Biography of Michael Idvorsky Pupin


Michael Idvorsky Pupin was American physicist who devised a means of greatly extending the range of long-distance telephone communication by placing loading coils of wire at predetermined intervals along the transmitting wire. He invented the tuned oscillating circuit, which made possible the simultaneous transmission of several messages.

Pupin’s house in Idvory

Michael (Mihailo) Idvarsky Pupin was born in Idvor, little Serbian village, in province of Banat near Belgrade, on October 9, 1854. He watched at night with other village boys to keep the oxes from straying beyond their pasture into the fields of tall corn and falling prey to the cattle-thieves who lay there in hiding. Later he wrote: “My life as a scientist began with the questions I asked myself in the blackness of midnight when I lay with my ear pressed to the ground listening to the secret code of our little band of village boys.”

The young herdsmen were trained by their leader to send signals through the ground to each other in time of danger. With their long wooden-handled knives plunged deep in the earth, they made a sound by rapping on the stout handles. This, their comrades, listening with ears pressed close to the ground, could hear at a considerable distance. The boys discovered that the rap-rap of their signals could not be carried through the air, nor could it be heard over the soft plowed land of the corn-fields.

But they became expert in sending warnings to each other through the hard earth of the open fields, knowing that the Rumanian thieves who might be lurking among the corn could not overheard the sound and locate the watchers. When he asked his teacher why the sound was lost in the air, he shook his head in a puzzled faction “There are many things we can not explain.” Through many years he never stopped trying to find an answer to that question, pressing on through many adventures with science which brought that best reward of hard work in which all people have a share.

Pupin was a son of illiterate parents who encouraged his education. In his early formation most important was the influence of his mother, a religious woman who knew the Old and New Testaments and the lives of the popular saints. After attending the local school in Idvor, his education progressed in Panchevo, and then Prague.

In 1874, after the sudden death of his father, Pupin emigrated to New York. He was a penniless immigrant, a boy sixteen years of age, but eager to learn. To earn a living he worked on a farm, carried coal for vapour machines, painted walls, but at the same time he was studying, first the English language, later history, Greek and Latin, and natural sciences.

In 1879 after the entrance examination in Columbia University, New York City, he was awarded a scholarship. He became popular among his fellow students for his friendliness and sporting achievements (e.g. he won an inter-class wrestling match in 1880), and was graduated with honors in 1883.

Michael Pupin wins inter-class wrestling match, 1880

Pupin became a U.S. citizen the day before graduation. After his graduation, at Columbia in 1883, Pupin spent two years at CambridgeUniversity, England, studying mathematics.

He continued his education in 1885, as John Tyndall fellow of Columbia University, at the University of Berlin, studying and conducting research in experimental physics under Hermann Von Helmholtz. He obtained his Ph.D. in Berlin in 1889. His earliest interest, when still as a student in Berlin, was in physical chemistry, and his doctor’ s dissertation “Osmotic Pressure and its Relation to Free Energy” related to this subject.

Michael Pupin returned to New York in 1889 to assume the position of teacher of mathematical physics at Columbia; he and Francis Bacon Crocker comprised the faculty of the newly-created department of electrical engineering there.

Though the department could make no claims to having the most modern or even sufficient equipment – the laboratory building was known as “the cowshed” – Pupin completed some of his most important work during these early years at Columbia. He remained with Columbia for life, progressing through the ranks to instructor in 1890, adjunct professor in 1892, professor in 1901 and professor emeritus in 1931. During his long career, he numbered Gano Dunn, Robert Millikan, Edwin Armstrong and Irving Langmuir among his students.

His position gradually directed his interest to the study of electromagnetic phenomena. The subject of electrical resonance engaged his attention between 1892 and 1895, and resulted in the electrical tuning which is now universally applied in all radio work. The patents for electrical tuning he sold to the Marconi Co. At the same time the Marconi Co. acquired his invention of the rectification of high frequency electrical waves. This invention is considered the basis of rectification now universally applied in radio.

In April, 1896, he discovered the Secondary X-ray Radiation and is today credited with this discovery. Considering that secondary X-ray radiation is universally employed in the study of X-ray spectra, it is obvious that Pupin’s discovery is a very important contribution to electron physics.

In February, 1896, he discovered a rapid method of X-ray photography which consisted in the interposition of a fluorescent screen between the object to be photographed and the photographic plate. Thomas Edison gave Pupin a fluorescent screen which Pupin placed on top of the photographic plate, the X-ray acted on the fluorescent screen, which radiates secondary X-rays, those rays act on the photographic plate. This shortened the time of exposure from about an hour to a few seconds. This method of X-ray photography, originated by Pupin, is now in universal use. In 1896 Pupin made in Chicago the first therapeuticapplication of X-rays to a lady with breast cancer.

Seeking recovery from a very serious attack of pneumonia and a general breakdown from overwork, Professor Michael Idvorsky Pupin first came to Norfolk in 1896. His health was so much benefited that he came again in 1897, staying at the Curtis House. He then bought the old Eggleston farm and erected his residence in the winter of 1898.

Professor Pupin was among the first of the summer visitors to call attention to the beauties of Tobey Pond in Norfolk, and gave expression to his belief in these beauties by buying a large portion of land and building a boathouse there. He is also very fond of horseback riding and on his favorite Irish hunter, Clipper, has explored almost every inch of ground within twenty miles of Norfolk.

Pupin riding Irish hunter clipper

Pupin was compelled in 1896 to give up X-ray work and he then devoted himself to the theory of telegraphic and telephonic transmission over conducting wires, and particularly over telephone cables. Transmission over telephone cables became a very important problem thirty years ago, because American cities had passed an ordinance demanding that all telephone conductors within city limits be placed underground. Pupin solved this problem completely by proving mathematically and experimentally, that inductance coils placed in a cable at definite intervals, determined by the wave lengths which were to be transmitted, made the cable equivalent to overhead conductors of high inductance, and this diminished both distortion and attenuation.

In this connection Pupin developed the toroidal form of inductance coil without which the theoretical results would have had small practical value, because otherwise coils belonging to different telephonic circuits would have mutual inductance, and this would result in cross-talk. A toroidal inductance coil has no external circuits. This type of telephone cable was developed by the Western Electric Co., in New York, and by Siemens-Halske of Berlin, and it revolutionised telephonic transmission.

It was estimated that in first twenty two years this invention had saved over a hundred million dollars.”Where are those one hundred million dollars which the invention has saved?” Pupin asked. “I know that not even a microscopic part of them is in the pockets of the inventor.

I have figured out also, with the same accuracy with which I once figured out the invention, that those hundred million dollars are not in the pockets of the telephone company. They must be, therefore, in the pockets of the American public. The invention made it possible to provide the telephone service, which is now being given, at a lower rate than would otherwise have been possible.”

It should be mentioned here that in his essay of 1899, entitled “Transmission Over Non-Uniform Conductors”, Pupin gave the first mathematical treatment of electrical transmission over the so-called artificial lines and this theory is the foundation of the modern electrical filters used so much in telephonic, telegraphic and radio transmission.

Pupin painting by Paje Jovanovica

During the World War I Pupin and his scientific committee were doing research work for the purpose of developing a system of submarine detection and a system of telephonic communication between aeroplanes. Pupin has been studying theoretically, as well as experimentally, electrical transmission over submarine cables, and has succeeded to extend Lord Kelvin’ s mathematical treatment of this subject. The result of this study is a new type of artificial line to be used in duplex working of submarine cables. Pupin discovered Sonar, a method of detecting enemy U-Boats in the Atlantic during WWI, which harassed allied ships on sea. The Sonar discovery was a request from President Wilson.

His principle publications are “On Electrical Resonance,” “On Long Electrical Waves,” and “Wave Transmission Over Cables.” In total Pupin acquired 24 patents and these made him a wealthy man. The first one in 1894 and the last in 1923. Inventions are in the fields of telephony, telegraphy and radio. He became world famous inventing the process of pupinisation, which made very long distance transmission of text and speech possible. So, this process was given his name.

Michael Pupin in his laboratory

Professor M.I. Pupin of Columbia University (center of the front row), and David Sarnoff, General Manager of the Radio Corporation of America, went to Greenwich to visit the 1BCG radio station made by Howard Armstrong, and as Professor Pupin put it, in his inimitable way, “To see what you boys are doing”.

Being a broad-minded person he made many donations, mostly for his country of origin. After World War I, at the time of the creation of Yugoslavia, he played an influential role in the diplomatic arrangements through his connection with President Woodrow Wilson. In the United States he was active in establishing the American Physical Society. His warm personality inspired many of his students, among them two Nobel Prize winners, Millikan and Langmuir. The famous physicist Isidor Rabi described the sensation felt by many that “when Pupin leaves the room there is a feeling that the lights have gone out”.

Pupin and Einstein

Pupin was elected to the National Academy of Sciences and contributed much to funding of the American Mathematical Society and the American Physical Society and to the formation of the National Research Council. Professor Pupin was President of the New York Electrical Society; Vice President of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers; Chairman of the Section of Astronomy, Physics, and Chemsitry of the New York Academy of Sciences; member of the Council of the American Physical Society; member of the American Mathematical Society; member of the American Philosophical Society; Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science.

Pupin was advisor to the Yugoslavian delegation to the Paris Peace conference in 1919, which contributed significantly to the formation of former Yugoslavia. Pupin was an eloquent speaker with a poetic imagination and an extraordinary personality. His scientific addresses always carried the basic theme of idealism in science, and he never failed to stress idealism in life.

A painting of Michael Pupin by Carle Blenner in Pupin Hall, Columbia University, New York.

The personal thoughts of Pupin on his life are vividly described in his autobiography “From immigrant to inventor” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924 as the best autobiography in America, because ‘your work stimulates patriotic and unselfish support for the people’.

There is a film about Michael Idvorsky Pupin, a Serbian-American inventor, a great educator, professor of Columbia University, an applied physicist, an important social figure in America at his time. He was one of the great shining stars in the history of American science. The film was produced after his famous book “From Immigrant to Inventor”. Columbia University collaborated in the production of this film.

Pupin was married to Sarah Catherine Jackson, who gave him daughter Varvava (Barbara).

Pupin received many awards and decorations for his service to science; these included five medals and 18 honorary degrees including: The Elliot Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1902); The Hobort Prize of the French Academy (1916); The Edison Medal of the American Institute of Electrical engineers (1920); The Medal of Honor of the Radio Institute of America; The Gold Medal of the American Institute of Social Sciences; The Washington Award of the Western Society of Engineers (1928); John Fritz Medal (1932).

Michail Pupin died of kidney failure on March 12, 1935, in New York City. This is a photo from Pupin’s funeral which was held in the Cathedral of Saint Jones the Divine on New York City.

Pupin’s grave is at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York

Pupin’s laboratory was in this building erected in 1925. After his death in 1935 Columbia University named his laboratory “Pupin Physics Laboratory”. Twenty-eight American scientists researching in Pupin Physics Laboratory received the Nobel prize. The preliminary scientific investigations for the first atomic bomb in America, took place in Pupin Physics Laboratory. Pupin Laboratories, the home of the Columbia Physics Department, also houses the Astronomy Department and the Rutherford Observatory.

The Pupin Medal was created by the Columbia Engineering School Alumni Association in 1958, the centennial year of the birth of Michael I. Pupin. The Pupin Medal is presented in recognition of “Distinguished Service to the Nation in Engineering, Science or Technology.”

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