The grand old man of technology's history

Bern Dibner operates an electrostatic generator built in 1805.
(Photo courtesy of Burndy Library.)
It was 1924, the country was roaring with prosperity under President "Silent Cal" Coolidge, George Gershwin composed the Rhapsody in Blue, people were whistling "Lady Be Good," and one could buy a Ford motorcar without self–starter for $290 (in any color as long as it was black). The national debt of the United States was only 25 billion dollars and there were radios in 2,500,000 U.S. homes.

About this time, a young engineer named Bern Dibner — believing he could make a better connector than anyone else — founded the Burndy Engineering Co. in New York City (now located in Norwalk, CT). The corporation has since become one of the largest suppliers of electrical connectors to the industry.

Dibner graduated an electrical engineer from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn in 1921 and continued his studies at Columbia University in New York City and the University of Zurich in Switzerland. He joined the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1923, was elected Fellow in 1942 and is now a Life Member of the IEEE. He has had published more than a dozen books and papers on the history of science especially in electricity and magnetism. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in Engineering by the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn.

Early in Dibner's career, he began collecting items of scientific interest with emphasis on research in electricity and magnetism. His collection in this area is recognized as the most important assemblage anywhere.

In 1936 he made formal his collection, founding the Burndy Library, for which in 1964, a special building was completed next to the Burndy plant in Norwalk.

The library contains more than 40,000 rare books, plus numerous manuscripts, letters and experimental devices, estimated to be worth many millions of dollars.

Among the items are several manuscripts by Sir Isaac Newton, Einstein's corrected proof summary of his general theory of relativity and a copy of the first book on science to be printed: Pliny's Historia Naturalis, published in Venice in 1461.

Also of special interest is a collection of 40 letters by Michael Faraday, 300 volumes from the library of Alessandro Volta and a letter from Galileo describing the invention of the magnetic water clock. Other pioneers in the electrical field that are represented include such notables as William Gilbert, Robert Boyle, Benjamin Franklin, Andrè Ampère, Friedrich Gauss and James Maxwell.

A good part of the Burndy Library's collection has been deeded to the Smithsonian Institution by Dibner and is now being moved to the Institution's National Museum of History and Technology in Washington, DC. The Burndy Library will continue operations as before, replacing its depleted assets by other copies, reprints and less precious editions.

Dibner believes that his library should not wait — like the tomb of Tutankhamen — for the invasion of the curious and the scholarly. He has tried to make it a living library — giving and participating in dozens of exhibitions, lending items to other libraries and even sharing its collections with other institutions.

As Dibner observes, "One's belief and conviction on examining any evidence is best served when that evidence is in its primary form. When quoted, edited or interpreted, a lower order of conviction results. That is why scholars will travel long distances to examine an original disclosure."

Bern Dibner

The great technological progress of the past 200 years should give us pause to consider many of the things we're doing now and they might even give us some insight into the future. Let's look back for a moment.

In the electrical and electronics engineering fields there are certain pioneers and technological developments both American and non–American that had a tremendous impact and have added infinitely to the greatness of our nation. There was, for example, Ben Franklin's lightning rod, a simple device, but revolutionary in concept. It not only protected structure's from destruction and damage, but like the Copernican doctrine, it had a revolutionary impact on the mind and on civilization.

Until Copernicus, it was understood that the earth was the center of the universe and the planets, the sun and the moon, all revolved around the earth. Then in 1543, Copernicus published his treatise saying it was indeed the sun in our planetary system that was the center of revolution. Here was a piece of observational evidence that had to be digested. That came about slowly.

We must realize the terrible wrench, the struggle within the church, to accept this concept. The adjustment took hundreds of years and was a very difficult process.

So it was with the lightning rod. Until Franklin, the only response to the terrors of lightning striking was to say it was an act of God. When a man was struck it was excused or rationalized but nothing was done. A German scientist of that time who was interested in lightning phenomena and the damage done by lightning showed that 103 bell–ringers were killed by lightning in a period of something like 30 years. Still, Nollet, the greatest experimental physicist of his time, fought the installation of lightning rods because he was an abbè. It is a difficult adjustment to lose faith in the providence of God and to turn instead to a mechanical gadget such as a lightning rod.

There's a very dramatic incident of' the installation of a lightning rod on the great tower facing a famous piazza in the charming city of Siena, Italy. The social head was a Marquis Chigi, who had written a book on lightning protection, and who was against the lightning rod. So when the Grand Duke of Tuscanny approved the plan to put in a lightning rod to protect the great tower, Chigi was against it. But the Grand Duke said to go ahead. It was put in and the people wondered what was going to happen next.

When storm rumblings began one day in the spring of 1777 the populace began to move toward the piazza. The thunder got heavier and everybody's eyes were on the tower, when at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, lightning struck. There was a terrific bang, a sulphurous smell, a moment of dramatic tension and then a grand roar: The rod had taken the blow. There were signs of stress in the rod, but their tower was safe. That helped settle the controversy but it took courageous people to install the lightning rod.

Another historical development of great importance was Alessandro Volta's chemical battery. It was announced in the Transactions of the Royal Society, of which Volta was a member. This electric battery provided direct current for the first time. Before that all electrical phenomena were transient, involving charge or discharge. But here we had an unimpressive, undramatic, steady flow of electricity. It was a dirty one because you had to have either sulfuric acid or a brine as the electrolyte, but nonetheless, direct current came from the battery. About a year later the electric battery was used to dissociate water into its elements. Humphrey Davy took the battery terminals and with pieces of charcoal drew an electric arc of great brilliance so we had electric light and, of course, the other developments that followed.

In 1820, Hans Christian Oersted discovered that electricity had a magnetic vector, that current generated intense magnetic fields. This was followed by Faraday's discovery of electromagnetic induction — that from intense magnetism electricity can be generated. From those events, beginning with the Volta pile, the electrical age opened up.

The next event of major importance is an American contribution, the invention of the electric telegraph by Samuel Morse in 1844. The first installation was the electric telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore. In any case, the effect was to put electrical usage on a vast scale. Ultimately it tied every community electrically with every other community.

That was followed in 1879 by the Edison electric light. Here we had less the introduction of a revolutionary concept than an engineering application. In other words, it was known that current could heat a wire to incandescence. The problem was to make the incandescence last, making a reasonably priced device from which emanated electric light. The result was an electric light industry because dynamos had to be built to supply the power. Once we had the dynamos, we found other uses for the electricity in the wire.

There are two basic reasons technology has flourished to a greater extent in the United States than it has anywhere else. Primarily, it is due to the effervescence that comes from the presence of new people in a new place, the idea of the new broom that sweeps clean. The second reason is that we have always had the potential for absorbing new people. Historically, no country has expanded in so short a time as has this nation.

Stratification of society in other countries has kept many potential talents submerged. Here, they had a chance to flourish. Here we apply greater support to those talents that we recognize as having great potential, and we've provided a growing society. Our population increased from the first census of 1790, I think it was on the order of 4 million to our present 215 million. That growing affluence and numbers; that geography, the moving westward of the frontier from the 13 colonies to the Pacific Ocean and beyond, to Hawaii, Alaska; those moving frontiers, stimulated the development that we see today.

The evils or virtues of technology

Is there a negative side to technology? That, of course, is being debated wherever two serious people get together.

We could take every evil event — assuming we agree on the definition of evil — and say that it could have been prevented had we done so and so. But we must recognize that one of the most revolutionary ideas — American or non–American was the idea of evolution introduced by Charles Darwin in his publication: the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection.

There we see that there is a curve, a line of development in which there are ups and downs, and that the natural selection of the curving element is determined by its ability to meet new conditions. Of course, that is also true with electrical development. Nothing is a straight line. Everything is up and down. We have days, we have nights. We have summers, we have winters. Each winter is followed by a summer. Each summer is followed by a winter.

One can't really put a subjective evaluation on the good or the evil of technology. It's what we do with it.

We should maintain an open, pragmatic attitude towards technology with a minimum of government controls. That's one of the reasons this society has moved as it has compared with other societies. The Chinese, for example, have not moved at all even though they were in business long before we were. Controls, limitations, for whatever reason — sociological or otherwise — tend to discourage development. We should maintain an open and pragmatic attitude, selecting the good through tests and moving on constantly, opening opportunities for talent. If it's poor, negate it. If it's good, encourage it. That is the way to progress.

There are a number of reasons the average person holds a questionable view of technology. One is conservatism, the other is fear of the unknown. There's a resistance to moving forward, but progress has been made only by the bold and the strong of heart. I think there's enough of that in this country for us to continue our experimental attitudes. Let us try it. Let us assess each new development and I think we'll continue in this way.

Based on the bicentennial issue of

Electronic Design
for engineers and engineering managers

Vol 24, number 4   Feb. 16, 1976
© 1976   Hayden Publishing Company Inc.
50 Essex St.   Rochelle Park, NJ   07662

Historical Time Line — Introduction

The Foundation Years   The Era of Giants   The Communications Era

The Vacuum Tube Era   The Transistor Era   The Integrated Circuit Era

AM Broadcast Basics
The Original Theory for Radio was Presented by James Clerk Maxwell in 1873.
Nikola Tesla was the first to patent a workable system.

Gravity   Site Link List   Crossed-Field AM Antenna  

Magnetism   Maxwell's Equations in Magnetic Media

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