Today I am inaugurating a new feature focusing on the old: reviews of classic books, articles, and documents in the history of technology.
I just finished reading Michael Pupin's engaging and inspiring autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor. Pupin's creations included loading coils (extending the range of telephone lines) and a technique for reducing x-ray exposure time (making x-ray imaging safe for humans). Pupin was a pioneer in every sense of the word; it is reflected in his life story, straightforward writing style, and indomitable spirit.
Pupin's intellect quickly outgrew the place of his birth, the small Serbian village of Idvor in the Austrian Empire. So he was packed off to school in the nearby town of Panchevo. His new teachers, recognizing his potential, recommended that the fourteen-year old be sent to Prague. About one year later, Pupin decided he had outgrown Prague, selling most of his belongings (including his only coat) to buy a steerage-class ticket for New York City. He spent the next two weeks clinging to the ship's smokestack for warmth and arrived in America with just five cents in his pocket. After a series of menial jobs, he took the entrance exam for Columbia College at age 20, and earned free tuition. Pupin proved to be an outstanding student and athlete, and after graduating from Columbia he pursued further studies at the University of Cambridge and University of Berlin.
Pupin's idealism, more than anything else, made this a great book (he won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 1924). Though confronted by much adversity, Pupin always saw the glass as half full. He believed that America was a land of opportunity, and his own life was a shining example. He studied not only science, but the great scientists. He defended America against European charges of crass materialism.
From Immigrant to Inventor reminds me in some ways of Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie. Pupin tells his story in simple and direct language. He calmly and patiently describes the many hardships he faced--and how he overcame them. He offers a great deal of common sense, even when discussing science.
Unfortunately, the last chapter of Pupin's autobiography focuses on the National Research Council. Though he advocated a balance between pure research and applied science most of his life, in later years he seemed obsessed with big research. I liked Pupin better when he was defending American ingenuity and industry.
I recommend this book to all aspiring scientists, inventors, and entrepreneurs. It's as relevant today as it was in 1923.