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An Electrifying Family
My wife Eunice came from ancestors, on several
sides, who were among the first in the business -- whatever the business
was from time to time. She is descended by two different lines from
people who came to America on the Mayflower (Isaac Allerton and John Warren),
and I always took some pride in the fact that Isaac Allerton was among
the first people to be expelled from the Plymouth Colony as a heretic.
Well, maybe heretic isn't quite the
right word. Although he was one of the true believers, he served
for some time as the colony's business agent. His duties included
taking Massachusetts corn up into Maine to trade with the Maine Indians
for beaver pelts, and taking the beaver pelts to London to be sold to help
pay for the debt the colony owed – the money they had borrowed to pay for
their transportation to the new world. He traded on his own account
as well as on behalf of the community, and apparently did rather
well for himself as well as for the community. But there were those
who felt he was profiteering on his own behalf, and they found their leverage
to expel him from his job, and from the colony, when they found he was
trading with people who offered the best price instead of with people who
had the right religious beliefs. More explicitly, he was expelled
for the grievous sin of – trading with Quakers.
Let's move ahead nearly
250 years, from the early 1600's to the mid 1800's. Eunice's great
grandfather, William Lowell Brekenridge, 1828-1908, lived in Ware, Massachusetts.
His father headed the building committee for the town hall there in the
1840's; the family even then was said to be mechanically inclined.
William was a machinist, working in metal and wood, building and fixing
machinery in the mills of the region. Usually these were textile
mills, running on water power. This was before the days of electricity.
You needed a water wheel for power and then a long series of gears, rotors,
and belts to bring the power to where you want it, at the machines.
His son, Eunice's
grandfather, Harlin Augustus Breckenridge (the spelling had changed),
born 1863, was the proprietor of the Rhode Island Telephone &
Electric Co. As a child Eunice was puzzled by this – electric and
phone companies were vastly different businesses, and seemed to be
in the hands of large companies, not little family concerns. But
this was the very early days of both industries. You can't have a
telephone or electricity unless there are wires running down the street,
and you need more wires to bring the electricity and phone wires to where
you want them in the house. In the earliest days of electricity there
was a lot of wiring needed in the streets and houses of Providence, Rhode
Island, and that is what Harlin's company did. His brother
Henry worked with him and his son Wilbur worked there when he was in school.
This was Eunice's father, Wilbur Tobias Breckenridge, born October 14,
Wilbur went to Brown University in Providence,
where he was probably among the very first students ever to try to major
in what we would now call electrical engineering – although I don't think
that that subject or job description existed about 1912 or so. He
worked during the First World War at Bethlehem Steel, where an uncle, William
Mott Tobias, was an officer, then at the young General Electric Company,
and then went on to Bell Labs, the legendary research arm of American Telephone
and Telegraph Company. He was there 25 years, one of the pioneers
there in the years when AT&T developed into one of the great American
I recall a conversation with him
in the late 1980's; he was about 95 years old. He recalled working
on the design of one of the first automated long distance switching centers,
in St. Louis. This was back sometime around 1950, when it was
just becoming possible to dial a long distance call without the aid of
an operator. Telephones were still electro-mechanical devices, lots
of electromagnets and rotary switches, almost none of what we'd now call
electronics. A rotary dial turned at an essentially fixed speed,
sending pulses to indicate a number (one pulse for one, ten pulses for
zero) and in the switching station a motor had to turn a mechanical switch
one position for each pulse. This took power – a great deal of power
– and one of Wilbur's jobs was estimating how much power would be needed
in the St. Louis switching plant. He said in the 1980's that
he no longer recalled the numbers, but he recalled that the main
ground wire was a solid copper bar, one-half inch thick, eight inches wide
running the entire length of the quite large building. That's a lot
With all this knowledge of and
interest in electricity in the family, Eunice had the feeling that she
got every electrical toy that come on the market. Of course, she
was born in 1924 so we are talking the 1929 to 1939 period, when electrical
toys were in their infancy and no one had yet begun to think of safety
standards. She recalls a miniature electric iron that she could use
to iron her doll clothes – so powerful that her mother adopted it to bring
along on trips as a travel iron. And Eunice had a toy-size kitchen
stove that actually worked, with two ovens powerful enough that one could
actually bake potatoes, and a top burner that she could use to boil water.
The family had a variety of other
electric gadgets, also. Eunice recalls an egg cooker that relied
on the electrical conductivity of the water to complete a circuit and make
heat, much like some modern vaporizers: you put in one teaspoon of water
for each egg you wanted to soft-boil. Her grandfather used one of
the first electric clippers to shave which left more stubble than the straight
razor her father used. He loved to rub his cheek against any stray
females in the family to make them rosy red. And of course, there
was an early waffle iron.
The latter was important
because in 1942 Eunice went off to college – Principia College, in Elsah,
Illinois, a long way from home in New Jersey. World War Two was well
under way, and most gadgets and appliances for civilian use were unavailable.
When her dorm mates found she could change plugs on electrical cords, they
were convinced she could fix anything electrical. Luckily it was
often the plug that was at fault.
When Eunice looked in the small
dormitory kitchen, she found a waffle iron. She carefully went out
and bought the supplies for waffles, found her recipe, and went back to
the dorm to celebrate and feed her three roommates waffles.
She had overlooked something.
The small dorm kitchen and no measuring cup. Her recipe was not going
to be very useful. So she estimated. She sized things by guess
and by golly. And adjusted. And tinkered. And added a
little of this and a pinch of that. And you know what? It worked
perfectly. It worked so well that she never did get a measuring cup
for the dorm kitchen. After she graduated she followed the recipe
with her mother's measuring cup, but the waffles were not nearly as good.
Thus she lost faith in recipes, and a large part of her learning to cook
was without the use of a measuring cup. She owns a whole set of measuring
cups and spoons now, and I've even seen her use them, but only on the rare
occasions when she uses a cookbook. She still does a great deal of
inventing in the kitchen, recipes by guess and by golly and a pinch of
this and a few drops of that and you know what? It still works very
I'm not sure, but maybe it was
that experimental tinkering in the dorm kitchen that got her interested
in chemistry. After the invention of nylon she and a host of others
set out to be chemistry majors. She even had a summer job,
just after her freshman year, at the American Color and Pigment Company
plant in New Jersey, as an analytical chemist.
Later in her first
apartment, she became the local expert on the removal of cement sloppily
left on tile bathroom floors. You guessed it. Her Handbook
of Chemistry and Physics came to the rescue. Years later she learned
that the concentrated hydrochloric acid she used was the standard treatment
used by masons for that purpose.
But then she liked the physics
professor better, or maybe he liked her better, and she suddenly became
a physics major. It was as a physics major and physics lab assistant
that she graduated, in 1946. By then chemists were a dime a dozen
and with the atom bomb in 1945, physicists were in great demand.
Now, September of 1946 was the
year that the maximum number of GI's were coming home from the war.
An awful lot of them wanted to go to school on the GI Bill, and teachers
were in short supply. That is how she wound up teaching Freshman
Physics at the University of Idaho in the Fall of 1946, with just a bachelor's
degree and no experience. I don't know how many women were teaching
university level physics in this country in 1946, but I'd be very surprised
if you couldn't count them on the fingers of one hand.
Eunice has maintained her
interest in current technology throughout her life, as her father and grandfather
had done before her. She was among the first people working with
microcomputers in the 1970's, which is how I met her. And I can testify
that she still keeps that tinkering streak in the kitchen. When we
got a microwave she immediately saw the connection between electrical conductivity
of the food and how it heats up – an extension of that experience with
the little egg cooker her family had when she was young. (If you
aren't sure what I mean, take a piece of chicken and microwave it.
Put a layer of ketchup on half of the piece of meat but not the other half.
Watch the difference in how they cook. Ketchup is acid and pretty
So I haven't very often
seen Eunice actually carefully follow the measurement directions in a cookbook.
But I have seen her get out her Handbook of Chemistry and Physics to check
on the electrical conductivity of something before she puts it in the microwave.
After all, electrical conductivity has been important in her family for
close to a hundred years.
Edward Ordman (C) 2001
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