- The Mystery of M. I. Pupin's Birth Date
The prolific Serbian-American physicist and inventor, Mihajlo (or Michael) Idvorsky Pupin, left a lot behind him, but the one thing he did not leave for certain was his birth date. Although his contributions are recognized, including some of his 34 patents which enabled long-distance telephone communication or rapid method x-ray photography that shortened exposure times from hours to seconds, numerous sources mentioning his birth date differ. How did it come to this? This paper addresses the mystery and through extensive research provides Pupin's actual birth date. In presenting the results of this investigation the goal is to contribute to the factual knowledge of Pupin in the context of American/Serbian history and that of science by proving that the correct date is October 9, 1854. This is supported by evidence that includes his baptismal record, newspaper archives, and even personal letters, all of which implicitly or explicitly reveal the exact birth date of this professor-inventor, former President of the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, a founding member of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (now NASA), a Pulitzer Prize winner, a self-made millionaire, and the recipient of 18 honorary doctorates. He was probably one of the most influential men of his time, and it is said that he is the one to thank for the day that the Serbian flag flew over the White House (July 28, 1918), in support of the Serbian people and in recognition of their suffering during the First World War. Even more can be said about Pupin professionally and personally when we consider that the circle to which he belonged included Edison, Marconi, Tesla, and Einstein, but the purpose of this article is not biographical.
The word "mystery" might be a more appropriate opening for some detective novel, but a mystery is exactly what we have as a subject of this academic paper. This long detective-like investigation began with my reading of various biographies of Pupin while preparing an article to commemorate 160 [End Page 129] years from his birth. In the process I noted the inconsistencies in the dating of Pupin's birth. The range was of up to more than four years. The question that naturally emerged was, when was this great man born?
The professor-inventor himself was generally silent on this point. Even in his 1924 Pulitzer Prize-winning autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor, he does not mention the date of his birth, giving only a vague hint at one time about a "boy of fifteen" wondering what he could bring to America.1 According to the additional research on this subject by the Encyclopedia Britannica, many English-language sources, including standard biographical references such as the American National Biography (1999) and the Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography (2008), record Mihajlo Pupin's birth date as October 4, 1858. This date matches the one on Pupin's gravestone at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York. It is further supported in obituaries (figures 1 and 2) published in (1) The New York Times, (2) Science, (3) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, (4) Electrical Engineering, and various major newspapers.2
While a number of commemorative postage stamps issued in Serbia and former Yugoslavia (both pre-war Kingdom and post-war SFR Yugoslavia) show the same birth month, they differ both on the year and on the day—all these stamps (see some in figure 3) indicate that Pupin was born in 1854. The precise date, October 9, 1854, has been widely accepted for a long time in his homeland. How did it come to this? The birthday of a great man is celebrated differently in his place of birth and in the rest of the world, including his new country whose citizenship he received only a day before his graduation at Columbia University? To solve this mystery, I decided to go back in time, following leads and gathering clues contained in original papers whenever possible.3 This research has led to the unraveling of the mystery of Pupin's birth date. In the process it became...