Jan Józef Baranowski (1805–1888) – Renaissance Man

The most prolific author in Polish literature was Józef Kraszewski, who wrote over 220 novels. As regards inventions, it is Jan Szczepanik and Jan Józef Baranowski who have left the largest legacies.

Jan Józef Baranowski Jan Józef Baranowski, a very comprehensively gifted Pole, was raised in the country, near Minsk, Belarus. He left his home village of Smilowicze for Wilno to study law, receiving the title of “candidate,” or today’s Doctor of Philosophy. Being well educated, he quickly landed a job in Warsaw at Bank Polski. Like thousands of his compatriots, he took part in the November Uprising. After its defeat, he lived in exile, which is where he came up with his brilliant inventions, first in France, then in England.

He was interested in everything to do with engineering. He looked at each solution in terms of possible ways in which it could be improved. Baranowski assumed that no device was good enough not to be tweaked further. He would also say that each invention is worth the effort behind it, even if it proves making life easier only just a bit.

He studied the issues of gas distribution in cities – and invented the gas meter.  When he saw inspectors toiling at issuing travel tickets by hand, he devised a machine that printed five thousand tickets per hour. Each ticket had a serial number. Along the way, as it were, he invented the ticket punch, for which he was awarded a medal at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851. After 120 years, machines of that type were still in operation at nearly all railway stations, and elder readers will remember the distinctive cardboard tickets.

In the mid-19th century, public voting was very popular. Counting the votes was more troublesome. Luckily, Baranowski came up with the sensational vote counting machine, which quickly caught on throughout Europe.

Incredible as it may sound, the railways made do without semaphores during its first quarter of a century. That led to numerous incidents and, with the expanding rolling stock, became a serious problem. After 1855, railway traffic got so busy that it posed a safety threat with no control systems.

What did the inventor Baranowski do? In 1857, he designed the rail signalling device.  The semaphore he proposed caught on worldwide. After some modifications it is still in service today.

When he lived in France, Baranowski patented close to 20 inventions. He attained immense renown in France, was respected in Europe, while in Poland … he was hardly known.


Jan Józef Baranowski's election machine Interesting facts

Designed in 1848, the manual ticket punch survived almost unchanged 150 years until the early 21st century, also on Polish buses and trams. Today’s generation of fortysomethings still remembers those punches. Only the technological progress replaced the mechanical devices with electronic ones.


Baranowski’s contribution to the French railways is invaluable. But at first things were not promising. The semaphores were sabotaged by the French railwaymen, who feared losing their jobs. The Pole’s sensational and revolutionary invention allowed each switch yard to cut its staff by at least a few men. Baranowski’s semaphore was round, unlike today’s movable arm-shaped semaphores. Still, it operated according to the same principle.




The first Baranowski semaphore was installed in 1857 on the Paris–Rouen and Paris–St Germain lines. It would later expand to Italy, Belgium, England, and all of Europe.


All offices the world over should have the busts of Baranowski since he made life a lot easier for clerks. The Pole devised a unique machine for copying letters. It was supplanted only by modern photocopiers.

If that wasn’t enough, office clerks could use a bookkeeping machine for auditing accounts, an invention also patented by Baranowski.


Jan Baranowski’s contributions go beyond the realm of engineering. He was a polyglot who spoke French, German, Russian and English. In 1884, he published what was one of the first Polish-English dictionaries and developed an excellent textbook for Brits learning Polish. During its preparation, Jan Baranowski repeatedly consulted with the aforementioned novelist Józef Ignacy Kraszewski.


National Technology Museum in Warsaw