From Immigrant to Inventor: The Great Serbian-American Scientist Michael Pupin on the Value of a Penniless Immigrant Boy Full of Promise
“An immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native.”
By Maria Popova
“Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her timeless, increasingly timely meditation on the immigrant experience and the meaning of “refugee.” But discrimination is also a self-inflicted wound by which the society perpetrating it bleeds internally — not only because it lacerates the moral fabric of the culture, but because it is a means by which a society cheats itself of the vital polyphony of voices necessary for symphonic polity.
That is what the great Serbian-American physicist and chemist Michael Pupin (October 4, 1858–March 12, 1935) illustrates with his life in his Pulitzer-winning 1923 autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor (public library).
Born in a Serbian village so tiny as to be missing from maps, Pupin immigrated to the United States at the age of fifteen. Having sold all of his belongings — his books, his clothes, his watch, his beloved yellow sheepskin coat — to pay for the fare, he made the long journey across the Atlantic aboard an immigrant ship with just the clothes on his back and “a red Turkish fez which nobody would buy.” He landed at Castle Garden — New York’s first immigration station, predating Ellis Island by nearly half a century — on a sunny morning in the first days of spring midway through his fifteenth year.
Pupin recounts the electric elation of his arrival into a new life of possibility:
On the fourteenth day, early in the morning, the flat coast-fine of Long Island hove in sight. Nobody in the motley crowd of excited immigrants was more happy to see the promised land than I was. It was a clear, mild, and sunny March morning, and as we approached New York Harbor the warm sun-rays seemed to thaw out the chilliness which I had accumulated in my body by continuous exposure to the wintry blasts of the North Atlantic. I felt like a new person, and saw in every new scene presented by the New World as the ship moved into it a new promise that I should be welcome.
Nine years later, Emma Lazarus would channel this ethos of unconditional welcome in her iconic sonnet “The New Colossus,” giving voice to the newly erected Statue of Liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
Nearly a century and a half later, as this country made of and by immigrants suffers a tragic kind of auto-immune policy failure, Pupin’s words burn with searing pertinence:
He who has never crossed the stormy Atlantic during the month of March in the crowded steerage of an immigrant ship does not know what hardships are. I bless the stars that the immigration laws were different then than they are now, otherwise I should not be among the living. To stand the great hardships of a stormy sea when the rosy picture of the promised land is before your mind’s eye is a severe test for any boy’s nerve and physical stamina; but to face the same hardships as a deported and penniless immigrant with no cheering prospect in sight is too much for any person.
With the hindsight of half a century and a lifetime of uncommon accomplishment, Pupin looks back on that pivotal moment when he arrived to America as a penniless boy full of promise:
I had only five cents in my pocket. Had I brought five hundred dollars, instead of five cents, my immediate career in the new, and to me a perfectly strange, land would have been the same. A young immigrant such as I was then does not begin his career until he has spent all the money which he has brought with him. I brought five cents, and immediately spent it upon a piece of prune pie, which turned out to be a bogus prune pie. It contained nothing but pits of prunes. If I had brought five hundred dollars, it would have taken me a little longer to spend it, mostly upon bogus things, but the struggle which awaited me would have been the same in each case. It is no handicap to a boy immigrant to land here penniless; it is not a handicap to any boy to be penniless when he strikes out for an independent career, provided that he has the stamina to stand the hardships that may be in store for him.
Insisting that immigrants must never lose sight of “their meaning and their vital importance in American life,” he adds another sentiment of harrowing relevance today:
If the present standards had prevailed forty-eight years ago I should have been deported. There are, however, certain things which a young immigrant may bring to this country that are far more precious than any of the things which the present immigration laws prescribe.
The greatest gift a young immigrant confers upon their new home, Pupin argues, is the gift of perspective — of seeing the landscape of culture with new eyes. “An immigrant can see things which escape the attention of the native,” he writes. Our ways of seeing are invariably shaped by our formative experiences, which factor into the combinatorial nature of our creative contribution. Pupin illustrates this by drawing a beautiful coiling line between his formative experience as a peasant boy in the fields of rural Serbia and his field of scientist endeavor:
The light of the stars, the sound of the grazing oxen, and the faint strokes of the distant church-bell were messages of caution which on those dark summer nights guided our vigilance over the precious herd… Enveloped in the darkness of night and surrounded by countless burning stars, we guarded the safety of our oxen. The rest of the world had gone out of existence; it began to reappear in our consciousness when the early dawn announced what we boys felt to be the divine command, “Let there be light,” and the sun heralded by long white streamers began to approach the eastern sky, and the earth gradually appeared as if by an act of creation. Every one of those mornings of fifty years ago appeared to us herdsmen to be witnessing the creation of the world — a world at first of friendly sound and light messages which made us boys feel that a divine power was protecting us and our herd, and then a real terrestrial world, when the rising sun had separated the hostile mysteries of night from the friendly realities of the day.
Sound and light being associated in my young mind of fifty years ago with divine operations by means of which man communicates with man, beast with beast, stars with stars, and man with his Creator, it is obvious that I meditated much about the nature of sound and of light. I still believe that these modes of communication are the fundamental operations in the physical universe and I am still meditating about their nature.
Pupin would go on to become one of America’s most prolific inventors. The recipient of eighteen doctorates, he would make significant contributions to early X-ray imaging and would revolutionize telecommunication with his invention of a loading coil that greatly extended the long-distance range of signal transmission across telephone wires. A founding member of NASA predecessor NACA, he would preside over some of the country’s most esteemed scientific institutions, including the New York Academy of Sciences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A lunar crater bears his name.
From Immigrant to Inventor (public library), which I discovered through an admiring mention in Freeman Dyson’s letters, is a magnificent read in its totality — one of those rare books, on par with Oliver Sacks’s On the Move and Erwin Chargaff’s Heraclitean Fire, in which a visionary scientist looks back on a life of strife and achievement to emerge with something larger than an autobiography, radiating into philosophy, politics, cultural history, and creative inquiry. Complement this particular portion with Margaret Mead and James Baldwin’s fantastic forgotten conversation about the problematic metaphor of the “melting pot” and Alfred Kazin on loneliness and the immigrant experience.
Published July 2, 2018