Michael Pupin: From Immigrant to Inventor

I love a success story built on hunger, determination, and hard work. There are few immigrant stories more evocative than that of a young Serbian sheepherder who arrived in New York in March of 1874. To afford a steerage ticket aboard the ship Westphalia sailing from Hamburg, young Mihajlo Idvorsky Pupin had to sell “my books, my watch, my clothes, including the yellow sheepskin coat and the black sheepskin cap.” He arrived alone at Castle Garden, New York, with the clothes on his back, a red fez cap, a few changes of underwear, and five cents in his pocket. There was no money left to purchase a blanket and mattress for his steerage bunk, and, based on  images he had seen of half-naked Indians in New York State, he counted on being warm enough there even without his prized sheepskin coat. He almost froze to death crossing the Atlantic; hugging a warm smokestack on Westphalia’s deck during cold sleepless nights on the ocean was all that saved him.

Michael  Idvorsky Pupin    IMG_1464

His autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, was published by Scribners in 1924 and won the Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, the book has had multiple editions and many printings. My first copy of the book was the 1930 ninth printing of the second (popular) edition. A number of years ago, I purchased the 1924 third reprint of the first edition – a nicer copy, one signed by the author at Princeton (most certainly at the University) in Jan.,1926.

Pupin Signature         IMG_1448

That Princeton signature in my copy of the book evokes vivid images in my mind for the reasons which I now relate. In 1914, forty years after arriving penniless in America, Pupin was invited to Princeton to deliver a talk on the subject of the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia – an important topic bearing on the outbreak of World War One. While there, Pupin pointed out to his host at Princeton the campus elm tree in front of venerable Nassau Hall under which, almost forty years prior, a wandering, road-weary immigrant paused for a sun-dappled nap after spending his last coins on a small loaf of bread. He recalled in his autobiography: “After finishing the loaf, I basked in the warm rays of the mellow April sun, and fell asleep and dreamed that in the building where the students went there was a large assembly of people who had gathered there for the purpose of conferring some academic honor upon me.”


Nassau Hall (1756) – Princeton University

The dream was eerily prescient; by 1914, Pupin was on the faculty of Columbia University in New York, having graduated from there on an academic/athletic scholarship with honors in 1883, nine years after arriving in America. He subsequently earned a PhD  in physics at the University of Berlin, studying under Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the finest minds of nineteenth-century physics. Pupin returned to Columbia University in 1899, lecturing in mathematical physics. He was instrumental in forming Columbia’s new department of electrical engineering – a portent of things to come in applied science.

In addition to joining the faculty at Columbia University in 1899, Pupin won fame and fortune at the turn of the century by incorporating into telegraph transmission lines what were then called “Pupin coils.” Long transmission lines suffer signal loss and distortion, and Pupin’s implementation of a new idea, originally proposed by Oliver Heaviside, minimized the deleterious effects thus making long-distance lines feasible. This was mother’s milk for the infant technology of telecommunications. The purchase of Pupin’s patent by AT&T insured his fame…and, indeed, his fortune.

Michael Pupin was a scientific man of extraordinary character, vision, and energy – a romantic poet, too. I read From Immigrant to Inventor  a number of years ago, and now, as I thumb through the book to refresh my memory for this post, I see I shall need to read it again. Many pearls of wisdom and insight greet my eyes as I scan the book. His thoughts and observations resonate so completely with me. For example, he also maintains that a major catalyst behind any serious study of science and mathematics is humanity’s desire to grasp the eternal “truths” inherent in nature – those natural laws which apply everywhere and always. Their true essence never changes – never becomes “obsolete;” only our incomplete, most recent interpretations of natural law change while being honed to an ever- sharper edge as we cut our way closer and closer to the bone of nature’s ultimate secrets. To know and understand nature’s laws is to grasp a subset of the greater body of eternal “Truth” which so motivates religious endeavors.

Pupin rubbed elbows with Presidents Harding and Wilson and accumulated many significant honors during his lifetime. But his story is not defined by the “end game.” His real story is the road traveled, his elevation from penniless immigrant to a man who led such a productive life while influencing so much in twentieth-century America.

One of his star pupils at Columbia in the electrical engineering department was radio’s greatest engineer/inventor, Edwin Howard Armstrong. In 1912, as a senior at Columbia, Armstrong made one of the most important discoveries in radio’s long history – the usefulness of signal “regeneration” in radio receivers and in radio transmitters. He undoubtedly was guided somewhat by Pupin’s recent revelations regarding electric “tuning circuits.” The account of Armstrong’s discovery of regeneration – written in his own hand – mentions explaining his new, vastly improved radio receiver to Professor Pupin. For me, this document is a dramatic linkage between two of the most influential people in the history of radio and communications… with Columbia University as the stage-setting.

Armstrong_Regen_6Near the bottom of the page:

“18. Sept. 1913. Explained operation of receiver to Prof. Pupin.
19. Oct. 1913. Demonstrated reception of signals from arc station at San Francisco to
Prof. Morecroft.”

I wonder if that elm tree is still there, in front of Princeton’s Nassau Hall!

Postscript: For more on Edwin Howard Armstrong and the history of radio, see the blog archives for my post of Nov. 24, 2013, Radio! The “World In a Box”; How It Came to Be  (click on link). 

2 thoughts on “Michael Pupin: From Immigrant to Inventor

  1. Great piece, Alan. The immigrant story is such an important aspect of the US and its self-image. And still today, the US is a land where opportunities exist and goals can be realized. Just this morning at breakfast, Elizabeth and I were talking to our server who has just enrolled in an ESL course at Santa Barbara City College. He came from Mexico in 1989, worked two jobs and sent money back home to help support his parents and ten siblings. Now 43, married, with children of his own and still working two jobs, he has realized the importance of improving his English skills in order to gain access to better pay and shorter hours. He is so thrilled to be going to college — even took his student id card out of his wallet to show us!
    It’s heart-warming to know that this is still a place where hard work and perseverance can pay off and that our education system can contribute to the realization of the American Dream.

    • I agree, Rick. People who come to America, work hard, and succeed like so many of our ancestors did, have earned special recognition. I recommend that all young people in this country be taught about the immigrant experience so they can appreciate the “hunger to better oneself” and the “fear of failure” which drove them to succeed in their new land. Too much is taken for granted, today. Thanks for the great comment.

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