Whispering Pines: Bright Ideas

Whispering Pines

When Joshua Chamberlain of the Class of 1852 delivered his inaugural address as Bowdoin’s sixth president in 1871 he called for changes to “Old Bowdoin,” pointing out that “…its grand old legends lived as the voices of heralds, sounding the claims of a proud ancestry rather than the ringing watchwords of an onward cause.” From Chamberlain’s perspective, the College was at a crossroads. It was faced with dwindling financial resources and questions about the value of a classical curriculum that had changed little in more than a half century. It could continue to do what it had always done well – even though it was out of step with a rapidly-changing world – until the money ran out, or it could expend those resources in re-shaping a Bowdoin education. For a colonel who had stood on a rock-strewn hill at Gettysburg eight years earlier and had weighed his options as ammunition ran low, the decision was an easy one – “Bayonets!”

“…in this crisis it would be better to move on, even though it were upon a scale of expenditure that would exhaust our whole capital in a dozen years, and then either die gloriously or be worth saving, than to dwindle along until men began to doubt whether we were worth a decent burial, and left us to rot above ground.”

Chamberlain laid out an ambitious plan to introduce a scientific course of study to the curriculum, with a post-graduate program that could lead to an engineering degree. In the classical course of study there had been few science classes, and these were reserved for juniors and seniors. All students were required to participate in gymnastic exercises and for the three lower classes military drill exercises were mandatory (except for “proficients” in gymnastics).

Among the three professors in the scientific department was Cyrus Fogg Brackett of the Class of 1858. Born on a farm in the southwestern Maine town of Parsonfield, Brackett put himself through Bowdoin by teaching in rural schools, graduating at the age of twenty-six. Five times he tried to enlist for service in the Civil War; each time he was rejected for a “lack of strength and health,” despite repeated efforts to build himself up physically. It was a source of regret that he spoke about in the months before his death in 1915 at the age of 81. Brackett joined the faculty at Bowdoin in 1863 and taught natural science, zoology, geology, chemistry, and physics for ten years, and was librarian of the Medical School of Maine. With Professor George Goodale he edited The Bowdoin Scientific Review: A Fortnightly Journal from 1870 to 1872. He taught the first two years of the new science curriculum before accepting a position in the physics department at Princeton.

Cyrus Brackett built the first electronically-lighted classroom in America in 1880.

At Princeton, Cyrus Brackett built the first electronically-lighted classroom in America in 1880. He was a member of the commission that defined a practical system of electrical units (e.g., ampere, ohm, and volt). He offered the first formal course of electrical engineering in the country and established the first school of electrical engineering in September of 1889.

Brackett was a friend and technical advisor to Thomas Edison, and he assisted Edison and Alexander Graham Bell in patent litigation cases. He also found time to serve as chairman of the New Jersey State Board of Health for twenty years. For all his accomplishments, Brackett maintained “a Rabelaisian wit” and was an accomplished musician who could play the violin while accompanying himself on a foot-operated parlor organ. He was a student of the Bible and was equally conversant in Latin, French, and German. At Princeton an endowed professorship, a lectureship, and a building in the engineering quadrangle bear his name.

Three members of the Class of 1875 – students during the last two years of Brackett’s tenure at Bowdoin – would go on to make significant contributions to the field of physics. Francis R. Upton and Charles L. Clarke were enrolled in the scientific course, while Edwin H. Hall completed the classical course. Upton followed Brackett to Princeton, where he became the first student to earn a Princeton graduate degree by examination. Francis R. Upton Fellowships at Princeton celebrate his legacy. After studying in Germany for a year, Upton was hired by Edison in 1879, and he took up residence in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Upton’s mathematical and scientific skills made him a valuable member of the “Edison Pioneers,” as he was able to express Edison’s intuitions in mathematical terms. He worked on the electric lamp, and was on the “second shift” that monitored the duration of the first Edison light bulb that illuminated the night of October 19-20, 1879. In 1890 Upton patented the first electric fire alarm, which was activated by temperature, rather than smoke.

“I think we’re ready, Clarke.”

Upton wrote to his classmate and Psi Upsilon fraternity brother Charles Clarke in December of 1879 to let him know that Mr. Edison would pay him $12 a week if he would come and work for him. Clarke had completed the scientific course and the two-year civil engineering program at Bowdoin, and after a year of study in Europe he taught in Philadelphia. Soon he was designing the world’s first centralized electric power plant for Thomas Edison. The coal-fired Pearl Street Station initially powered electric lamps for fifty-nine business customers in Manhattan. As chief engineer of the Edison Electric Light Company, Clarke was there on September 4, 1882, when “the Wizard of Menlo Park” said, “I think we’re ready, Clarke,” and threw the switch that changed history. Clarke had a long career as an electrical engineer, consultant, and expert on patent litigation for Edison, the Gibson Electric Company, General Electric, and Westinghouse.

Edwin H. Hall was drawn to the study of physics after his graduation from Bowdoin and after two years as a high school principal. Hall had been an active editor and prolific writer for The Orient in its fourth year of existence, and he would claim that writing was the only talent he had in college. He entered the graduate program in physics at Johns Hopkins, and it was there that he discovered “the Hall Effect” in 1879. Professor Madeleine Msall in the Physics Department explained to me that Hall proved through definitive experiments that negative charges carry current in normal electrical conductors. The modern physics lab still applies the principles of the Hall Effect to study quantum mechanical effects in nano-materials; Hall’s discovery is a landmark contribution to science. He pioneered the use of laboratory exercises to teach the principles of physics at Harvard, where he was on the faculty for thirty years. During the Boston police strike of 1919, sixty-four-year-old Edwin Hall was the first man to volunteer his services to city officials, saying “I may not prove to be a very good policeman. I may lose my head; I may lose my courage; but, such as I am, I am at the service of the public authorities, the forces of law and order.”

Hall’s discovery is a landmark contribution to science.

As a side note, Brackett, Upton, and Clarke were all called upon as witnesses or experts in patent litigation cases involving Edison over the invention of the electric lamp in the early 1890s. In one of the court proceedings, Dr. Isaac Adams of the Bowdoin Class of 1858 was called to testify. Adams, who had been trained as a medical doctor, was intent on creating low-resistance incandescent lamps from gas-filled Geissler tubes that were equipped with a carbon filament. In 1865, fourteen years before Edison’s incandescent light bulb, Adams produced his lamp. While the lamp worked, the costs of generating a current were too high for it to be a commercially-viable product, and Adams turned his attention to defending his patent for a nickel-plating process instead. The Edison legal team recognized that Adams was honest in representing his work, and asked the court to declare the Adams lamp an abandoned experiment. This was done, clearing the way for Edison’s patent claims. I don’t know if Adams talked with Brackett (a contemporary at Bowdoin) or with fellow alumni Upton or Clarke about his work.

It may have been the times, it may have been something in the quality of science instruction, but Bowdoin College produced researchers, educators, and inventors who changed the world we live in. In retrospect, President Chamberlain’s bold decision to expand the College’s curriculum seemed like an easy call, but doing what needs to be done is seldom easy or comfortable. Then – as now – “sounding the claims of a proud ancestry” is no substitute for “the ringing watchwords of an onward cause.”

With best wishes,

John R. Cross
John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Bob Spencer'60 says:

    Thank you John- I always learn something new from your columns

  2. Dave Larsson ('76) says:

    Great post, John! That Chamberlain speech was required reading in Prof. Paul Hazelton’s class, and still seems timely. Wonderful detective work about the Edison connections.


  3. Elizabeth Aaroe says:

    By John, you’ve done it again! I loved this story and I also muffled a chuckle thinking about how President Barry Mills thought it prudent to create an Engineering opportunity for students of this generation, 100+ years later. As Edison, Brackett, Upton, Clarke and Hall might say, your story was “illuminating” …and, as I always say, you “brighten” my day every time a Whispering Pines appears. Thank you for being like Hall. Your writing “shines” and your very humbly offered contributions are not only delivered with a head full of intellect, curiosity and humor but with a heart full of courage and love for Bowdoin. At the risk of “dimming” my metaphors: You light up our lives. Thank you.

  4. E. Mac Campbell '72 says:

    Another expertly researched and finely written piece of history, John. You continue to uncover these bright nuggets of Bowdoin’s story and do a fine job connecting each to a broader American and human narrative. Keep up the good work! Your article is always the first thing I read in the WP.

  5. John what a fantastic piece. It’s edifying to know that Edison had Polar Bears on his side! And to think that the Hall effect is named for a Bowdoin grad…gives new meaning to any of the Halls in Brunswick.
    Have a great fall and keep the Pines whispering.

  6. David Dickson, Class of '76 says:

    Excellent column, John! Bowdoin’s many contributions to the sciences internationally have often flown under the radar and your column helps to rectify that oversight. Those of us who have been enlightened by your columns over the years look forward to a future book on the history of the college. With appreciation.

    As a footnote, thank you David Larson for recalling Paul Hazleton’s use of the Chamberlain speech in his education class. I also had the privilege of taking his class.

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