Stefan Drzewiecki (1844–1938) – on land, under water and in the air
The first man to fly a heavier-than-air machine was Otto Lilienthal, but the first one to consider such flight possible was Stefan Drzewiecki. He was the one to develop a gliding flight theory, proving that it was possible to fly without flapping wings, merely by giving them a proper shape.
Stefan Drzewiecki, a pioneer of undersea navigation and aviation and a brilliant constructor, was born in a technologically backward region, where technical progress was much slower than in other parts of the country. The Kunka village in Podolia belonged to Poland’s most remote eastern borderlands. It was inhabited mostly by simple peasants who worked on their farms, just like their ancestors had done for several centuries. Drzewiecki, however, was born to a noble family. It was not an average noble family. For centuries, the Drzewiecki family devoted their lives to cherishing patriotic traditions. His grandfather Józef served under Kościuszko’s command, his father Karol fought in the November Uprising. Little wonder that the 19-year-old Stefan joined the January Uprising to defend the Polish cause.
Before he rose to fame as an eminent inventor, he travelled across Europe, fought in many wars and earned himself the highest decorations. But military service was not his calling. He was passionate about engineering. The second half of the 19th century gave birth to a great deal of inventions across the world. Drzewiecki kept a close eye on the advancements and, attracted by the positivist spirit of technological progress, decided to make use of his thorough technical education.
He first invented a compass for drawing conic sections, then a recorder of train speed, which was a prototype of a black box, or a tachometer. His automatic coupler was another remarkable invention used in railway. Today, there are several methods of coupling cars automatically, but it’s worth knowing that a Pole was a pioneer in this area. While Drzewiecki was interested in trains, he felt a genuine passion for ships. Grand Duke Constantine was so fascinated by Drzewiecki’s dromograph, a device which automatically draws a ship's route onto a chart, that he immediately offered him a well-paid job in the navy. While in the navy, Drzewiecki came up with an idea of building a submarine.
It is true that Drzewiecki did not invent underwater vessels. However, all earlier underwater inventions had a shape of a sphere. The Polish inventor was the first to apply a spindle shape and to equip his designs with a periscope and torpedoes. Drzewiecki put his design on display in 1877 in Odessa. A 5 metre-long boat dived under a giant ship. He “pedaled” the boat himself as he was the only with the skills and courage to navigate it. Soon single-person vessels would be substituted by four-man models. Drzewiecki supervised the construction of fifty such boats. This was the first serial production of submarines in the world.
Let us remember, however, that Drzewiecki did not only build submarines. The first man to fly a heavier-than-air machine was Otto Lilienthal, but the first one to consider such flight possible was Stefan Drzewiecki! He invented the term “angle of attack” and defined its basic parameters. He was the one to develop a gliding flight theory, proving that it was possible to fly without flapping wings, merely by giving them a proper shape. He put it down almost a decade before Lilienthal’s feat. The Wright brothers openly said that they based their experiments on Drzewiecki’s dissertation “Theory of calculating airscrew,” which was printed in 1892. Likewise, the builders of helicopters used an airscrew with a changeable angle of attack, which was designed by Drzewiecki in 1917.
Drzewiecki devoted most of his time to putting his ideas into practice and wrote down his insights only occasionally.
In 1913 a “Drzewiecki” airplane was created, an unusual structure with a tail airscrew. Such solution was widely used in paramotors sixty years later.
The tsarist army was satisfied with Drzewiecki’s constructions and did not want to improve anything. The Polish engineer believed, however, that designs needed to be constantly modernized. Disillusioned, he moved to France. While in France, in 1897 he built large, 12-man electric-powered vessels, equipped with torpedo launchers. Several years later, the Russian navy was the first to start using these launching tubes.
Stefan Drzewiecki developed a method to calculate optimal shape and measures of a screw propeller. His method has been used worldwide ever since.
Even though Stefan Drzewiecki died in Paris, he wished to give all his works and library to the Polish State. With a local insurance company aghast, this great Pole lived long, reaching the age of 94. He made designs until the end of his life.