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May 16, 2022

The World’s First Effective Bulletproof Vest, 1901

Jan Szczepanik (June 13, 1872 – April 18, 1926) was a Polish inventor, with several hundred patents and over 50 discoveries to his name, many of which are still applied today, especially in the motion picture industry, as well as in photography and television. Some of his concepts helped the future evolution of TV broadcasting, such as the telectroscope or the wireless telegraph, which greatly affected the development of telecommunications.

Probably the most popular among Szczepanik’s works was the world’s first effective bulletproof vest, made of steel sheets, in 1901. The resistance of the material was confirmed by the military, after revolver shots and blows with slash weapons. The vest was bought, among others, by Nicholas II and the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII, whose life was saved during the attack in 1905, thanks to Szczepanik’s invention. The Tsar of Russia wanted to honor Szczepanik with the order of Saint Anna, but Szczepanik, most probably for patriotic reasons, refused to accept it.

Test of a 1901 vest designed by Jan Szczepanik, in which a 7 mm revolver is fired at a person wearing the vest.

Interestingly, the first inventor who worked on a bullet-proof vest and patented it was also a Pole – Kazimierz Żegleń. He was a monk born in Galicia, living in Chicago. In 1898, he started cooperation with Szczepanik. The “Żegleń’s fabric” became effective only after the improvements introduced by Szczepanik with the use of weaving machines.

Jan Szczepanik and Kazimierz Żegleń during the test of the first bulletproof vest. The authors of the project were so sure of their invention that during the show in 1901, Szczepanik shot his servant from just three steps away.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Szczepanik moved to the capital of Austria-Hungary, where he made some significant inventions. Among the visitors to his Viennese studio were the pianist and future prime minister Ignacy Paderewski, the writer Gabriela Zapolska and the poet Kazimierz Przerwa-Tetmajer. Despite the great interest in Szczepanik’s works, the sale of some of his inventions was quite slow, because entrepreneurs were afraid to base their investments on risky ideas.

In 1906, financial problems prompted Szczepanik to return to Tarnów, a town with which he maintained a lifelong attachment. During this period, he invented, among other things, the color photo projector and color printing paper, which were then used for many years by Kodak and Agfa. Despite the popularity of his works, this self-taught artist did not always care to reap the financial benefits resulting from his achievements.

Bulletproof vest by Jan Szczepanik, 1901.

Bulletproof vest by Jan Szczepanik, 1901.

Szczepanik was undoubtedly ahead of his time. He had thousands of ideas, most of which, unfortunately, were never implemented and produced. This most versatile Polish inventor worked on, among others, a submarine, a helicopter with a double rotor system, an airship (before Ferdinand von Zeppelin), a sculpture copying device, alarm solutions, a solar energy storage system and an electric rifle. How famous would he have been if start-ups had been invented a hundred years ago?


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