Piotr Steinkeller (1799–1854)

Steinkeller was a businessman and industrialist in many fields. Like his contemporary in Silesia, Karl Godulla, he was known as ‘king of zinc’ for his interests in zinc production in the region. He laid the foundations for later industrialisation in several parts of what is now Poland.

His family traded in spices at Kraków. After his father died when he was 13 he studied commerce and banking in Vienna then at the age of 18 returned to Kraków to manage the family business. He sought new industrial opportunities and in 1823 he opened a coal mine and a factory for smelting zinc ore at Jaworzno, between Kraków and Katowice.

In 1825 he sold some earlier business and moved to Warsaw in Russian Poland. This became the centre of his empire as he invested his capital in several different sectors and locations – a steelworks and coal mines near Katowice, a department store, a salt-importing business and a mill in Warsaw, lead mines at Olkusz, an agricultural machinery works and foundry near Częstochowa and a brickworks in eastern Poland. He expanded his zinc production by leasing supplies of ore in several regions and set up a zinc works in London. With Konstanty Wolicki he developed a transport business on the river Vistula, operating 51 sailing vessels and in 1828 purchasing the first steamboat in Poland. Among his most profitable enterprises was a courier service around Poland. He travelled to England, France and the German states to study industrial organisation and innovation. He was a joint promoter of the Warsaw to Vienna railway project begun in 1835. He also had interests in a cotton spinning factory, a sugar factory and a distillery.

With his great wealth he bought and modernised huge country estates around Częstochowa, notably at Zarki. However, a crisis hit his businesses in the 1840s when some of his enterprises suffered technical problems and his debts to the Bank Polski were called in after the disgrace and conviction of the banker Henryk Łubieński. In 1853 the government seized all his property in the kingdom of Poland as security for his debts. He lost everything except his smaller remaining businesses in Kraków. He died there the next year.