It has recently become fashionable to credit the invention of television to the American Philo T. Farnsworth. But the truth is, modern television was not so much a single invention by a single person, but a long process of interdependent discoveries. Many scientists from different countries and backgrounds contributed to its development. Among them were Poles.
Paul Gottlieb Nipkow (1860-1940) is usually called a German inventor. But more detailed sources identify him as a Kaszubian Pole. He was born in Lębork in the Kaszub region of Poland west of Gdańsk, and schooled in nearby Wejherowo. These were lands taken by Germany (Prussia) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Since they were part of Germany, Nipkow was legally a German citizen, and pursued his career in Berlin.
In 1884, Nipkow designed and patented a device to transmit moving images by wire using two perforated spinning disks, selenium, and a photoelectric cell. There is no evidence that the Pole ever actually built such a system. But this technology was used in the first public demonstration of television in 1926 by the Scotsman John L. Baird. Nipkow was able to see his invention in action in 1928 at a show in Berlin. Until 1938, he was recognized as the sole inventor of television. In 1935 in Berlin, the first public television channel in the world was named the Paul Nipkow station.
Before Nipkow, the Polish psychologist and philospher Julian Ochorowicz (1850-1917) wrote an article in 1878 that correctly forecast the future process of transmitting live moving images.
Jan Szczepanik was a Polish inventor whose achievements have never been widely appreciated. He was born in Rudniki (now in Ukraine) near Przemysł in Austrian occupied southern Poland in 1872. He attended school in Krosno and Jasło, then went to a teacher's seminary in Kraków, after which he taught elementary school in Potok, Lubatówka and Korczyn.
But his brilliant mind was too restless for the confines of the classroom. At age twenty-four he left teaching and began working on his ideas for new inventions, soon attracting a financial backer. Since he lived in the Austrian Empire, his greatest opportunities lay in its capital, Vienna. He moved there in 1898.
In February of that year, Szczepanik was granted a patent for "method and apparatus for reproducing pictures and the like at distance by means of electricity." He called the invention the telectroscope, and it was an early television system. It converted images into electrical current using mirrors, prisms and electromagnets by breaking up lines of light into dots, then reconstituting them at a distant receiver at the other end of the wire.
He demonstrated a working telectroscope in Vienna before witnesses in the spring of 1898, and created a sensation around the world. This system allowed pictures to be transmitted in color, with sound. This was most likely the first transmission of television pictures in history, and newspaper and magazine articles in Europe and America described inventor and invention. An American named Cleveland Moffett in 1899 reported in some detail a transmission by Szczepanik in 1896 in Vienna, but the Pole was not known to be in the city then. Perhaps Moffett got the year wrong.
Mark Twain, who was living in Vienna at the time and befriended Szczepanik, was fascinated by the telectroscope and even wrote a short piece of fiction featuring it and the inventor, "From the London Times of 1904," which some say shows the telectroscope used as a forerunner of the internet.
Szczepanik sold the rights to his telectroscope to the Paris Exposition of 1900 for a small fortune, but it was never demonstrated there and was soon forgotten, probably because no one could conceive of a practical use for it. Szczepanik's other great invention from his Vienna years was a device for improving the weaving process using photography. This device is sometimes called a forerunner of the computer. It used a series of perforated cards. (Remember IBM punch cards?)
In 1902 Szczepanik married a native of Tarnów, Poland, and he moved there and started a family. He continued working on inventions and eventually amassed ninety-two patents, including fifteen in America. Among his other achievements were the invention of color photography for both still cameras and motion pictures, an electric rifle and an early bulletproof fabric. He also worked on a moving wing airplane, helicopter, dirigible and submarine, and plans for a calculator and a brick making machine.
In 1925 Szczepanik died of cancer at the too young age of fifty-eight. He was buried in Tarnów and in 2002 a monument to him was unveiled in the city. He is still underappreciated in the world today, though he is often referred to as the "Polish Edison." He started with no resources other than his brain and faith in himself.
The contributions of Poles to world culture are usually overlooked. But whether they realize it or not, a great Polish achievement stares back at billions of people every time they hit the ON button of the TV remote control.
Written by Martin S. Nowak. The article was published originally in Polish-American Journal