In 1916, Polish scientist Jan Czochralski devised something fundamental to today’s electronic devices. Even though this discovery secured him a place among the scientific greats, for decades his name was shrouded in obscurity in his homeland. He was even accused of collaborating with Poland’s wartime enemies, despite working for the resistance. Culture.pl investigates the twists and turns in the remarkable life of a true renaissance man.
The brains of a computer
When you enter the phrase ‘the Czochralski method’ into a search engine, you find that it appears in countless scientific publications from across the world, many of them very recent. The Czochralski method is actually so widespread that its creator, Jan Czochralski, is sometimes called ‘the most quoted Polish scientist’. What is it that draws so much attention and causes its creator to be often mentioned among the cream of Polish science, together with such figures as Mikołaj Kopernik and Maria Curie-Skłodowska? Well, nothing really, apart from the fact that without it, our global information society wouldn’t exist.
The Czochralski method is used to manufacture monocrystals including silicone ones, which are fundamental in the production of microchips – the brains of computers. If not for the method, computers, cell phones and other modern electronic devices simply wouldn’t be there. Quite strikingly, despite the significance of Czochralski’s discovery, its story was shrouded in obscurity for decades in his homeland – the communist regime had condemned the scientist to being forgotten. Read on to find out what led to this perplexing state of things and to discover Czochralski’s life story, scientific achievements and his deep admiration for culture.
No more windows
And on a hill a town so tiny
With miniature streets
All cramped, crooked and winding,
Houses pompous and discreet
That’s how Jan Czochralski described his hometown of Kcynia in the poem Zamki z Chmur (editor’s translation: Castles Made of Clouds) which he wrote as a grown man. He was born there in 1885, into a reputable carpenter’s family as the eighth of ten siblings. It appears that the young Jan only managed to complete primary school. Rather than pursuing a formal education, he was more interested in conducting chemical experiments in the basement of his Kcynia family home. They resulted in the windows of his father’s house’s being blown out.
Jan’s old man eventually got tired of his son’s bothersome activity and told him to stop or leave the house. That’s when Jan, aged 16, decided to go on his own and moved to the town of Krotoszyn, where he got a job at a pharmacy. By 1904, he had moved to Berlin, where after working at another pharmacy (one where he was allowed to conduct his experiments in the back) he was eventually hired by AEG, the big electro-technical company that’s still around today . It’s worth reminding here that at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries Poland was still partitioned between Prussia (Germany), Austria and Russia, and both Kcynia and Krotoszyn were under the German partition. Under the circumstances, Czochralski’s move to Berlin seems a natural choice for someone in that region looking to make a career for himself. At AEG, Czochralski was tasked with analysing the quality and purity of metals and alloys, something his teenage experiments had prepared him for quite well. In his spare time, the Pole frequented chemistry lectures at the University of Technology in Charlottenburg as well as art lectures at Berlin University. The latter led him to meeting the pianist Marguerite Haase whom he married in 1910 and later had three children with. Three years later, together with his superior Wichard von Moellendorff, he published his first paper on the crystallography of metals (the determining of the forms and structures of metal crystals). It was the first of many, along with patents. He was especially active in the field of introducing aluminium to electrotechnology.
His hard work paid off and he was made head of AEG’s Metallurgy Laboratory. In 1917, however, he decided to leave and open a metallurgy lab of his own in Frankfurt. Created under the auspices of another company, it was one of the biggest industrial labs in Germany at the time. But before Czochralski left for Frankfurt, he made a mistake – one that proved an important one.
The accident that began it all
According to anecdote, one evening while researching crystallisation he placed a container with melted tin next to his notebook. As he was putting down some notes he accidentally stuck the tip of his pen into the tin instead of the inkpot standing next to it. Quickly he removed the nib from the melted metal, only to notice that from it hung a thread of solidified tin. Somebody else might’ve discarded the thread for its peskiness – it intervened with the writing – but not Czochralski. He kept it for analysis and determined that it was a crystal, and a single one at that, otherwise known as a monocrystal.
So it seems that by sheer luck, Czochralski had discovered a rough way of obtaining crystals. He went on to refine it. The pen’s nib, whose slit’s narrowness began the crystallisation process, was swapped for a fine tube that was put in motion. It enabled him to measure the crystallisation speed of various metals – he checked how fast he could pull out a thread without breaking it. In 1916, Czochralski wrote a paper on his method titled Nowa Metoda Pomiaru Szybkości Krystalizacji Metali (A New Method of Measuring the Speed of Metal Crystallisation) that was published two years later in the German scientific magazine Zeitschrift fur Physikalische Chemie. In the years following, the method was often discussed, but understandably, chiefly within its primary context.
The crystal boom
Toward the end of the 1940s, strong interest grew in using the method to actually obtain monocrystals, instead of just measuring how fast they grow. This was linked to the invention of the transistor, a device that usually relies on the superb semi-conductive qualities of single crystals. They were now in demand. They allowed for higher power, more efficiency, and were more long-lasting.
Czochralski himself only thought about measuring the speed, the production of the crystal itself being a side benefit. But today, after having been adapted for mass-production, his method is the world’s foremost way of growing monocrystals.
Here’s how Paweł Tomaszewski, a scientist at the Institute of Low Temperature and Structure Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, describes the significance of the Czochralski method to the so-called Digital Revolution, in the afterword of the 2012 book Maja, Powieść Miłosna (Maja: A Love Story) containing Czochralski’s poems:
It’s widely believed that without the Czochralski method the omnipresent semiconductor electronics of our times wouldn’t exist and our lives would be much different from what they are. This method is used to obtain silicone crystals (...) for the microchips that are at the heart of all modern electrotechnology: computers, cell phones, digital cameras, chipped ATM cards and many other things of everyday use of which we don’t even know that they contain a piece of silicone grown using the Czochralski method.
Rubbing shoulders with Ford & Hindenburg
Of course, Chochralski himself didn’t know that the method he devised would one day become so significant. As far as he was concerned, it was just one of the things he’d worked on, not necessarily a lifetime achievement. What made him a recognised scientist during his lifetime was Metal B. This tinless composition (Germany was embargoed from importing tin at the time) enabled the construction of trains that could ride way faster than before. It took many years to devise the alloy, finally patented in 1924, but the wait proved worthwhile. Numerous countries including the USA, France and England purchased the rights from Czochralski to use it.
Metal B made Czochralski a rich and famous man. He could afford a chauffeur and holidays in Switzerland. His reputation as an expert on metals prompted Henry Ford to make him a job offer, one the Pole respectfully declined after visiting the famous car producer’s American factories. Things were really going well: in 1925, Czochralski became head of the German Materials Society, an organisation grouping metal specialists. Two years later he was rubbing shoulders with Germany’s president Paul von Hindenburg at the World’s Material Fair in Berlin. Yet despite all this success, in 1928 he decided to leave his career behind and moved from Germany back to Poland, which had regained its independence ten years earlier.
Devotion to Poland amidst secrets
I came here to work for the benefit of Poland, to devote the rest of my life, strength and talents to this country. I wasn’t expecting any profits.
That’s what Czochralski once said about his return to his homeland. Officially, it was the Polish president Ignacy Mościcki, a renowned chemist and inventor himself, who convinced him to come back by talking to him as one scientist to another. Unofficially though, Czochralski had to leave Germany because he was about to be revealed as a Polish intelligence asset (as suggested by noted journalist Stefan Bratkowski).
What seems to back the latter reason is the fact that shortly after his return to Poland, Czochralski received substantial funding from the Polish military to establish the Institute of Metallurgy and Metal Science. Opened in 1934, the institute was nominally a unit of the Warsaw University of Technology, but de facto it answered only to the Ministry of Military Affairs. Before it was created, in 1929, Czochralski became head of the Faculty of Metallurgy and Metal Science – it had been created especially for him at the same university. To tackle the controversy of giving such an important university position to a man without any formal degree, Czochralski, in recognition of his scientific achievements, was granted a honorary doctorate, one of the first ever issued by the Warsaw University of Technology. There, Czochralski continued his research into alloys and metal crystallisation, but he also worked to develop the Polish armed forces (the exact nature of this work is still unknown as it was classified).
Your eyes are tearful
In Poland, Chochralski made the most of the money from his patents. He purchased a palatial villa in a posh Warsaw neighbourhood and built an impressive mansion with two swimming pools in his hometown of Kcynia, where he would spend his summers. The lavish Warsaw residence was filled with paintings and sculptures which the Czochralskis collected, but the Pole’s interest in culture extended far beyond simply owning works of art. As Tomaszewski describes in the aformentioned Maja, a Love Story:
Professor Czochralski understood the great role culture plays in the life of a nation and individual – that’s why he patronised the arts. Among other things, he co-created Warsaw’s Museum of Technology, supposedly helped restore Chopin’s manor and financed the archaeological excavations in Biskupin. He was known for his artistic interests and mingled with artists and writers. His literary attempts were reviewed by, amongst others, Juliusz Kaden-Bandrowski and Ludwik Solski. (…) The salons of his house were a known meeting point for Warsaw’s artistic circles.
The numerous literary works Czochrlaski authored, including dramas and poems, were intended for his friends and family, not public consumption. That’s possibly why he wrote them under the pseudonym ‘Jan Pałucki’ derived from Pałuki, the name of the region where Kcynia lies. Many of these writings seem to have been lost, but a volume of his poems (published as Maja, Powieść Miłosna) has made it through to our times. It includes the aforementioned Zamki z Chmur as well as Twoje Oczy Są Łzawe… (Your Eyes Are Tearful…). Here’s a fragment of the latter:
Your eyes are tearful, quizzical,
Like a crystal, on whose bed
A sea of mysteries has dreamt
Accusations of Nazi collaboration
Chochralski’s success might’ve been the reason why his less-recognised colleague from the University of Technology, Professor Witold Broniewski, slandered him in the press. Broniewski believed that Metal B is actually deficient and that Czochralski himself is ‘spiritually more of a German than a Pole’. The whole thing turned into a four-year lawsuit which finally ended in 1938 with the court clearing Czochralski of Broniewski’s allegations. Still, some of their university colleagues kept Broniewski’s side.
This episode was going to overlap with Czochralski’s complicated wartime fate. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939 and shut down all of Warsaw’s higher education institutions, Czochralski used his German connections to somehow get by in the new, uneasy realities. He managed to convince the occupying authorities to allow him to re-open his institute under the name The Material Sciences Workshop, paving the way for a similar reviving of other university units. These places gave their workers employment and refuge from Nazi hostility (even preventing them from being deported to Germany). This is how Professor Gierdziejewski, whose unit neighboured Czhochralski’s workshop, remembered the latter’s functioning:
Czochralski ran a very large operation in two directions – he manoeuvred to get as much as possible for the workshop from the Germans under the pretext of doing repair work for the army, on the other hand he had encountered the underground and began supplying it with arms needed by the resistance.
Indeed, the workshop was involved with the Wehrmacht’s maintenance facilities but it also produced grenades and pistol parts for the underground. Many of its employees were soldiers of the resistance. A few years ago, documents confirming beyond any doubt Czochralski’s involvement with the resistance were unearthed in state archives. Nevertheless, at the time, those not privy to his secret support of the underground, may have perceived Czochralski as someone who was getting along with the Germans maybe a little too well. Especially given that he was allowed to stay at his palatial villa in what had been turned into a German district of the city. Moreover, at the residence there would be parties attended by German military men.
News of this must’ve been shocking to those who didn’t know the full story. Namely, Czochralski’s wife was German, making it easier for him to interact with the Nazis. And he used his contacts with Germans to help other Poles out as much as he could, such as by orchestrating numerous releases from Nazi German death camps. Czochralski also continued the tradition of inviting artists to his home, treating their visits as an occasion to support war-impoverished creators. Among those who benefited from this generosity were such noted figures as the writer Leopold Staff or the sculptor Alfons Karny. Additionally, he tried to help maintain the collection of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art by safe-keeping some of its paintings at his home, as otherwise they would’ve been destroyed or stolen by the Nazis.
Between a rock & a hard place
Toward the end of World War II, the Soviets installed a communist regime in Poland, which considered those involved with the underground a threat. Their reasoning was that people who had struggled against World War II oppression could also be inclined to work against this new foreign-imposed system. So when Czochralski got arrested in April 1945 on the charge of collaborating with the German occupying authorities to harm Poland (probably after being denounced), he couldn’t simply testify that he had actually been involved with the resistance because that would’ve just endangered him and his colleagues from the underground. Czochralski was, as you say, stuck between a rock and a hard place. Fortunately, after an investigation including testimonies from numerous witnesses, the charges were dropped. In August, Czochralski was released from jail – he had evaded the death penalty.
Sadly though, he wasn’t allowed to return to work at the Warsaw University of Technology. In December 1945, ignoring the outcome of the recent investigation, the school’s senate excluded him from the academic staff arguing that he had too many ties to the Germans during the war. Some believe this decision constituted a continuation of the envy-driven accusations that had been formed against Czochralski back in the 1930s.
A conspiracy of silence
Condemned to infamy by the university senate, Czochralski decided to sell his Warsaw villa and moved permanently to the mansion in his hometown of Kcynia. Making use of the experience of his pharmacy days, Czochralski opened a family business manufacturing various medicines and household chemicals. His ‘Powder For A Runny Nose With a Dove’ and other products were in turn so popular that he could again afford an affluent lifestyle.
His wealth might have been one of the reasons why despite his minding his own business, he was persistently hassled by the communist secret services. Agents would often come to search his house and interrogate him. During one such visit in April 1953, Czochralski suffered a heart attack that proved fatal. He passed away before being able to witness how his method of growing monocrystals had changed the face of the world.
In the upcoming decades his name was to be shrouded in obscurity in Poland as even mentioning it in scientific publications was disallowed. This resulted in a perplexing situation where abroad Czochralski was becoming a more and more recognised scientist due to the advancement of the Digital Revolution, while people in Poland, including well-educated individuals and specialists in the field of materials science, knew nothing about him. This conspiracy of silence lasted basically until Poland freed itself of the communist regime in 1989. But even after that occurred, due to opposition from the academic community, it took many years to bring the full story of Czochralski’s life to light and eventually rehabilitate his reputation.
In 2011 the Warsaw University of Technology’s senate passed a resolution declaring Czochralski a highly ethical man and a great Polish scientist. A year later, in December, Poland’s parliament passed a resolution declaring Jan Czochralski the patron of the year 2013. In the already mentioned book Jan Czochralski prekursor współczesnej elektroniki you can find the following passage summing up how this man ought to be remembered:
Professor Jan Czochralski’s entire life and stance served Poland and the academic community very well, he’s noted as a patriot and a Pole who deserves the utmost regard and respect.
Author: Marek Kępa, August 2017