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A greenhorn outsmarts a mule

Detail of Approaching Storm, 1938, thomas hart benton / Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Maltby Sykes, 1976.103.11

Today he’s recognized as one of the founders of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which later became NASA. His numerous patents included one for a method of greatly extending the range of long distance telephone communication, which AT&T promptly bought up. Late in life, the Serbian physicist Michael Pupin, who had immigrated to the United States at age 16, served as an honorary consul of Serbia in the US. 

Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin’s autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1924. He eloquently describes his first impressions of his new life in America, which were formed in Delaware City, DE. 

Fresh off the boat at NYC’s Ellis Island in 1874, he accepted a job offer on a Delaware City dairy farm, where he was promptly shipped.

“One of the farm hands, a Swiss, came in after a while in order to remind me that it was bedtime,” he writes at the end of his long first day, “and to inform me that early in the morning he would wake me up and take me to the barn, where my job would be assigned to me. He kept his word, and with lantern in hand he took me long before sunrise and introduced me to two mules which he put in my charge.

Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin portrait, 1903,  by by Paja Jovanović
Mihajlo Idvorski Pupin portrait, 1903, by by Paja Jovanović

“I cleaned them and fed them while he watched and directed; after breakfast he showed me how to harness and hitch them up. I took my turn in the line of teams hauling manure to the fields. He warned me not to apply myself too zealously to the work of loading and unloading, until I had become gradually broken in, otherwise I should be laid up stiff as a rod. The next day I was laid up, stiffer than a rod. He was much provoked and called me the worst greenhorn that he ever saw. But, thanks to the skilled and tender care of the ladies on the farm, I was at my job again two days later. 

“My being a greenhorn appealed to their sympathy; they seemed to have the same kind of soul which I had first observed in my American friends who paid my fare from Vienna to Prague.

“One of my mules gave me much trouble, and the more he worried me the more amusement he seemed to furnish to the other farm hands, rough immigrants of foreign birth. He did not bite, nor did he kick, as some of the mules did, but he protested violently against my putting the bridle on his head. The other farm hands had no advice to offer; they seemed to enjoy my perplexity. I soon discovered that the troublesome mule could not stand anybody touching his ears. That was his ticklish spot. I finally got around it; I never took his bridle off on working days, but only removed the bit, so that he could eat.

“On Sunday mornings, however, when I had all the time I wanted, I took his bridle off, cleaned it, and put it on, and did not remove it again for another week. The foreman and the superintendent discovered my trick and approved of it, and so the farm hands lost the amusement which they had had at my expense every morning at the harnessing hour. I noticed that they were impressed by my trick and did not address me by the name of greenhorn quite so often.”

During the next five years Michael Pupin worked at odd jobs, first on farms and later, in NYC factories. He studied at night to prepare himself for admission to Columbia University on a scholarship, an ambition he fulfilled in 1879. The mule driver had finally cast off his own bit and bridle.

Pupin's 1900 patent drawing for apparatus to reduce attenuation of electrical waves.
Pupin’s 1900 patent drawing for apparatus to reduce attenuation of electrical waves.

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