From Immigrant to Inventor

To celebrate National Immigrant Heritage Month, we remember Michael Pupin, or Mihajlo Idvorsky Pupin, Columbia College Class of 1883, member of the Columbia faculty from 1890 until his death in 1935, and inventor of coils to facilitate long-distance telephone calls.

Student portrait of Michael I. Pupin, Class of 1883. Photo by Pach Brothers, New York. Scan 4925. Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives.

In 1874, Michael Pupin arrived in New York at the age of 16 with five cents in his pocket. He worked in factories while studying languages and preparing for the Columbia College entrance exams. A young Pupin worried about whether the College would enroll him, “a raw Serbian immigrant … an uncouth employee of a cracker factory, to become one of its alumni.” This recollection comes from one of the three articles published in the Columbia Alumni News between March 1921 and December 1922. These selections would later come together in the 1924 Pulitzer-Prize-winning autobiography From Immigrant to Inventor.

In the spirit of #CelebrateImmigrants, we include here a selection from “An Immigrant Student at Columbia in 1879.” Pupin compares the back-to-back ceremonies where he became an American citizen and he graduated from Columbia.

Two ceremonies which are recorded in my life as two red-letter days took place on two successive days; it is instructive to give here a brief comparison between them. The ceremony which made me a citizen of the United States took place in a dingy little office in one of the municipal buildings in City Hall Park. I received my diploma of Bachelor of Arts in the famous old Academy of Music on Fourteenth street on the following day. There was nobody in the naturalization office to witness the naturalization ceremony except myself and a plain little clerk. The graduation ceremonies in the Academy of Music were presided over by the venerable President Barnard; his luxuriant showy-white locks and long beard, and his luminous intelligence beaming from every feature of his wonderful face, gave him the appearance of Moses, as Michael Angelo represents him; and the academy was crowded with a distinguished and brilliant audience. The little clerk in the office handed me my naturalization papers in an offhand manner thinking, apparently, of nothing but the fee due from me. President Barnard, knowing of my high standing in the graduating class and of my many struggles to get there, beamed with joy when he handed me my diploma amidst the applause of my numerous friends in the audience … One ceremony made me only a Bachelor of Arts. The other made me a citizen of the United States. Which of the two should have been more solemn?

From “Lectures on Physics – Electricity. Delivered by Prof. [Ogden] Rood, Columbia College, Taken down by M. Pupin ’83, New York, Spring Term, 1882.” Scan 4880. Columbiana Manuscripts, University Archives.
You can find the two other Pupin articles in Columbia Alumni News also online: “From Serb to American,” (March 11, 1921, 333-335) and “A Herdsman’s View of Human Life” (January 13, 1922, 197-199).

The photograph of Columbia College student Michael Pupin was donated to the Columbiana Collection by fellow Class of 1883 member William L. Hazen on November 13, 1942. The Pupin notebook was a gift of John Winthrop Aldrich in memory of John Armstrong Chanler, November 2014. The RBML also holds the Michael Idvorsky Pupin papers.