Forgotten Polish inventors

Without Jan Czochralski’s inventions, electronics would not have developed in such a spectacular fashion. Appreciated in the West, he still remains obscure in Poland. Like many other outstanding Polish inventors.

2013 was celebrated in Poland as the year of Julian Tuwim, Witold Lutosławski and Jan Czochralski. Tuwim was a well-known poet and Lutosławski a famous composer, but who was Czochralski and what did he do to deserve such distinction? That would most probably be the reaction of most Poles if you asked them about him. On the other hand, a similar survey conducted somewhere in Western Europe, in the United States, or even in technologically advanced countries in Asia would provide quite the opposite result. If asked about the most famous Polish scientists, those better informed will mention Czochralski in the same breath as Nicholas Copernicus and Maria Skłodowska-Curie.

It should not be difficult to remember Jan Czochralski’s achievements. If you work on a computer, relax in front of the TV or use a tablet or smartphone, it is enough to realise that without the achievements of this Polish scientist, especially without his method of obtaining single silicon crystals in 1916, known worldwide as the Czochralski process, all these wonders of modern technology would not have been possible. Interestingly, the Czochralski process has withstood the test of time and is still used in the same way as it was 100 years ago, to produce almost all the world’s silicon for transistors and integrated circuits. Czochralski should be the patron not only of 2013, but also of the famous Silicon Valley, the global electronics and computer science hub.

He was a brilliant scientist and an interesting and colourful figure. “His life was marked by so many different choices, dramatic decisions, failures and successes that it could fill several biographies and scenarios for several thriller movies”, wrote Paweł Tomaszewski, the author of a book about Jan Czochralski.

He was a professor without a secondary school certificate, an esteemed scientist who also achieved financial success and sparked jealousy among his colleagues. A man who made memorable discoveries, but at the same time was not ashamed of more mundane research, which brought him money and popularity among ordinary people (he was the creator of a popular sneezing powder and a permanent wave lotion). A precise mind that worshipped art and poetry (he wrote poems himself). He was a philanthropist who supported artists and students both in Germany and in Poland. From the beginning of his career, he worked in Germany, where he gained a well-established position and financial stability, but never hesitated to return to newly independent Poland. After World War II, he was accused of collaboration with the occupying Germans, while all evidence indicates that he did collaborate...but with military intelligence of the Second Polish Republic rather than with the intelligence service of the Home Army. Persecuted by the Communists, he died shortly after a brutal house search by the UB secret police.

Jan Czochralski (second from the left) during a congress of the Association of Polish Mechanical Engineers in Warsaw, 1932 The Czochralski process

He made his biggest discovery by accident in 1916. At that time, he headed the metallurgical laboratory of AEG in Berlin and worked on the crystallisation of metals. It was late evening and the scientist had spent many hours in his lab trying to figure out how to measure the rate of metal crystallisation. He had the habit of making accurate notes of his research activities and this was the case this time as well. At one point, as fatigue took over, instead of dipping the tip of his fountain pen into the inkwell, Czochralski placed it into a crucible where molten tin was cooling. When he pulled out his pen, he was surprised to find that a thin filament of solidified metal was hanging from the nib. A thought struck him. He quickly checked the structure of the object using X-rays. After a while he was sure – the wire turned out to be a perfect crystal of tin. He had managed to produce a non-natural phenomenon, namely the crystallisation of metal drawn over the surface of an alloy.

Czochralski used the discovery to develop a method for obtaining single crystals. He built a special device that allows a crystalline thread to be extracted from an alloy at maximum speed without breaking it. Over the next several years, he developed his process and published more papers on it, suggesting how it could be used to produce crystals on an industrial scale. His discovery was later developed by other scientists (Wartenberg, Gomperz, Mark, Linder).

The method developed by Czochralski was decades ahead of its time. In 1916, there was no need for it. It was not until the end of World War II that scientists at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, who were working on the construction of the transistor, recalled the idea of the Polish researcher. One of them, Gordon K. Teal, was looking for an effective method to obtain germanium single crystals that were greatly needed due to the growing demand for semiconductors. Finally, he realised that the method already existed – it was the Czochralski process, well-known to metallurgists. “It was thanks to this method that the development of semiconductor electronics or, to put it loftily, the development of our civilization was possible. Almost all integrated circuits are made from silicon wafers cut out from the already mentioned huge single crystals”, writes Paweł Tomaszewski.

An inventor from Pałuki

Jan Czochralski was born on 23rd of October 1885 in Kcynia, a small town in the Pałuki region, then under Prussian rule. His father, a carpenter in Kcynia, dreamed that his son would become a teacher. It was not the best of ideas, given that his son did not exhibit any pedagogical talents, and quite often terrified his level-headed parents by carrying out dangerous chemical experiments at home. The young Czochralski bent to his father’s will and graduated from a teaching college in his hometown. However, he did not take his final school exams. According to one anecdote, Czochralski passed the exams, but he never collected the certificate because he did not like the fact that his marks were quite low. He was devoured by ambition and a desire to achieve great things. He packed his suitcases and left his hometown for Krotoszyn and then Berlin. Initially, he worked in pharmacies. Like a medieval alchemist, he analysed ores, oils, lubricants, and metals. The breakthrough in his career came when he got a job at Allgemeine Elektrizitaets-Gesellschaft (AEG). He advanced quickly, and after several years he was already an independent manager of the company’s steel and iron testing laboratory. His enormous diligence and persistence enabled him to attend lectures on specialised chemistry at (the) Charlottenburg Polytechnic near Berlin. In 1910, he was awarded the title of chemical engineer.

He was gradually putting down roots in Germany and his research was becoming known among German scientists. In 1917, he moved to a modern metallurgical laboratory built specially for him by Metallbank und Metallurgische Gesellschaft AG in Frankfurt am Main. Many valuable scientific papers and patents were created there. The most prominent include the durable duralumin alloy (still used today in the aerospace industry) and, above all, the tin-free bearing alloy for railroads, called metal B. This discovery made Czochralski not only famous, but also very rich. The patent registered in 1924 was purchased by the US, France, and the UK. Czochralski was tempted by Henry Ford himself, who offered him a job across the Atlantic.

However, he decided to accept another offer from Poland. He resigned from the German Metallurgical Society (of which he was a founder), he abandoned his well-established life, and in 1929, at the invitation of President Mościcki, he went to Warsaw. What accounts for this sudden turn in the scientist’s life? Some scholars believe that Czochralski, who always emphasised that he felt Polish, started to work for the Polish military intelligence out of a sense of patriotic duty (he had enough money). And it was the famous ‘Dwójka’, the Second Department of the Polish General Staff, that persuaded him to return to his homeland, because they wanted to make the best use of his discoveries and knowledge in the armaments industry.

Polish hell

Back in Poland, Czochralski did not have very good working conditions. He took a post at the Warsaw University of Technology. In the dark cellars of the Chemistry faculty, he was accompanied during his experiments by rats living there. It was not until 1934 that he was able to move to a modern and well-equipped building. To some, his success was a thorn in the side. Some of his colleagues criticised him for his work for the Germans, not having a secondary school certificate, and deriving material gains from his work. Czochralski, however, was tough and relentless, and did not intend to return to Germany. He won several court cases and continued his scientific research.

After the outbreak of WWII, he used his contacts (his wife was a German) and the occupying authorities allowed him to establish a private Materials Research Institute on the premises of the closed polytechnic. The enterprise helped him survive the war, and also organise help for jobless Polish scientists. However, he also completed orders for the Wehrmacht. For this reason, he was arrested on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans in 1945. The case was quickly closed, however, due to lack of evidence, but thereafter the scientist was under constant surveillance by the secret police.

Jan Szczepanik memorial, Tarnow, Poland He was forbidden from working at the Warsaw University of Technology, so he returned to his hometown of Kcynia, where he opened the Bion Chemical Works. It was Bion that marketed the popular sneezing powder with a dove and permanent wave lotion. Czochralski isolated himself from the world. He spent all his days in his lab. In 1953, he was visited again by the secret police. He was accused of illegal possession of foreign currency (Czochralski sold his villa in Warsaw to the Swiss embassy). The UB confiscated the entire equipment of the factory and the scientist finally had a heart attack and died on 22 April 1953.

After many years, it turned out that the allegations of Czochralski’s collaboration with the Germans were false. In 2011, Czochralski’s intelligence report was found in the Home Army archives. On 29 June 2011, the Senate of the Warsaw University of Technology announced the rehabilitation of the scientist and restored his professorship.

Television – a Polish invention

However, there are other forgotten geniuses like Jan Czochralski. Not only do we tend to “fire diamonds” at enemies during national insurrections, but we also easily waste the talents of our unique minds. Regardless of the era.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the entire civilised world had heard about Jan Szczepanik, a brilliant autodidact from the town of Tarnow, who was called the “Polish Edison” or the “da Vinci of Galicia”. In 1897, he patented the telectroscope, a device for transmitting moving, colour images and sound, which was the prototype of today’s television. The first film broadcast by the telectroscope was intended only for viewers with with nerves of steel – Szczepanik filmed an abdominal surgery in the Langbeck-Virchov hospital. However, as with the Czochralski process, the world was not yet ready for Szczepanik’s invention.

On 31 May 1906, King Alfonso XIII of Spain married Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg. On the way to the ceremony, his carriage was bombed. The king, however, did not die. His vehicle was covered with bulletproof panels (thin steel sheets lined with silk panels) designed by Jan Szczepanik. As a sign of his gratitude, Alfonso XIII honoured the Polish inventor with a high state decoration. Russian Tsar Nicholas II had similar plans, but Szczepanik refused to accept the distinction for patriotic reasons. These inventions were only the tip of the iceberg. Szczepanik was behind 50 inventions and several hundred minor patents in various fields of technology. The inventions of the autodidact from Tarnow stirred a sensation. Mark Twain made him the hero of two of his newspaper stories.

Adam Jan Kanty Ostaszewski, 1920 Not many people know that Adam Jan Kanty Kazimierz Ostaszewski (1860-1934), a landowner from Wzdow, posed serious competition for the Wright Brothers, the pioneers of aviation. Already at the age of 16 he constructed a large airship model. However, his biggest success was the construction of the prototype of modern helicopters in 1892, the VTOL device Stibor 1 (two versions of this machine were built later), which successfully rose to a height of 100 m.

Ostaszewski’s interests were not limited to aviation. He tried his hand at almost every field of knowledge of the time. On his estate, he built an astronomical observatory, designed a jet engine, and also... a chess machine. Throughout his entire life, he was guided by the family’s maxim on their coat of arms: “He who does not progress lives in vain”. The brilliant inventor was a great eccentric, publicly questioning Copernicus’ theory, and he also believed that land that does not have a legal title could be taken over by anyone. Putting his theory into practice, he declared himself Emperor of Antarctica and King of the South Pole.

A genius breeding pigs

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are known across the world today. But who remembers Jacek Karpiński, a brilliant Polish engineer and computer scientist, who, in 1969, created a computer much more advanced than subsequent IBM and Apple’s designs? Karpiński was unlucky as he lived in communist Poland. During WWII, he was a Home Army soldier and fought in the Warsaw Uprising in the Zośka battalion, and because of this the post-war authorities hampered him in his work.

Working in state-owned research institutes, Karpiński created more advanced prototypes of computers and other IT devices (he created the perceptron – a learning machine that recognised the environment using a camera), but none of them entered mass production. The K-202 microcomputer, the life’s work of the brilliant engineer, outclassed competing models from the West. It was the world’s first 16-bit minicomputer with as much as 8 MB of RAM (the first US minicomputers had only 64kB of memory) and was able to process one million operations per second, which was faster than the first IBM PCs nearly ten years later. Unfortunately, in the realities of communist Poland, he had no chance of success. Only 30 units of the K-202 were produced. The engineer was still constantly persecuted, but he refused to emigrate. Finally, he gave up and in 1978 he moved to the Masuria region where he set up a pig farm.

Jacek Karpiński’s enormous knowledge was not put to good use in the Third Republic either. Even though he resumed his profession, he made a living creating websites. He died on 21 February 2010. When Steve Jobs died several months later, the story made headlines across the world. Jack Karpiński had to make do with a few obscure obituaries. Unfortunately, to paraphrase a well-known film title, Poland is no country for geniuses.

Author: Krzysztof Jóźwiak

Source: “Rzeczpospolita”