Archives:Bliss Electrical School Alumni Address

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This is a speech, given by Dr. Louis D. Bliss (Fellow, AIEE, 1920) to Bliss Alumni in 1955. His fascinating speech covers the changes that have occurred since his birth in 1871, especially in electrical engineering.

Final Alumni Address

Male: At this time, it is my great honor to present Professor Bliss.

Bliss: President Price, Dr. Dale, and Bliss men, I am sure you will know without my telling you what a pleasure it is to look into your faces once more, and to great you personally. The years roll around so fast, it hardly seems possible that another year has passed since we gathered here last February.

I have been thinking that the entire electrical industry, with all of its ramifications, has been developed within the span of my own lifetime. Many of these developments, I have witnessed, and a few, I have had a part in.

When I was born in 1871, there was not a telephone in all of the world. Today there are fifty million telephones in the United States alone; more than in all of the rest of the world together. When I was born, there were no automobiles. There were no electric lights. There were no electric cars or electric locomotives or diesels. There were no gas engines. There were no storage batteries. There were no airplanes. There were no submarines. There was no wireless or radio or television, nor atom bombs.

The first practical incandescent filament lamp was produced by Edison in 1879. In the early 1890s, I attended a reception given by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in New York in honor of the world’s first great electrician, Sir William Thompson, also known as Lord Kelvin, who for fifty years, held the care of philosophy in the University of Glasgow, Scotland. It was my privilege to attend the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The first rotary converter, the synchronous condenser, the first alternating parent power system, and the first common battery telephone exchange all made their appearance that year. The first class of the Bliss Electrical School started October 15, 1893, in one room on the third floor of the Water Building, corner of Ninth and Ebb [spelling?] Streets, as a night class, with twenty-six students. The capital investment in the school was $400, representing an advance payment of $20 each from twenty men. Thomas E. Robertson, later United States Commissioner of Patents, was a member of this class. The first hydroelectric plant for the long distance transmission of power by alternating currents was put into operation at Niagara Falls in New York in 1895. C. Francis Jenkins, of moving picture and television fame, was a student at Bliss that same year. In 1897, Marconi successfully demonstrated wireless telegraphy for the first time. The following year, I had the honor of delivering the first lecture on wireless telegraphy to be heard in Washington before the Philosophical Society at the Cosmos Club.

The Washington Society of Engineers was founded in 1907, with Admiral Nick Ray as its first president. It is my privilege to be one of the charter members, and the Society’s first secretary. The first Model T Ford automobile made its appearance in 1908. It had an inductor type alternating current generator built into the flywheel for ignition purposes. On November 6, 1908, the entire plant of the Bliss Electrical School, on these grounds here at Takoma Park was destroyed by fire. My father, who was in a distant city, read of the disaster in the Associated Press dispatches. He sent me a message, which said, “Read the 46th Psalm.” For more than 40 years thereafter, on every anniversary of the fire, I read this chapter to the class then in session at their daily chapel exercises, and retold to them the story of the fire. In 1910, the Wright Brothers, after seven years of experimental work with airplanes made several successful flights from Fort Myer, Virginia. In 1912, the magnificent, new, unsinkable steamship, the Titanic, collided with an iceberg and sank off the Newfoundland coast, with tremendous loss of life. The wireless telecation to summon aid to a ship in distress. The Panama Canal was electrified in 1914. W. B. Connelly, a 1904 graduate of Bliss, had charge for the General Electric Company at Schenectady of the inspection of some two miles of switchboards for the control of the Panama installation. Before going to the GE company, Mr. Connelly was on the staff at Bliss, and instructed Mr. Skipwith B. Cole, then a student, and later dean of the faculty at Bliss.

The first World War started in 1914. The Honorable William Jennings Bryant, Secretary of State, addressed the graduating class of the Bliss Electrical School in the church auditorium in the Calvary Baptist Church on June 3, 1914. In 1915, the first transatlantic telephone operation was established. In the same year, the first transcontinental telephone service, Boston to San Francisco, was begun. The toll was $25 for three minutes. Last month, I talked to my brother in California on his eighty-second birthday. The toll was two dollars. On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell, working in his dusty attic workshop in Boston, called out over a wire to his assistant, Thomas Augustus Watson, in the basement and said, “Watson, come here, I want you.” And Watson heard, and he came. This was the first time in history that a sentence of articulate speech transformed into fluctuating electric currents was transmitted over a wire from one person to another. Forty years later, on May 16, 1916, the first national meeting of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers was held simultaneously in six separate cities across the continent from Boston to San Francisco. Approximately 1,000 engineers, each provided with a small head telephone receiver, for it was before the days of loud speakers, were in attendance in an auditorium in each of the six cities, listening to the exercises transmitted over the newly completed transcontinental telephone lines from New York, where J. J. Carty, chief engineer of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company, presided. Among the distinguished speakers present, Alexander Graham Bell once more spoke to his assistant, Thomas Augustus Watson, and Watson replied. It was my privilege to be present at this meeting. I sat with 1,000 other engineers in Whittier Hall in Philadelphia. At the close of the meeting, I said to the engineers at that AT&T company present, “I would like to have the telephone receiver at my seat as a souvenir of this occasion,” and they gave it to me. I have treasured it all through the years to this day, and I hold it in my hand here tonight. You can readily understand that I regard it with awe, almost with reverence, for the diaphragm of this instrument was actuated by the voices of the man who first spoke, and the man who first heard articulate speech over a telephone.

In 1917, the United States entered the first World War. By special permission granted by the War Department, the Bliss Electrical School organized a searchlight company of engineers consisting of fifty-seven men from the 1917 class, headed by Lt. Clyde K. Krisee [spelling?] of the faculty, and under Major [John C.] Gotwals of the Engineer Corps of the United States Army. This company went overseas with the First Division of the American Expeditionary Forces. These men were used for instruction purposes in a searchlight school in Paris. All returned safely to this country after the war save one, who was killed in an automobile accident in Paris. The captured German searchlight, which adorns this campus, was presented to the Bliss Electrical School by the War Department as a tribute to the work of the Bliss Searchlight Company of Engineers. J. Harvey Ashwall [spelling?] was a student in the class of 1918 at Bliss. He later became Vice President of the Westinghouse Electric Company, and still holds that position.

At the request of the War Department in 1918, Bliss School prepared an intensive training course in the fundamentals of electricity for drafted men entering the Army. This course was adopted by the War Department, and was the first course used in all the colleges throughout the country, giving instructions along this line to army personnel in the Student Army Training Corps. The school contracted with the War Department to house, feed, and instruct selected groups of soldiers for this course. Beginning June 15, 1918, the school trained 700 soldiers in three detachments. The contract called for training these men at cost. This cost was determined by the auditors in the War Department at $2.00 for the first detachment, at $1.80 for the second detachment, and $1.62 for the third detachment per man per day for housing, feeding, instruction, and supplies. The school was under military control following instruction hence, following the signing of the armistice on November 11, 1918. The third and last detachment of the Student Army Training Corps was mustered out and disbanded on December 6, 1918, and the school was released from military control.

The Radio Corporation of America was organized in 1919. Bliss School resumes civilian training. In 1920, the Westinghouse Company opened the first broadcasting station in the world, KDKA in Pittsburgh. Upon invitation, I broadcast over that station in the fall of that year. On May 27, 1921, President [Warren] Harding received the class of 1921 and shook hands personally with each of the 340 members. The first edition of the Bliss School textbook, Theoretical and Practical Electrical Engineering, was published in September 1921. The first 220,000 volt, alternating current transmission line in the world was put in operation in California in 1922. The first permalloy telegraph cable was laid between New York and Italy in 1924. This cable made it possible to transmit telegraph messages at eight times the speed heretofore obtained with any previous submarine cable. I hold a section of that cable in my hand tonight. The first wire photographs, transmission of pictures over a wire, was inaugurated by the AT&T company in 1925. Winslow Carlson, a graduate of Bliss of 1918, received the [Charles A.] Coffin Award from the General Electric Company for an important invention in connection with the superheterodyne radio receiving set. By 1927, fifteen millionth Model T Ford automobiles had been produced. Charles A. Lindbergh flew from New York to Paris alone in May 1927. The earth inductor compass by which he found his way was developed by Morris M. Titterington, a graduate of Bliss in 1913, vice president and chief engineer of the Pioneer Instrument Company of Brooklyn, New York. Mr. Titterington himself, an experienced pilot, was killed in 1928 when his plane was struck by lightning in Pennsylvania and crashed. On February 1, 1927, I attended the usual luncheon held by Edison Pioneers in the Edison Laboratory on Mr. Edison’s birthday. This was his 80th birthday, and we all shook hands with the grand old man, and extended our congratulations. At that time, Mr. Edison had acquired something more than 1,000 patents. An observer speaking of Mr. Edison said, “He had that instinct for contrivance, that ever wakeful gift for combination, which enabled him to take a laboratory experiment and transform it into a commercial success."

On that occasion, I had the opportunity to meet Mr. Henry Ford personally and observe this unique character. At that time, he was reputed to be the richest man of all time; no Croesus of ancient times or Rockefeller of modern times had ever required the wealth which was attributed to Mr. Ford. At that time he was said to be worth two billion dollars.

On October 21, 1929, as an Edison pioneer, I was invited to address the Northampton Chamber of Commerce in connection with their celebration of Lights, Gold, and Jubilee. By appointment, I enjoyed a delightful visit with former president of the United States, Calvin Coolidge, in his office. In the summer of 1929, 350 alumni of Bliss School, in attendance at a reunion here, were invited to the White House, and President Herbert Hoover consented to be photographed with the group. In 1934, the Pennsylvania Railroad was electrified with overhead trolley, 11,000 volt signal phase, between New York and Washington. In 1937, the first coaxial cable was installed between New York and Washington. It was said to be capable of transmitting 600 simultaneous telephone conversations, or two simultaneous television programs. I hold a section of that cable in my hand tonight.

New York’s World Fair was held in 1939. Sixty foreign nations participated with the United States. One hundred and fifty million dollars was spent to give the world a glimpse of tomorrow. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The United States declared war December 8, 1941. Between March 1942 and July 1945, the Bliss Electrical School trained 4,000 selected enlisted naval personnel in elementary electricity and radio material for eventual work as technicians in radio and radar work.

The 20th Alumni Banquet of Bliss Alumni in the Washington area was held in this room on January 7, 1950. Four hundred and fifty men, all former students of the Bliss Electrical School, from 51 different classes covering 45 different years, were in attendance. This was the largest group of Bliss men ever assembled at any one time anywhere.

The Bliss Electrical School was one of the first schools to be approved for veteran training following the close of the Second World War. Under this program, Bliss School trained some 2,000 veterans at government expense under the G.I. Bill of Rights. The completion of veteran training, the drafting of young men for military service in the Korean War, the appalling increase in the cost of operation of Bliss School (it was then nearly $1,000 a day), the increasing restrictions imposed by the authorities on the operation of privately owned schools, and ever mounting taxes combined to convince the officers and trustees of the Bliss Electrical school that the school had served its purpose and run its course, and that it would not be possible for a self-supporting school such as Bliss, without any endowment, to survive any longer.

The graduation exercises for the sixty-sixth and final class to be graduated from Bliss were held on October 26, 1950. This class consisted of seventy-one men. The Honorable Thomas E. Robertson, former United States Commissioner of Patents, and a member of the first class at Bliss, was present on the platform and participated briefly in these final exercises. These exercises marked the close of fifty-seven years of continuous operation of the Bliss Electrical School, and the training in all of approximately 16,000 men.

As I look back over the years, I realize that I have been greatly blessed. I have innumerable causes for gratitude. One of my greatest causes for gratitude is the privilege I have enjoyed for over half a century of working for a year at a time with so many of you Bliss men. So many of the enduring satisfactions of life have come from this association. These memories have been a constant source of inspiration and encouragement, and the resulting friendships have been enduring. Your expressions of appreciation have sustained me in many an hour of trial. Whatever I have accomplished in life, I feel that I owe in no small measure to your sympathetic understanding and helpful cooperation.

And so as I travel down the western slope toward the sunset, I honestly pray that I may be a little kindlier with the passing of each day, that I leave but happy memories as I go along my way, that I may use such talents as I have that friendships through may last, and help the world’s faith stronger grow in all its true and best. God grant me strength of heart no matter how things run, through work and play and pray and trust, until the journey is done.

[Applause] I thank you gentlemen, with all my heart.