Inside The Burndy Library
IN 1929 BERN DIBNER , an electrical engineer living in the Bronx, New York, read a recently published book by Stuart Chase called Men and Machines . He was taken aback by a list of more than two dozen of the inventions and scientific achievements of Leonardo da Vinci—an almost unbelievable roster of anticipations that included studies of the motion of the planets (before Nicholas Copernicus), of gravity and the tides (before Isaac Newton), and even of earthshine illuminating the dark of the moon (before the invention of the telescope). Other inventions of Leonardo’s ranged from buoys, a submarine, the first life preserver, airplanes, and parachutes to rolling mills, power hammers, threading machines, jig looms, dredges, lathes, planes, and much more.
Dibner, a practical man and a successful inventor, asked himself whether Leonardo could really have been so far ahead of his time as to grasp mechanical principles that would not become part of common engineering practice for another several hundred years. Did Leonardo truly hold such advanced notions about the universe, the nature of the sun and stars, and biological processes? Skeptical but fascinated, Dibner began to collect and to read all the books he could find on Leonardo. Most of them dealt primarily with Leonardo as artist and architect; the chief works on the technical aspects of Leonardo’s career were in German and Italian, so Dibner, who knew German, set out to master Italian. He took a year’s leave from his company, visited Rome, Florence, Vinci, and Milan, and then went to Switzerland to enroll as a student at the University of ZÜrich, where he studied Renaissance art, science, and culture.
For Dibner the Renaissance has always been the time, above all, of the flowering of science. Stimulated to learn more about not just Leonardo but his contemporaries and successors as well, Dibner began to buy books—some in original editions—that marked the development of science during the two centuries following Leonardo: books by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Huygens, Newton, Vesalius, Fabricius, and Harvey.
Upon his return to America, Dibner continued to collect books on Leonardo da Vinci and enlarged the scope of his holdings to editions of the great scientists who preceded Leonardo—and of their successors right up to the present. Nor did he limit his collecting to the pure sciences; he was always on the lookout for masterpieces of technology and engineering. As his knowledge of the technological and scientific past grew, he concluded that he had formerly been deprived of his “heritage as an engineer and scientist.”
Ultimately—and astonishingly—Dibner managed to gather together all the primary works that had marked the progress of all the sciences, the founding classics in every branch of science and engineering. The greatest private library ever assembled devoted to the conquest and understanding of nature, to the evergrowing knowledge of life and the universe, had been created by a single man. That collection is the Burndy (an acronym drawn from the founder’s first name and last initial) Library, in Norwalk, Connecticut; it contains thirty thousand volumes, three thousand prints and photographs, and five hundred other artifacts.
Born in 1897 in the Ukraine, then a part of czarist Russia, Bern Dibner came with his family to the United States in 1904. After serving in World War I, he studied electrical engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn and received his degree in 1921. He worked in the engineering design of electric power transmission and in 1923 was assigned the job of unifying the electrical system of Cuba. The country had many small power plants, each with its own generating equipment and transmission lines, and Dibner found that there was no simple connecting device that could link all the different wires and conduits involved. He solved this problem by inventing a universal connector, one that did not require any soldering or welding, and with it he soon produced a unified grid.
Dibner patented his invention and, on his return to America, began to manufacture it. The Dibner electrical connector eventually made itself useful throughout the electrical industry. At first all the operations of the new company—called the Burndy Engineering Corporation—were concentrated in a single building on Bruckner Boulevard, in the Bronx; today corporate headquarters are in Norwalk, Connecticut, and the company’s manufacturing and distribution operations are spread all over the globe.
During the 1930s Dibner worked on his command of foreign languages, traveled extensively in Europe, made the acquaintance of booksellers in many countries, and visited the sites of great achievements in science and engineering. In 1940 he enrolled as a special student at Columbia University to pursue a formal study of the history of science. Meanwhile, his collection was fast becoming one of the world’s great private libraries. In 1941 he created the Burndy Library, and he immediately began to open its great resources to scholars, scientists, and engineers.
The library grew rapidly. In the early days the collection was housed at the Burndy Engineering Company, where Dibner’s very accommodating associates allowed him to load up their offices with locked metal cases containing landmark publications of science and technology. Conference rooms absorbed various special collections and became known as the Newton Room, the Leonardo Room, the Galileo Room, and the Einstein Room. These were filled not only with the writings of the scientists and related books and letters, but also with illustrative material of all sorts—portraits, statuary, cartoons, diagrams, medallions, as well as a treasure of historical scientific instruments. To this day the library is a primary source for anyone seeking visual material to illustrate any aspect of science or technology.
In 1951 the company moved its headquarters and laboratories to Norwalk, and in 1964 Dibner had a separate building constructed nearby to house his twenty-five thousand volumes. At once the Burndy Library became a central reference resource for science and technology, and the building also became a meeting place for groups of all sorts interested in science and technology, their history, and their place in our civilization. The library’s primary function, said its founder, was to serve as a “steward of the written and printed word establishing the discipline of science.”
Dibner, still a learned enthusiast at the age of eighty-eight, has himself been in charge ever since the library was founded; he supervises its day-to-day operations, the purchase of acquisitions, the arrangements for loans and exhibitions, and even conducts guided tours. He sees his library’s role not as preservation but as dissemination—to spread the “story of the attainments and methods of science”—and because its mission is an active one, the library has long had a publications program. Books and pamphlets range from attractive reprints of scientific and engineering classics to a general history of electricity, an early account of metallurgical technology in Japan, and a translation of Luigi Galvani’s treatise on “animal electricity.” The library also has published an impressive collection of books written by Dibner himself, one of them dealing with Leonardo as a military engineer, another with the erection of a huge Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in 1586, and a third made up of biographical sketches of the “ten founding fathers” of the science of electricity. Still others deal with the laying of the Atlantic cable, the discovery of X rays by Wilhelm Roentgen, the design and use of early electrical machines (or electrostatic generators), Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle , the engravings of the Flemish-Italian painter Stradanus illustrating the different technical arts of the sixteenth century, Hans Christian Oersted and the discovery of electromagnetism, Galileo and the magnetic clock, and Benjamin Franklin’s electrical research. All have been distributed to about twelve thousand interested people, and some have been reprinted by commercial publishers and much more widely sold.
Of all these works Bern Dibner’s favorite by far is Publication No. 12, The Heralds of Science . This beautifully printed and illustrated book provides a look at the very heart of the library, for it is actually a catalog of the Burndy’s greatest acquisitions—two hundred “epochal books and pamphlets in the physical and biological sciences in the Burndy Library that were instrumental in establishing our age of science.” Among the earliest items are a page from a Gutenberg Bible (ca. 1455) and Valturius’s De ReMilitari (1472)—a book published just two decades before Christopher Columbus’s voyage, which contains the first printed technical illustrations. The most recent works include Albert Einstein’s first paper on relativity and an early work by Lise Meitner, a discoverer of nuclear fission.
In describing the library’s holdings, Dibner emphasizes, “I am an electrical engineer; I never could neglect my subject.” Thus it is hardly surprising that the most complete area in the whole collection is that of electricity, magnetism, and electromagnetism—in both their scientific and technological aspects. For the period before 1900 the collection is virtually all-inclusive, the few gaps which exist being filled in whenever possible. It is undoubtedly the most comprehensive assemblage of books on electricity and magnetism anywhere in the world.
The documents start precisely at the beginning: Alessandro Volta began the science of current electricity in the 1790s after reading a monograph by Galvani that attributed certain physiological phenomena to a kind of “animal electricity.” Dibner’s collection contains the very copy of Galvani’s monograph that Volta read, inscribed to Volta in Galvani’s hand, “Ex dono Auctoris”— that is, “Gift from the Author.” The many other items of Volta’s include volumes of his works with handwritten annotations, corrections, or proposed revisions.
The books on electricity in the Burndy collection not only record the growth of experiments and theories concerning electrical and magnetic phenomena but also document the practical results of theoretic progress. In the eighteenth century it was the practice to ring church bells in a vain attempt to ward off lightning strokes. These bells often bore the words fulgura frango (“I clear the air of lightning”). And as Dibner points out, a “book published in Munich in 1784 recorded the damage done by lightning strokes in 33 years of record keeping: 386 church steeples were struck, 103 bellringers killed.” Yet, in 1751, a small book published in London had outlined a remedy: the use of grounded, pointed rods of iron attached to houses, ships, and churches, so that they “may be effectively secured from the stroke of lightning.” Benjamin Franklin’s book went through five London editions in his own lifetime, all of which are present in the Burndy collection. It is a work that not only records progress in human control of the destructive forces of nature but also marks the first major American contribution to theoretical science.
Every major advance in the sciences is amply represented at Burndy. All of Darwin’s works are there, for instance, and the library even possesses one of the dozen surviving folio pages of the original manuscript of Origin of Species . This page, written in Darwin’s hand, suggests how revisions, deletions, and insertions were needed in order to make the final printed version accurately convey the author’s thoughts.
Of all the towering figures the library memorializes, one stands above the rest for Dibner: Louis Pasteur, whom he regards as the “greatest benefactor of mankind.” A major contributor to fundamental knowledge in such varied areas as crystals, chemistry, microbiology, and physiology, Pasteur found many ways to put science to work in the service of humanity. He improved methods of making wine, beer, and vinegar; found cures for the ailing silkworm industry of France; and, of course, invented the pasteurization of milk. Most important of all, he traced the cause of many diseases to microorganisms and then showed how to prevent and to cure such traditional scourges as rabies, diphtheria, cholera, and anthrax.
The Burndy owns all of Pasteur’s major works, and as in so many other cases, the collection is enriched by special items not to be found elsewhere. One is a specially bound copy of a book entitled Elémens de Physique that bears an embossed seal indicating that it was awarded as a prize at the Université de France, Collège Royal de St. Louis, on August 17, 1843. The recipient was the twenty-year-old Pasteur, who wrote his name on the title page. The library also owns three notebooks of Pasteur’s. One, begun on September 25, 1870, contains notes on fermentation, alcohol, the alleviation of pain, and silkworms, as well as pen-and-ink sketches. It both documents the stages of Pasteur’s researches and shows his extraordinary skill in making drawings. The importance of art in Pasteur’s life and the fact that he was a gifted artist are often ignored. One of the other two notebooks contains references to the work of Joseph Lister, the English surgeon who developed methods of antiseptic surgery that applied Pasteur’s germ theory of disease.
The twentieth century is also well represented in the library. There are, for instance, publications by Albert Einstein, letters of Einstein’s, and an extraordinary Einstein manuscript—a four-and-one-half-page summary of the general theory of relativity. There is also a set of 157 articles or reprints by the Nobel laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, discoverer of many new transuranium elements. The Seaborg collection spans the years from 1936 to 1964, documenting the active period of research of one of the world’s pioneer nuclear chemists. Included are many scarce mimeographed papers and a bibliography of all of Seaborg’s publications. There are also collections of other twentieth-century scientists, including Casimir Funk, the pioneer investigator of vitamins, and Selman A. Waksman, an early researcher in the field of antibiotics.
In 1975, at the initiative of the Smithsonian Institution, a selection of more than eleven thousand of the most important books and manuscripts in the Burndy Library was given to the nation to form the nucleus of America’s first national library of science, the Dibner Library in the National Museum of American History, a trove of exhibits and treasures relating to the development of science and technology. This extraordinary gift included all two hundred items in The Heralds of Science , as well as three hundred science books printed before 1500.
So now there are two libraries. The Washington institution is very formal, open to visitors and scholars by appointment: as in every rare-book library, each book is carefully guarded. By contrast, the original library, with most of its rarest volumes gone, retains its traditional informality; visitors can browse among the books, take them from the shelves, and photograph the odd page. Dibner is not sorry his greatest treasures are gone. He found the guarding of them to be “noncreative work,” and believes the primary purpose of “single great works” is “to spread interest in the subject. In whatever place of prominence they are, they will do it. In Washington, in the nation’s capital, these books are now exposed to a larger number of people than would ever be possible at the Burndy Library in Norwalk, and so they serve their purpose in a much better manner.” What’s more, since photocopying has become a universal and inexpensive means of reproduction, the need of scholars to consult original copies of such rare books has greatly diminished.
Without a doubt Dibner’s collection could never be put together today with any sum of money—and much of what could be gotten would be vastly more expensive. First editions of the Vesalius and Copernicus materials no longer appear on the open market with any frequency, and it is all but impossible to find a Harvey. It is rare even to find copies of the original three editions of Newton’s Principia , which used to be a regular feature of booksellers’ catalogs. A little pamphlet by Georg Ohm of 1827, containing the famous law of currents, was listed in a recent catalog at forty-five hundred dollars. Dibner acquired his for a pittance.
Since Dibner first got involved, the history of science has become an established and well-recognized subject. More than a dozen universities in America now have graduate programs leading to a Ph.D. in the discipline, and there is a History of Science Society with several thousand members. In the late 1930s, the rolls of this society numbered only about two hundred, and there was only one university in America that had a doctoral program in the history of science. I myself was the first American to receive a formal doctorate in the history of science. So it is easy to see how bold and daring Dibner was to put all his resources into this new and as yet unrecognized area.
When I visited the Burndy Library last year, I found an exhibition in honor of the hundredth anniversary of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Part of it dealt with the great “heralds” of the subject, including the researches of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Edward Weber on magnetism and earth magnetism, a very early, important report on Samuel F. B. Morse’s telegraph, and an early paper by Heinrich Hertz on electromagnetic waves that is one of the foundations of radio technology. One could see original papers of James Clerk Maxwell and of Michael Faraday, and an early publication by Ohm.
There was also Benjamin Franklin’s book on electricity and an extract from the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions describing the famous experiment with the kite. One case held a book by William Gilbert, dating from 1600, that some believe marks the absolute beginning of electrical science.
Of course, the engineering side was also shown. There were early pictures of the working of the telephone and a copy of the Guglielmo Marconi patent for wireless communication. I was particularly struck by a charming letter from Thomas Edison, firing one of his employees who had proved an unsatisfactory “superintendent of mechanics of the laboratory.” Edison told him that “your experience and training fit you for the superintendency of a large manufacturing establishment, where system is required,” but in an “experimental laboratory, system and regular methods are detrimental.” Hence he was “reluctantly compelled to make a change.” The man could be suited for the position only if “this were a regular manufacturing establishment.” Alongside this letter were some striking photographs, including one of a phalanx of supporters of Grover Cleveland, all wearing electric headlights connected by wires to a nearby horse-drawn steam generator.
For me the heart of the exhibit was a pair of small cabinets. One contained the souvenir program of a meeting held by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers in 1902, less than a year after Marconi sent his first message across the Atlantic. The program is signed by Marconi, Michael Pupin (another electrical pioneer, professor of physics at Columbia University), Alexander Graham Bell, and Elihu Thomson.
In the other cabinet there was some material about that strange inventor Nikola Tesla, and near it a letter written by Charles Steinmetz to Dibner in 1923. There was also a pencil sketch of Steinmetz that Dibner had drawn and Steinmetz had signed. The library has Steinmetz’s daybook, which he kept while directing and pursuing research for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. In it you can see, among other things, that he worked a sixty-hour week. Bern Dibner’s comment was, “The law wouldn’t let him do that today.”