In the annals of scientific history, there are few individuals who have defied the odds and left a lasting legacy as profound as Mihajlo I. Pupin. With an astonishing tally of 34 patents to his name, Pupin’s multifaceted persona encompassed the roles of scientist, professor, writer, diplomat, humanist, and patriot. In the year 1874, a youthful immigrant, bereft of wealth save for a meager five cents nestled within his pocket, disembarked upon the shores of Castle Garden. According to his own recollection, even if the young immigrant had arrived with a sum as substantial as $500, his trajectory would have remained unaltered, for he once opined, “A young immigrant such as I was then does not begin his career until he spent all the money which he has brought with him.” He spent his five cents for a piece of bogus prune pie.

Yet, Pupin bore within his being something far more invaluable than the mere prerequisites of immigration law. His unyielding spirit propelled him forward, toiling diligently as he hewed his own path through the annals of scientific exploration. A meticulous chronicle of his voyage into the realm of invention was penned by his own hand in the work aptly titled “From Immigrant to Inventor.” In due course, this magnum opus garnered the revered accolade of the distinguished Pulitzer Prize in the year 1924.

Born amidst the rural serenity of the village of Idvor, ensconced within the fertile lands of Banat, Pupin first drew breath on the fourth day of October, in the year 1858. This rustic hamlet, then situated within the confines of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s military frontier, has since transformed into the northern expanse of Serbia. Recognizing the innate talent and fervent thirst for knowledge that simmered within her son, Pupin’s mother ardently yearned for him to embark upon a grand odyssey into the world, armed with the treasures of erudition that could only be procured through the faculties of reading and writing. Upon completing his studies at the Gymnasium in Pancevo, Pupin set his sights on Prague, albeit fleetingly, as the allure of the United States captured his imagination with an irresistible pull.

“When I came to this country, I was wondering what I should do. Americans are very fast people. They are fast at work, fast in words, and fast indeed. When our Europeans and the rest came to America, they did not give the decision a second thought, but when they arrived, they were immediately running to keep up with Americans. Americans were faster, and our people were behind them or they were tired and failed. I was thinking how I could compete with Americans. My legs were weak for a race. I could not run, but I felt power in my brain and mind, and I began to compete with Americans with this organ and showed them my strength. Even today, my legs are not serving me very well, but my brain is faithful to me. I still feel young. I still want to be young. I preserve myself from old age and hope that I will a long time preserve myself,” said Pupin.

He studied English and worked menial jobs in New York City, and by 1883, he graduated with honors from Columbia College. As a United States citizen, he earned his doctorate in mathematical physics at the University of Berlin in 1889 under Hermann von Helmholtz. He became a lecturer of mathematical physics at the new department of electrical engineering at Columbia College, training many famous electrical engineers and physicists such as Gano Dunn, Edwin Armstrong, Irving Langmuir, and Robert Millikan. His discoveries and devices are widely used in telecommunications technology and sonar-related technology. By placing loading coils of wire at intervals along a transmitting wire, he greatly extended the range of long-distance telephony. Also, he discovered a method of X-ray photography and secondary X-ray radiation.

In 1915, he was one of the founding members of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became known as NASA.

Founders of NASA

In 1912, Pupin became an honorary American consul for the Kingdom of Serbia. In 1909, he established a Serbian-American organization “Sloga,” which united with others became the Serb National Federation in 1929; the Serbian National Defense Council (1914), and the Kolo Srpskih Sestara, which gathers help for the Serbian Red Cross. He formed the “Fund Pijade Aleksic-Pupin” within the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, and the “Mihajlo Pupin Fund” to help Serbian students in their education in Serbia.

We cannot completely prevent our immigrant youth from becoming Americanized, nor do we need to do so. However, we must work to ensure that our youth do not lose the good qualities of the Serbian people.

Mihajlo Pupin

He donated to his home village, Idvor, for electricity, a water plant, and a library. He received honorary doctorates from 18 universities and medals from the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, White Eagle, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, and many others. He served as president of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, the Institute of Radio Engineers, and the New York Academy of Science, and was an active member of the American Philosophical Society, the American Physical Society, and the Serbian Academy of Science, among others. He frequently stressed the need for the preservation of national spirit, cultural heritage, and the importance of educational and religious opportunities for young Serbian-Americans. In his conversation with Father Milovan Sundic from Lorain, Ohio, which was published in the American Srbobran on May 27, 1930.

“Our Old Country needs Serbian immigrants for many reasons. Like the rest of the South Slavic people, Serbian immigrants have proven on every occasion that their homeland lies in their hearts, even in a foreign land. Today, our homeland needs many years of hard work and creativity to economically recover and reach the heights our nation achieved through heroism and patriotism while fighting for freedom and unity,” said Pupin.

Mihailo Pupin and Albert Einstein

“Our people possess great virtues and high moral qualities, which have been recognized by the greatest cultural nations, leading them to befriend us. We also have our own shortcomings, but these weaknesses are shared by other nations who are more enlightened than we are. We live in America, and Americans are great friends of our nation. This friendship is based on the visible virtues that distinguish our nation. The late Woodrow Wilson, former President of the United States of America, was a very bright and clever statesman. He became a friend of our nation because he appreciated the great virtues of Serbs, which they demonstrated while fighting for their own freedom and that of their brothers through bloodshed,” he added.

“We cannot completely prevent our immigrant youth from becoming Americanized, nor do we need to do so. However, we must work to ensure that our youth do not lose the good qualities of the Serbian people. Firstly, these virtues are necessary for our youth personally, secondly, for the American nation, and finally, in some way and form, they will benefit our homeland. The first educator of our youth should be the mother. Today, I am an American, and they have treated me with the same honors as their own first sons. I completed my schooling here and dedicated myself to America and humankind. However, I have never forgotten that I am a Serb, nor have I ceased to be a friend of the Serbian people, always working for their benefit. My Serbian heritage was not an obstacle for Americans accepting me as their own. The primary influence on my national character and soul was my late mother. In my early childhood, she instilled in me a sense of identity as a Serb and an Orthodox Christian. This fact did not bother Americans, nor will it bother our youth who will become fully Americanized,” Pupin stressed.

“The individuals invited to educate and lead our youth in religious and national spirit are our priests and national fraternal societies with dioceses and federations. They should take care of our youth, instructing them in the right ways, and as sons of the American nation, they should remain loyal to their faith and friends of the Serbian people. Even if our youth become completely Americanized, they should not forget their origins or disregard the great virtues possessed by our people, which are recognized and respected by all cultural nations, especially Americans. The infusion of these great virtues from our Serbian youth will benefit the American national soul, as we are compelled to share them with America due to circumstances. It will also be beneficial for our homeland in the Balkans to nurture the friendship and loyalty of our young Americans and their descendants. Today, our homeland has a great interest in helping our society, especially the dioceses and clergy who serve our immigrants, to build and establish religious and educational institutions that they deem necessary and hold them in high regard, as if they were their own saints. In other words, until they feel the need to wholeheartedly support them.”

A soul without faith in God is not good and does not exist as a soul.

Mihajlo Pupin

The Serbian Orthodox Christian faith played an important role in his life.

“Among all the planets, Earth is one of the smallest, but scientists say none of the other planets has developed life like Earth. Look at the sun and all the other suns; how shiny and great they are. But, there is no life there as there is here on Earth. Something that our Earth gives power and life to is our soul, our human soul. God gave us human souls and human minds. When you look at animals, you can see what human life would be without a soul, a real divine soul. If that soul is without faith, what kind of people would we be? What kind of Earth would we have? A soul without faith in God is not good and does not exist as a soul,” he said.

“We know a lot of laws of science. We should not consider anything on Earth to be trifling. Everything is composed of small, little things. But, these petty things, harmoniously decorated under the proper laws, compose very big and huge things. As scientists, we know a lot of laws—how these tiny components unify and also how they are torn apart. However, we also know that there is one great and wise law that we cannot reach with our minds. This law makes us dependent on it, and for this reason, we should be obedient to that law. I repeat, our spirit, sense, and soul without faith have no value and do not represent anything. With faith, they present great force, power, and size. Therefore, faith introduces us to the most unknowable of laws and its great legislator—God.”

Pupin died on March 12, 1935, in New York City and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. Columbia University honored him posthumously by naming the Physical Laboratories building “Pupin Hall.” In 1958, the Pupin Medal for Service to the Nation was established as the most prestigious prize of the Engineering School.

Today, Pupin’s legacy lives on as an inspiration for aspiring scientists, inventors, and immigrants around the globe. His story serves as a reminder that anyone, regardless of their background, can make a profound and lasting impact on society, given the opportunity and the determination to succeed.


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Milos Rastovic is the Cultural Editor at the Balkan Voice.

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