Institute of Fundamental Technological Research
Polish Academy of Sciences

History

Our beginnings

Ignacy Malecki
Speech delivered
at the Jubilee Session of IPPT PAN Scientific Council
(07.11.2002, at Staszic Palace)

medal 1
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Fifty years which have passed since the establishment of the Institute are not only an epoch in the development of science and research, but also in the social and economic conditions of scientific work.

Extensive, fundamental changes have also taken place in the sole community of scientists: in human relations, evaluation criteria of research results, modelling of scientific authority, and last but not least, ethics. Those were worldwide changes which, in post-war Poland, co-occurred not only with political subjugation and the growing demand of rebuilding the war-ravaged country, but also with the demand of educating and shaping new, young scientific staff.

Bare numbers of staff, or enumeration of the existing departments, barely tell the story of the Institute, however important they may be for creating a historical background of its development. Oftentimes, numerical data is completely incomparable to the actual state of affairs, e.g. the annual number of publications of our scientific staff used to be limited due to the then-existing, archaic issuing techniques and scarce possibilities of retrieving and selecting data from the global resources of scientific information.

That is why I will limit myself to a general overview of:

  1. The internal process of establishing the Institute as one of the biggest institutes of the Polish Academy of Sciences with a unique scope of interest.
  2. The placement of the Institute and its mission, represented by the management, carried out according to the organization and planning of the PRL (People’s Republic of Poland) structure of research centers.

As early as during the 1st Polish Science Congress (July, 1951) did the idea emerge of establishing a technical science institute of PAS, based on the already existing units operating since 1950. Therefore, the Institute was crystalizing gradually, tightening up the cooperation up until the formal merger of scientific units (usually of the status of departments, but differing significantly in terms of the number of employees, the scope of work, and, what was more important, the stability and consequent implementation of the planned research).

Most important and decision-making to the future shape of the Institute were the following four departments:

  1. Department of Continuum Mechanics (Head: Prof. Wacław Olszak),
  2. Department of Electronic Engineering (Head: Prof. Janusz Groszkowski),
  3. Department of Vibration Research (Head: Prof. Ignacy Malecki),
  4. Department of Metals (Head: Prof. Aleksander Krupkowski).

In 1951-1952, the cooperation and merger of the first three departments went somewhat naturally, based on a partial overlapping of subject matters, especially in terms of fundamental research. Academy management hoped for a closer cooperation of research to form grounds for a future institute. For this purpose, in 1952, the Academy Scientific Secretary established a joint Scientific Council for the departments.

Due to its sole location in Cracow, the Department of Metals was a bit isolated, yet served a crucial role in the complex development of the Institute, providing other Institute departments with the cooperation of the then most dynamically developing branch of industry – metallurgy – and the associated machine industry.

The formally equal position was held by the Department of Theory of Electrical Engineering (Head: Prof. Paweł Szulkin), however, in practice, due to the significantly smaller number of employees compared to the above-mentioned departments, and the divergence in the field of research, this department played a much lesser role in the general development of the Institute structure and future research plans. Out of obligation of historical accuracy, it needs to be noted that initially, IPPT had one more department – Laboratory of Astronautics (Head: Prof. Kazimierz Zarankiewicz). However, it was a smaller unit, rather artificially incorporated into the Institute structures, which only operated for a short period of time.

The major part in creating and developing the Institute was played by Prof. Witold Nowacki, Secretary of the Division of Technical Sciences of PAS. Admittedly, he was not a full-time employee of the Institute, but contributed to creating a scientifically and numerically strong team of mechanics, whose research mostly concentrated on the theory of elasticity. The team played a key role as part of the Department of Continuum Mechanics.

However, ultimately, Professor Nowacki's most significant contribution to the Institute history was his role as the Institute Creator. It was thanks to Prof. Nowacki’s great scientific authority and his high-rank position in the hierarchy of the first term of office of PAS authorities that had a determining factor in the Institute relatively quick establishment by the PAS Scientific Secretary (2 December 1952, which was subsequently formalized and implemented by the decision of the PRL Government on 20 October 1953).

All the more, it has to be noted that, in retrospect, the most determining contributor to the effectiveness of IPPT management was the friendship of its members: Prof. Nowacki, Prof. Szulkin and I were exactly the same age, Prof. Olszak a little bit older, but he also belonged to our generation. I would also like to express here my deep sense of gratitude to the pre-war professors, Groszkowski and Krupkowski, who treated us as their friends and colleagues and with whom we were on first name terms.

Describing the initial structure of the Institute, one cannot omit to mention the role of its Scientific Council. Prof. Witold Wierzbicki, chairman of the Council and a dignified professor, treated us with proper distance and never got directly involved in our work, although he was an expert in a field covered by IPPT.

Paradoxically, his attitude was then most useful for the Institute in targeting future research. The Scientific Council barely dealt with the most urgent of Institute matters, it was rather the directors’ concern. Instead, the substantive discussions at the Council meetings prompted our staff to take up new subjects of research.

Those conditions, to some extent, facilitated the dynamic activities of PAS Division IV Secretariat. The board of the newly-established Academy cared much about proving themselves to the new political authorities and also, or perhaps most of all, wanted to prove themselves to the community of Polish scientists, showing their spectacular achievements. The fact that, directly after its establishment, the Academy took over the aforementioned departments (with a relatively big research potential and tendency to voluntary integration) created the only opportunity to establish such a big institute at that time. The unique position held by the Institute stemmed from the legal circumstances of its establishment. The Institute was one of the very few "true children of PAS", with undeniable origin.

The majority of Institute departments were established around 1950, mostly as semi-autonomous university institutions, such as the Department of Vibration Research, which used to be part of the Central Institute of Technical Physics (of a charming acronym – GIFT – Główny Instytut Fizyki Technicznej), financed directly from the Ministry of Higher Education budget.

The legal and proprietary entitlement to take over the departments, together with their laboratories, and partially with their facilities, did not spark any controversies nor cause objections among the Polish scientific community. Meanwhile, some of the PAS institutes were established and equipped in a way sparking controversy and causing objections as to their legal consistency. There usually were two procedures of the takeover process:

  • PAS takeover of institutions belonging to PAU - Polish Academy of Skills, or TNW – Warsaw Scientific Society, existing as far back as the pre-war period, and others, such as, for instance, Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, founded in 1919.
  • The arbitrary way of creating new Academy institutes (often under external initiative), mostly humanities, which were often imparted by ideological propaganda. New equipment was either supplied by the Academy solely (which had limited resources), or by acts of deed transfer.

It would be to the Institute disadvantage, however, to justify the IPPT success with organizational matters only. Much more crucial to the Institute development, and motivating and profitable for the staff, were the choice of subjects and substantial research methods.

The wide range of academic disciplines was of fundamental importance. Those included particular subjects researched by the Institute staff. Comparing the Academy scientific reports of that time one cannot help but notice that the IPPT was one of the most interdisciplinary institutes of PAS. Its strong position was evidenced by the prominent place (in these reports) of the notes on the Institute achievements. This liking of PAS authorities towards interdisciplinary character of the Institute research had more general bases, which were particularly important for the future development of international cooperation.

The beginnings of the Institute operations saw turbulent development in new scientific disciplines around the world. A revolutionary progress was also experienced in the Institute fields of research. Free from any political divisions, the process sparked a global-scale debate- on the future of optimal organization structure of research institutions.

From our perspective, the most crucial, and quite common internationally, was a general distinction best illustrated by the following three groups:

  1. Universities, classified according to scientific disciplines,
  2. Research laboratories, subordinate to various public or private institutions, task-oriented, carrying out assigned research,
  3. Institutes, problem-oriented, taking up complex, interdisciplinary research programs, reaching beyond the scope of activities and interests of a single university department.

Such division started emerging as early as in the pre-war period and gained a more definitive shape after the Second World War. The importance of industrial design centers and research laboratories was growing, new institutes were being established (e.g. CERN). But what was more important for PAS, there was a rapid growth of centers bringing together more specialized institutions, such as CNRS in France or Max Planck Institute in German Federal Republic (GFR).

The above-mentioned system corresponded to the structure of science in the Soviet bloc countries. In terms of natural and technical sciences, these countries’ Academies of Sciences were usually focused on carrying out interdisciplinary research. Our Institute was fully compatible with such structure, which served as strong argument to support its functioning. The similarity of structural assumptions facilitated the formalization of cooperation with the Institute counterparts in other Academies of Sciences. There is a curiosity worth noting here that the President of the Cuban Academy of Sciences entrusted Prof. J. Wehr with the organization of the Institute of Fundamental Technological Research in Havana, modeled closely on IPPT.

From the perspective of years, it is necessary to know that the described organizational matters accompanying the establishment of the Institute (and its relatively friendly environment in which the whole process took place), could only be successful on one condition – that the departments and, most importantly, their staff represented a considerable scientific potential, which they did. Also, they were internationally recognized teams of scientists with achievements of a significant contribution to the creation of Polish industry and civil engineering, and who also had well-established contacts with scholars living on the both sides of the Iron Curtain.

50th anniversary medal 1
50th anniversary medal 2

The development of laboratory research, together with experimental verification of theoretical investigations, was imperative in many disciplines. Therefore, the expansion of laboratories was crucial from the beginnings of the Institute existence. Performing such a task required a completely different approach from our contemporary procedures and planning, as there were hardly any possibilities of importing foreign equipment and almost non-existent local mass production of the simplest of laboratory equipment parts. Such situation imposed the absolute necessity of home-made production of even the most common parts of measuring equipment and severely limited the scope of experimental research. In consequence, the Institute employed „handymen” technicians who were irreplaceable and had a significant share in the development of departments, making a truly creative contribution in the most ambitious of scientists’ projects. Also, I cannot forget to mention the huge contribution of administrative staff to organizing the Institute foundations. Together with library employees and technical support, they harmoniously worked side by side with scientists in the difficult conditions of everyday life of those times.

Finally, there is a good reason why I mentioned this, rather short and general, personal recollection of the great team of people we used to work with on every day basis. I know that since then, the scientific work has undergone a complete change and generational changes of the most dynamic and creative of the youngest scientific staff have already taken place a few times. Yet still, I think that not only should we continue the half-century-long tradition of our Institute with innovative approach to scientific matters, but most importantly, with bearing in mind many aspects of everyday teamwork.

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