- Silvio A. Bedini, 1917–2007
"[A] seeking mind always filled with new projects"—so wrote Silvio Bedini in his T&C memorial for Bern Dibner, who died in 1988 at the age of ninety. Exactly the same might be said of Silvio, who died at ninety on 14 November 2007. Bedini was present at the creation of an institution and an organization central to establishing the history of technology as a scholarly discipline: the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of History and Technology and Mel Kranzberg's Society for the History of Technology. But like many of his closest MHT and SHOT friends, starting with Dibner and including Derek Price (whose T&C memorial he wrote also), Eugene Ferguson, Robert Multhauf, Brooke Hindle, and of course Mel himself—all da Vinci Medalists eventually—he came to the field by a route that was, to say the least, roundabout.
Silvio Bedini's birthday was the same as Benjamin Franklin's, 17 January. He was born on a farm near the village of Ridgefield, Connecticut, the second son of Vincent and Cesira Stefanelli Bedini, who had emigrated from the Italian province of Ancona four years before. In a reminiscence published in 1989 in American Heritage, Silvio wrote that, for him, growing up was "a lonely experience."His brother Ferdinand, four years older, "had his own world." He lived more than five miles from the village and three miles from all but one of his schoolmates (the son of Eugene O'Neill, as it happened). Perhaps this helps explain why he was so curious about faraway places. He was captivated by the swashbuckling "collector of wild animals," Frank "Bring 'em Back Alive" Buck. He loved history and biography, and in 1935 he enrolled at Columbia University to major in comparative literature. Before graduating, however, he volunteered for the U.S. Army and was assigned to Westover Field, an airbase in Chicopee Falls,Massachusetts. But one of Silvio's youthful enthusiasms—at the age of nine he had won a prize for solving a coded puzzle in the local newspaper—was about to land him with G-2, military intelligence, and a top-secret job with a unit in Fairfax County, Virginia, known only as "1142" (a post office box number in Alexandria). [End Page 522]
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At 1142, German prisoners of war were interrogated, 3,400 of them all told, but 1142 was also the site of an agency known as MIS-X. There, in a building called "the creamery," escape and evasion (E&E) aids for American POWs were concealed in parcels of food and clothing, in shaving brushes, and in "recreational devices" (Ping-Pong paddles, decks of cards, checker-boards) whose reciprocal transfer was assured by the Geneva Convention. And there, too, techniques were devised for enabling Allied POWs to get coded messages to the outside world. Any letter posted from a German stalag would be intercepted to determine whether it had come from a code user (CU) trained at MIS-X to conceal vital information from Nazi censors. If so, it was immediately routed to the creamery, where it would be steamed open and decoded before it was slipped back into the postal system for normal delivery. Fourteen cryptanalysts decoded incoming mail and also wrote coded letters to POW CUs, pretending to be parents, wives, lovers, or siblings. By 1943, Silvio had advanced from buck private to master sergeant and was the creamery's chief cryptanalyst. By 1945 he was a chief MIS-X [End Page 523] liaison with the Pentagon. Although this dramatic chapter in Bedini's life came to an end with V-E day, his son and daughter, Peter and Leandra, recall their dad's everlasting fascination with secret codes and classic spy-thriller devices.1
When Bedini was discharged from the army at age twenty-eight, he expected to return to Columbia. But his father was in failing health and wanted his sons to take over his contracting business, the Bedini Company. Once notable for its expansive estates, Ridgefield was being transformed into a suburb for New...