Polish Firsts And Innovations
Did You Know?

Not only Copernicus, Chopin, Madame Curie and JP2….

Compiled by Robert Strybel
Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer

Although the Polish nation can boast an impressive list of pioneering individuals and outstanding firsts, many of them remain unknown to the general public. The following are among those worthy of note:

**POLAND’S FIRST KING, Boleslaus the Brave (992-1025), was known as a builder of military forts, bridges, churches and monasteries who introduced Poland’s first currency, the grzywna. He consolidated the country’s regions, and his successful campaigns expanded its territory to include Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia, Lusatia and Meissen. Poland acquired its own independent Church structure following a visit to Gniezno by German emperor Otto III in the year 1000.            

**MONK INVENTS BULLET-PROOF VEST: Incongruous as it may seem, it was a Polish Resurrectionist monk, Father Kazimierz Żegleń, who invented the bullet-proof vest in the late 19th century. He later teamed up with Polish entrepreneur Jan Szczepanik to mass-produce the woven-silk vests. They gained popularity when their protective material saved the life of Spain’s King Alfonso XIII who survived an assassination attempt on his wedding day in 1901.

**NIHIL NOVI: A 1505 act whose full name in Latin translated as “Nothing New without Common Consent.” It was way ahead of its time in limiting the power of the king who thenceforth could not impose any new laws without the consent of parliament. Thereby, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth effectively became Europe’s first parliamentary democracy centuries before that polity became the norm.

**FATHER OF THE OIL INDUSTRY: Ignacy Łukasiewicz (1822-1882), a pharmacist and engineer from Lwów (then under Austrian occupation), could rightly be called the “Father of the Oil Industry,” He was the first to distill seep oil into kerosene, invent the kerosene lamp and introduce Europe’s first kerosene street lamp. He also built the world’s first oil well and modern oil refinery. A patriotic philanthropist, Łukasiewicz supported the 1863 anti-Russian insurrection,  assisted Polish refugees, founded a church, chapel and spa resort.

**EQUALITY BEFORE THE LAW: Now taken for granted, this was a revolutionary concept when proclaimed by Polish Renaissance theologian and political writer Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503-1572). He advocated equal penalties for murder whether the victim was a noble or peasant and advocated giving all social classes the right to own land. His crowning treatise De Republica emendanda (On improving the Republic) was translated into different languages and was widely read across Renaissance Europe. His pro-Protestant leanings put him in jeopardy of being declared a heretic, but he was protected by Polish King Zygmunt August.

**WĄSAL BROTHERS: One of the world’s biggest and most successful media companies was originally known as Warner Brothers Pictures. Its founders, Aaron, Szmul and Hirsz, were Polish immigrants of Jewish descent from the village of Krasnosielc in Poland’s Mazowsze voivodeship (province). They Americanized their first names to Albert, Sam and Harry and adopted the more WASP-sounding surname Warner. It had originally been Wąsal, the Polish word for a mustachioed male.

**FIRST MOVIE CAMERA: In 1894, Polish inventor Kazimierz Prószyński (1875-1945) invented the Pleograph, the world’s first motion-picture filming and projecting device – a year earlier than France’s much vaunted Lumière Brothers. “He was the first in cinematography, and I was the second,” Louis Lumière remarked. Prószyński later invented the world’s first hand-held movie camera and used it to film the 1911 coronation of Britain’s King George V.

**TEN-YEAR-OLD GIRL KING: Ten-year-old Jadwiga (Hedwig), the daughter of King Louis of Hungary, was crowned King of Poland in 1384 to end a two-year interregnum. She continued using her royal title even after marrying Lithuanian Duke Jagiełło who in 1386 was crowned King of Poland. Jadwiga was known for her deep religious devotion as well as her patronage of the arts and learning and personally led the Polish army to prevent the takeover of Ukraine by Hungary. She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1997.

**POLAR EXPLORER OF MANY TALENTS: Henryk Arctowski (1871–1958) studied and worked in Belgium, France and the US and was one of the first researchers to explore the South Pole in winter. Of distant German ancestry, he was born in Warsaw as Henryk Artzt but later changed it to Arctowski to emphasize his Polish heritage. Arctowski’s scientific career encompassed geodesics, geophysics, meteorology, climate change, oceanography and glaciology. He also prepared a report on Poland for the post-World War I Paris Peace Conference. Poland’s South Pole research outpost is known as the Arctowski Polish Antarctic Station. 

**BENEDICT OF POLAND (c.1200-c.1280): Contrary to widespread belief, Italy’s Marco Polo was not the first European to travel to the Far East.  Those who had preceded him included a Polish Franciscan Friar, Benedictus Polonus (Benedict of Poland), personally chosen by Pope Innocent IV as the papal delegate to accompany the expedition of  Giovanni da Pian del Carpine.  Benedict met the Great Khan Güyük of the Mongolian Empire and presented him with a letter from the pope. The Polish friar’s account of the trip included a copy of the Khan’s reply.

**COMPUTER PIONEER: By the time 20-year-old student Bill Gates first read about minicomputers in a 1975 issue of Popular Electronics, in 1960 Polish IT pioneer Jacek Karpiński had received a UNESCO award for his research into artificial intelligence. Already in 1971 he had constructed his K-202, one of the first mini-computers. But it was never mass-produced because computer science in Poland was controlled by Moscow. Karpiński, who had belonged to the Home Army (AK) during the war,  became a livestock farmer, and after the communist regime imposed martial law in 1981, he emigrated to Switzerland.

**NEMINEM  CAPTIVABIMUS:   The English are proud of their Habeas Corpus Act of 1679 which prevented imprisonment without a court injunction and is regarded as one of the most important statutes in British legal history.  Poland had a similar law known by the Latin name: Neminem captivabimus nisi iure victum. That translates to “We shall imprison no-one without a court verdict.” It was introduced towards the end of his 48-year-long reign by King Władysław Jagiełło as part of a packet of privileges he issued in 1430-1433. 

**NAGRA RECORDER: Stefan Kudelski (1931-2013), who managed to flee Poland with his family ahead of its 1939 joint German-Soviet invasion, settled in Switzerland where he developed his pioneering Nagra tape recorder. He named it Nagra which in Polish means “it will record.” Kudelski’s invention was a boon to the broadcasting and movie industry. He continued producing improved Nagra models on into the 1990s and won numerous awards including three Oscars.

**OUTSTANDING SCI-FI WRITER: Stanisław Lem (1921-2006) was undoubtedly Poland’s greatest writer specializing in sci-fi literature. His novels dealing with fictional space expeditions and encounters with alien civilizations often contained a philosophical message applicable to issues facing people on planet Earth. Some works satirized life under communism, but Lem deftly disguised his humor to make it past the censors.  His books were translated into 40 differently languages and had a total print run of 30 million copies.

**SIT-IN OR POLISH STRIKE: Many people associate sit-ins with the anti-war protests of the 1960s and ‘70s, but the principle goes back to before World War II.  Unlike American strikers who downed tools, went home and left a picket line to pound the pavement outside,  protesting Polish workers would stop work but remain at their posts. That made it difficult for police or strike-breakers to dislodge them, an action known as a Polish or occupation strike. That tactic was again successfully used against the Communist regime by the Solidarity movement in the 1980s.

**FOR HAITI’S FREEDOM: A good example of  fighting “for your freedom and ours” was recorded in 1802, when Napoleon dispatched a 5,200-strong Polish contingent to quell a Negro slave rebellion in France’s Caribbean colony of Haiti. Seeing the uprising as a quest for independence, many of the Poles switched sides, defended the insurgents, settled down and set up families. To this day, their distant, lighter-skinned descendants hold a place of honor and gratitude in  collective Haitian memory. When he visited in 1983, Polish-born Pontiff John Paul II was welcomed like the Messiah himself.

**PATRON SAINT OF PIEROGI?: Young Polish nobleman Jacek Odrowąż (1185-1257) met St. Dominic, joined his newly founded Dominican Order and reportedly did mission work in such countries as Ukraine, Sweden, Turkey and Greece.  The Polish saying “Święty Jacku z pierogami!” (St. Hyacinth with pierogi!) is  a call for help in a hopeless predicament. According to folk legend, during a famine caused by the Mongolian invasion,  Jacek and his fellow friars saved their flock  from starvation by feeding them pierogi.