An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: Mihajlo Pupin

Posted on July 16, 2013


When talking of invention in the last 200 years, the names that frequently come up will be Thomas Edison, Edwin Land, Alexander Graham Bell. The name that stands above all of these of course is everyones favourite Slav, Nikola Tesla. Born in Croatia to a family of Orthodox Serbs, Tesla considered himself a Serb and is pretty much recognised as the worlds number 1 Serb, not just the worlds number 1 Serb inventor. He certainly wasn’t the only creative man who made an impact on the modern world however. There is another man with whom Tesla shared many things. They both went to the Czech Republic for schooling, and they both ended up moving to the United States with practically nothing but a handful of dollars and a buckettonne of ambition. The name of the other gentleman, is Mihajlo Pupin,

I know, not a household name. Pupin was however responsible for over 70 patents, the most famous of which meant that the world could be connected by telephone. This physicist and physical chemist created the Pupin Coil, which greatly extended the range of communication available. He also discovered secondary x-ray radiation, had a big hand in creating the borders of the first Yugoslavia and was one of the founding members of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which would eventually evolve into NASA. And yes, he had a pretty bitchin’ moustache.

Pupin was born on October 9th 1858, in a tiny village called Idvor in Vojvodina (Serbia). According to the census in 2002, only 1,200 people lived there. Like many places in this region, it received a whole bag of Serbs from the south during the Great Migration at the end of the 17th century. It was inhabited mostly by peasants and illiterates, poor in worldly goods but rich in tradition and memory. A part of the Austria-Hungary Empire at the time, Vojvodina had a certain level of autonomy. By this I mean they were free and independent to live and trade however they wanted, but if the Habsburgs came with news of a war, the people of Vojvodina had no choice but to go, fight, and most likely perish. This wasn’t faced with fear though, as what greater privilege was there for the 19th century man than to lay his life down for the crown? Well, as the Balkans began to erupt out of its chains in greater cries for their own peace, this is where the love of Empires died. It’s also where the Austro-Hungarians were at their most vicious with their own people, and as Pupin himself said; ‘when the love of the people dies, the country dies with it’.

As mentioned, Idvor was a village of no reading or writing, but there was no shortage of poetry. The early years of Pupin were characterised by old men sitting around fires putting the world to rights, and old women spinning the wool and running the show. Tales of the great Karageorge took precedence, and a Serbian identity was flourishing in villages such as this. His mother would be a huge influence on him during his early years, as with most boys. She impressed on him the importance of learning to read and learning to write, something she frequently lamented herself. This he did, and he went to high school in Pancevo, where he excelled. Unfortunately though, he had to leave due to his involvement with the Serbian Youth Movement. He left to study in Prague, where he stayed until the death of his father in 1874. This would prove the spur for him to head to the new world, and he soon headed towards the United States.

According to legend, Mihajlo Pupin arrived in the US with only 5cents in his pocket, which he immediately spent on a prune pie that would soon prove to be not entirely a prune pie. More of a failure really. This immediate setback wouldn’t stop him though, and he quickly found work as a manual labourer, mostly in a biscuit factory in Manhattan. He learnt English, Greek and Latin within a few years. He eventually found himself at Columbia College, where he gained a reputation as an exceptional athlete and scholar. By 1883, he had full US citizenship. It was whilst studying at Columbia that he became interested in the works of James Clerk Maxwell (Scottish theoretical physicist, glorious beard), and he headed to Cambridge to work under him. Unfortunately though, due to the flaws in long distance communication, he was unaware that Maxwell had died in 1879. The irony.

6 years later, at the age of 31, he became a lecturer of Mathematical Physics at Columbia University. It was during this time that his creativity and curiosity would really began to flow and blossom. He began experimenting, and became the first person to use a fluorescent screen in order to enhance x-rays for medical purposes. In 1899 he would post a patent for Pupin coils, now known as Loading coils. By inserting these at set points in telephone wires, the time delay distortion was drastically reduced making long distance communication a very real thing. It was such an important discovery that American Telephone and Telegraph quickly purchased the rights to it, making Pupin a very wealthy man. His invention of long distance telephony was purchased by Bell Telephone Company in 1901.

World War 1 would soon come around, and Pupin the man came into his own as opposed to Pupin the physicist. He organized one of the first research groups aiming to create submarine detection technology. His work as a diplomat would quickly become more important however. In 1912 he had become an honorary consul to the US for the Kingdom of Serbia, and this position would bode well for the future Yugoslavia. He had a large influence on the Paris peace conference that would follow the war, where the borders of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia) were drawn. Indeed, it was his memorandum and reputation with the US that led to Dalmatia, Istria and parts of Slovenia and Macedonia staying within Yugoslavia.

From the war onwards, Pupin dedicated most of his time and money to philanthropy. The Mihajlo Pupin Foundation was formed in 1914 with the aim of helping schools in Serbia and Macedonia. He funded the building of a reading room in the library in Idvor, as well as an Agricultural Science School, and the electrification of Idvor. He also financed the building of the village’s water plant. During World War 2 he would fund the delivery of food supplies to Serbs, and was the head of a committee that provided help to victims of the war. He also founded the society which would assist orphans from the war. He was a devoted Orthodox Christian, but at no point did he let his religious affiliation get in the way of his humanity.

Mihajlo Pupin, or Michael Pupin as he was known by then, died in New York City in 1935 at the age of 76. His reputation is one of a wonderful human being, of great passion and respect, of peace and hope. He was devoted to peace for his people, and despite living in an incredibly violent time he was able to offer comfort and new life to many. Not bad for a little peasant boy from Idvor.