being woven, using electromagnets to control work of the machines, and some others. He Introduced other advancements enabling similar kind of automation of multicolor weaving. Thanks to the improvements the time necessary to weave a gobelin was shortened from weeks to hours and its cost decreased from 16 pounds to 15 schillings.
His lesser known projects include moving-wing aircraft, duplex-rotor helicopter, dirigible, submarine, electric-driven rifle, equipment for sound recording and playback and for image projection.
In his most productive years he had his labs/workshops in Vienna, Berlin, Dresden, Krakow and Tarnow where he settled with his wife in 1906, after travelling throughout Europe. Szczepanik made about 50 important inventions and patented several hundred technical solutions, many of which were used for long time, especially those related to the motion picture industry, photography, and television. Although he was not commercially successful, even in his own enterprises (Illustration no. 4), his inventions and ideas greatly influenced further developments in various fields of science and technology.
Jan Szczepanik was a versatile Polish inventor in the fields of weaving, film, television, color photography, wireless telegraphy, and some others. He has been referred to as the Polish Edison or Austrian Edison, even though Poland was occupied by neighboring countries at that time and did not exist as an independent state. The part of the country where Szczepanik lived was under Austro-Hungarian occupation.
Szczepanik died of liver cancer in 1926, at the age of 54. Most of his legacy was lost during WWII.# 1762
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