On this edition of Bullets Forever’s Polish week, we will focus on scientists and engineers of Polish heritage who made considerable contributions to society as we know it today. There are so many of them, but here are five you should know about!
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543)
In Polish his name was Mikołaj Kopernik. Copernicus is one of the most famed astronomers in world history. He lived his entire life in Royal Prussia, which was past of the Kingdom of Poland. He attended the University of Krakow as a young man.
Copernicus is best known for developing the astronomical theory of heliocentrism, or a model where the planets revolve around the sun. Before the Renaissance, many scholars believed in a geocentric model, where the planets and sun revolved around Earth.
In addition, Copernicus was also an economic theorist, where he came up with what’s now known as Gresham’s Law. In this law, if there are two types of commodities that have the same face value, then the commodity of higher value will be scarcer to find.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736)
When you look at your temperature scale in the USA, we use the Fahrenheit scale, not Celsius. That scale is the first widely used temperature scale in the world. Though the Netherlands will claim Fahrenheit as one of the biggest scientific figures of the Dutch Golden Age, the man behind it was Polish born.
Fahrenheit was born and raised in Danzig, which is now known as Gdansk. At the time of Fahrenheit’s birth, Danzig was a mostly German speaking city in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a predecessor state of much of current-day Poland, and parts of the western former Soviet states.
The Fahrenheit scale isn’t just a quirk Americans have against the rest of the world. After Fahrenheit created the scale in 1724, it was common to use that scale throughout Europe and America back in the 18th century. Most non-English speaking countries, including Fahrenheit’s countries: the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland adopted the Celsius scale by the 20th century. And most Anglophone countries have also done so themselves. However, the United States is the only major country that still uses Fahrenheit’s scale.
In addition to the temperature scale, the Polish-German-Dutch scientist developed the first reliable thermometer in Amsterdam back in 1714. Even if the United States moves to Celsius at some point for common usage, we still have to give a hat tip to Fahrenheit for inventing a device that tracks temperature, regardless of the scale we end up using.
Today, Fahrenheit’s grave is at the Kloosterkerk (pronounced Close-tur-kerk) in Den Haag, or The Hague. There’s even a commemorative plaque there from the Polish Ambassador to the Netherlands back in 2002. It’s also the top photo on this very article. Also, The Fahrenheit Center based in the United States and Canada has outreach programs with European universities, mostly in Poland.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Curie was a Polish-French physicist and chemist born in Warsaw, though she moved to France after obtaining her university degree. Like many people of Polish heritage, Curie felt a strong connection to Poland for the rest of her life. She taught her children the Polish language and visited the land of her birth several times.
Curie won two Nobel Prizes from her work in 1903 for physics with her husband Pierrce, and in 1911 for chemistry for her work, which includes discovering Polonium and Radium, which are radioactive metals. During World War I, Curie developed methods to use radioactive materials for medical causes such was hollow needles, and procuring X-ray units for wounded troops. Though she did not discover X-Rays herself, Curie’s early research on radioactivity ultimately paved the way for that technology to be used in wartime medicine, saving many lives.
Albert Sabin (1906-1993)
Nearly everyone born in the United States and around the world is vaccinated for many infectious diseases. For example, children get vaccinated for tetanus, measles, and mumps. During the Middle Ages, these diseases could spread quite quickly and kill many. But today, it’s rare to see anyone contract them.
Polio is another one of those diseases that we don’t think too much about. But there was a mid 20th century outbreak of it. Before that outbreak, one president, Franklin D. Roosevelt suffered from it as a child himself. The drop in the number of polio cases is because of another vaccine. And we can thank someone with Polish roots for just that!
Sabin was born in Bialystok, which was actually part of Russia when he was born. He moved to the United States as a teenager and became a doctor. In 1955, Sabin released an oral vaccine to combat polio. Over the next decade, people from all over the world took the vaccine which effectively eradicated the disease. Sabin also worked on other vaccines such as dengue fever and Japanese encephalitis.
Henryk Magnuski (1909-1978)
I remember playing with my GI-Joe walkie talkies as a young child. If you didn’t use GI-Joe walkie talkies, maybe you used Fisher-Price. But at any rate, a Polish American engineer was behind the device used by many industries, even in today’s era of iPhones and Androids!
Henryk Magnuski was born, raised, and educated in Warsaw. However, he later moved to the United States during the 1930’s when he studied radio technology. He ultimately invented the first walkie-talkies. used during World War II. That’s the first cordless telecommunications device known to man!