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My Grandfather Invented the Telegraph

On August 25, 1952, walking home from the Boston Public Library, I picked up an early afternoon edition of the Boston Traveler, as was my daily custom. The front page was uninviting. Turning to the letters column, I was startled to read:

Personal Post Card

Joseph Stalin,
Kremlin:
  You say Muscovite Z.Y. Slonimsky invented the telegraph a dozen years before Americans thought of it. That makes you the champ. After all, you invented Slonimsky.

Boston Common

Stalin invented Slonimsky! Then he must have also invented the genetic content of one-quarter of me, for Z. Y. Slonimsky, known to the world of Jewish scholarship as Chaim Selig Slonimsky, was my paternal grandfather. A swarm of childhood memories invaded my brain. Ever since I could remember, my mother used to tell me amazing tales about my grandfather, who was a genius, but an impractical one. “Don’t follow in his footsteps,” she cautioned me.

The most spectacular of my grandfather’s impracticalities was his failure to patent the telegraph, which he invented long before anybody thought of it. My mother recited the story in wearisome detail, and with each repetition I could believe it less and less, until I could endure it no longer.

It seems that my grandfather stumbled upon the idea of the electric telegraph while working on instant communication from a theological point of view. He wrote out the pertinent formulas, drew appropriate diagrams, and soon the telegraph was ready, on paper at least. “Sarah,” he said to his wife. “I have just invented the telegraph. Now let us see how long it will take them to figure it out,” he added with a twinkle in his eyes. Years passed and the news came from America of the successful demonstration of the electric telegraph. “Will you fetch that old paper from the top shelf for me,” my grandfather commanded his wife, and brushing away the dust of a decade, he spread the pages on the table to compare his findings with the American dispatch. “Good for them!” he exclaimed upon examination. “They got everything exactly right.” Thereupon he tore up his manuscript and threw it into the refuse box.

And now this ancient tale that used to irritate me so much in my childhood by its obvious incredibility was endorsed by the Soviet government, backed by the whole awesome machinery of official publicity. I felt like Schliemann discovering the truth of Homer in the ruins of Troy.

The source of the “personal post card” to Stalin published in the violently anti-Soviet Boston Traveler was prompted by an Associated Press dispatch which appeared in the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, August 23, 1952, under the caption, “Moscow Claims Telegraph Credit,” with the subhead, “Asserts Russian Invented the First Multiple System.” The content of the article narrowed the claim for my grandfather’s invention to a certain specific development, and as a source it quoted an article by two Soviet military engineers, Lt. Cols. Gorodnichin and Shlyapobersky, published in the army paper Krasnaya Zvezda (“The Red Star”) on August 19, 1952. I sought out the original Russian publication, which appeared under the title “Glorious Pages in the History of National Science and Technology” and was identified as an extract from a dissertation presented to the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. After a lengthy discussion, typical of the Soviet tendency of the time to seek credit for Russia for all sorts of modern inventions, from incandescent illumination to powered flight, the authors devoted several paragraphs to the role of my grandfather in duplex telegraphy. The pertinent passage read:

During our work in the Central State Historical Archives in Leningrad, we discovered a letter written by Z.Y. Slonimsky, dated April 15, 1858, addressed to the Directorate of the Russian Ministry of Transportation. The author of the letter was an eminent Russian scientist who received a prize of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1854 for his invention of an adding machine based on an original mathematical system devised by him. In this letter he revealed a thorough understanding of the processes that take place in duplex telegraphy, and for the first time proposed a method to obviate certain difficulties of simultaneous transmission of messages over the wire. Despite the novelty of Slonimsky’s proposal and the feasibility of its practical application, he failed to obtain the necessary funds for his experiments. In 1859 he published a separate brochure containing a detailed description of his method. Comparing Slonimsky’s device with those developed by the American scientists Stirnes in 1871 and Edison in 1874, it appears that neither of the two Americans introduced any innovations. The Stirnes system partially duplicates the Slonimsky method, and Edison’s development is essentially the same. Thus the examination of historical evidence leads to the conclusion that our fatherland holds the priority on the duplex system of electric telegraphy made public by the Russian scientist Z.Y. Slonimsky twelve years before Stirnes and fifteen years before Edison.

The image of my grandfather as an idealistic but impractical genius so vividly drawn by my mother is modified somewhat by the fact that he actually published the results of his discoveries, but it is supported to some extent in his biography in the Russky Entsiklopedichesky Slovar, published in 1900 when my grandfather was still living:

The mathematical gifts and inventive power with which Slonimsky astounded both theoretical and practical scientists in his youth, were not exploited by him in full, partly because of the unfavorable living conditions of Russian Jews and partly because of Slonimsky’s own intellectual idiosyncrasies. Once he had found the solution of a specific problem . . . , he was in no hurry to publish his findings . . . and often laid them aside for many years until the foreign scientific periodicals announced these inventions as new accomplishments of some Western scientist.

This documentary support of my grandfather’s peculiar genius encouraged me to delve further into his hagiography. A particularly engaging episode preserved in the oral history of my family, which I felt was subject to scientific verification, concerned a solar eclipse which occurred near my grandfather’s native town of Bialystok when he was a small boy. A German astronomical expedition was set up on the site; shiny telescopes adorned the landscape; the weather was perfect for the observation of the celestial phenomenon. The villagers looked with apprehension mixed with wonder at the primly dressed German scientists. My grandfather, then a boy of tender years, watched the proceedings with unabated curiosity. A German astronomer was moved to speak to him (the Yiddish-speaking natives could understand elementary German without difficulty). “The sun will gradually become smaller and smaller, and soon it will be completely blotted out. But you must not be afraid,” the German reassured the boy. “After a few minutes of total darkness, sunlight will return.” My grandfather listened to the German’s explanations with due respect, and then said, in passable school German: “I know all that. What I cannot comprehend, however, is how you expect to make any worthwhile observations of the corona without a double diffraction lens.” The German was startled. ‘Where did you learn all this?” he asked in utter astonishment. “Why, every street urchin in the village knows such elementary stuff,” was the reply. The astronomer dispatched a report to the Berlin Academy of Sciences, in which he declared that Bialystok was the most civilized community in the world, and he advanced the theory that this extraordinary state of knowledge amid a largely illiterate population was due to the preservation through the centuries of secret rabbinical doctrines dealing with celestial phenomena.

According to the classical Canon der Finsternisse by T. von Oppolzer, there was a total eclipse of the sun in the region of Bialystok on September 7, 1820, when my grandfather was ten years old, a date which would bear eloquent testimony to his precocity. A diligent search in the voluminous bulletins of the Berlin Academy of Sciences for 1820 and subsequent years failed, however, to disclose any reports from Bialystok bearing on the case.

____________

 

If the eclipse saga lacked documentary corroboration, another claim, that my grandfather had invented a meridian, is beyond dispute. The Slonimsky Meridian is identified by name on the world map in the Mercator projection which illustrates an article on the Meridian Date in the Jewish Encyclopedia. If my grandfather’s personal imaginary line has not replaced Greenwich in international usage, the fault is not with its rationale, which upon examination is unimpeachably cogent.

The philosophical, geographic, and religious considerations that moved my grandfather to preoccupy himself with meridians stemmed from this hypothetical problem: suppose there are two Jews standing on two adjacent islands in the Pacific within sight of each other but separated by the international dateline and watching the setting sun on a weekend, when should they celebrate the Sabbath, if it is Friday on the island to the west and still Thursday on the island to the east? There were no Orthodox Jews facing each other upon the sunset of a Sabbath in the Pacific, but my grandfather’s orderly mind demanded definite guidance for this hypothetical confrontation.

When the rotundity of the earth became generally accepted, Jewish scholars tackled the problem of a proper meridian date. Jerusalem was recognized as the navel of the world. Early rabbinical writers proposed to calculate the meridian date from the position of the sun in its zenith over Jerusalem at midday, when it could theoretically shed light 90 degrees eastward, leaving 270 degrees westward to complete the day. Since Jerusalem is in longitude 35° 13′ 25″ east of Greenwich, the longitude of the new meridian would fall on 145° 13′ 25″ west. As the region of the Pacific became thoroughly explored, such a division would have created political difficulties: China would become the Far East and Japan the Far West. Kamchatka and Australia would have come under the American date, but the Philippines, including Manila, would be on the Asiatic side. Then there was the problem of celebrating the Sabbath on the poles, with their bewildering longitudinal ambiguity. An Orthodox Jew in the polar region could take a few steps and land in the wrong Sabbath.

There were ingenious proposals by various Jewish scholars to get around this troublesome situation. Why not drop the principle of a rigid international dateline, Benjamin Zeev Wolf Weller of Galicia asked, and set the dating according to the chronology of discovery? Eastern Siberia, including Kamchatka, Japan, and Australia, was discovered from the Asiatic side, and ought to be dated by eastern time. The Philippine Islands were discovered later from the American side, and therefore should adopt the American date. But what to do with Alaska? It was first settled by Russia, and the Russians established their dating there. But when it was sold to the United States in 1867, the American government placed it under the American dateline.

All this confusion, my grandfather decided, was the result of the misguided division of the globe into two unequal parts, 90 degrees east and 270 degrees west from Jerusalem. He proposed the logical division of the world into two equal hemispheres with Jerusalem as the geographical point of reference. The Slonimsky Meridian as drawn on the world map in the corresponding article in the Jewish Encyclopedia is in longitude 145° 13′ 25″. All is well, then. But is it? What about a traveling Jew? When should he observe the Sabbath moving from one time zone to another? Fortunately, my grandfather lived before the era of air travel, and his traveling Jew had plenty of time to consult learned rabbinical opinion before moving from the Western to the Eastern Hemisphere. The notion of a “portable Sabbath” was proposed by Rabbi Mohilever of Bialystok, according to which a Jewish traveler should observe the local time of his point of departure, but adopt the legal date of the country of destination should he settle in it for a certain length of time. There was a great deal of heated polemics on the subject. My grandfather entered the debate by publishing in 1874 a definitive address to the rabbinate, entitled “What Sabbath Shall the Jewish Traveler in the Far East Observe?” In it, he made concessions to the civil authorities of the lands to which a Jewish traveler went, without sacrificing the basic tenets, the centrality of Jerusalem and the division of the globe into two equal parts with the international dateline in the longitude 145° 13′ 25″ west of Greenwich.

____________

 

My grandfather’s Jewish name was Chaim Selig Slonimsky. In his Czarist passport it was Russianized as Zinovi Yakovlevich Slonimsky (that is, Zenobius, son of Jacob). In Polish it was spelled Slonimski; the “1” is liquid, indicated by a slant, Slonimski, pronounced Swonimsky. The spelling Slonimsky is the transliteration of the name from the Cyrillic alphabet. Chaim Selig was born in the township of Bialystok on March 31, 1810, according to the Julian calendar, corresponding to April 12 of the Gregorian calendar. His father, Jacob ben Benjamin Bishko. was known in the community as Yankele Slonimer that is, one who came from Slonim, a small town in Eastern Poland. Claim Selig was the oldest of Jacob’s children; there were, besides him, two sons and one daughter. The family was strictly Orthodox; my grandfather studied Jewish law and religion with his own maternal grandfather, Yehiel Naches. The March 1846 number of the Russian monthly Illustratzia gives a summary of my grandfather’s accomplishments up to his thirty-sixth year:

Slonimsky’s parents, like most Jews of the Western region, were extremely poor. Following a custom that has existed among Jews from time immemorial, the first duty of parents was to instruct a child in the Talmud, and the second duty was to find him a wife. Chaim Selig duly received his instruction in the Talmud, and on his eighteenth birthday he was given a wife. His studies were not interrupted by marriage. But when in his intent reading of the Talmud, he reached the division Yad Hachasaka, which means “The Mighty Hand,” treating upon the calendar and celestial bodies, Chaim Selig found himself beyond his depth. By a lucky chance, an itinerant bookseller passed through the village where he lived and sold him a book on astronomy in the Hebrew language, translated from a work by the German astronomer Raphael Hannover; this book provided him with the necessary preliminary knowledge of the subject. He was also offered the Elements of Geometry of Euclid but he could not afford the price, two rubles. The bookseller agreed to lend the book to Chaim Selig for three days, and this was sufficient for him to acquaint himself with the fundamentals of geometry. Another opportunity brought him together with a pharmacist in Bialystok who volunteered to teach him German. Slonimsky then moved to Vilna, where despite a constant struggle with poverty, he was able to dedicate himself to the study of his favorite subject, mathematics. Some of his later publications appeared in translation in the Journal de mathématique in Paris.

A celestial phenomenon which played an important part in Chaim Selig Slonimsky’s scholarly progress was the appearance in 1835 of Halley’s Comet. The memory of the 1812 comet which hung ominously in the Russian skies during Napoleon’s invasion was still fresh in the minds of the people. My grandfather resolved to do the same service for the Jewish community in allaying their fears of comets that the German astronomer tried, however needlessly, to do for him during the 1820 eclipse in reassuring him of the permanency of the sun. So in the year of Halley’s Comet he published a Hebrew astronomical treatise, Kokhva de-Shavit. in which he explained the natural laws governing the movements of celestial bodies. He was then twenty-five years old. His purpose was theological as well as educational; by describing the phenomena of the heavens, my grandfather tried to counteract the belief of the Jewish Orthodoxy that the study of astronomy was incompatible with the spirit of Judaism. A few years later he published a more detailed Hebrew work on astronomy, Toldot ha-Shamayim, in which he attacked the problem of the Jewish calendar. He boldly asserted that the accepted period of the annual rotation of the earth—365 days, 5 hours, and 25 seconds—was imprecise. The Jewish calendar, he wrote, based on both the solar and lunar cycles, did not take into account the nutation of the moon, resulting in the excess of four days accumulated through the centuries of its use. This led to a long exchange in the Hebrew press, which Isaac Goldberg, in his definitive biography Chaim Selig Slonimsky, Nineteenth-Century Popularizer of Science,1 describes as a “thirty-years’ war.” Indeed, it lasted from 1840 till 1870, when my grandfather’s most articulate opponent, Zevi Menahem Pineles, died, and the contest came to a natural end.

My grandfather’s early marriage was dissolved in 1836, and he settled in Warsaw, which was at the time the center of Jewish learning. He took lodgings in the house of Abraham Jacob Stern, renowned as an inventor and a philosopher. Soon afterward he married Stern’s daughter, Sarah. Abraham Jacob Stern, my great-grandfather, was born in 1760. (It fills me with chronological awe to think that only three generations separate me from the middle of the 18th century.) His life-size portrait, painted by Antoni Blank, hangs in the Museum Narodowe in Poznan; it shows him seated at a table on which reposes his proud invention, the first Russian adding machine, with his gimlet eyes peeking with a Mephistophelian glint out of the luxuriant growth of his prodigiously bewhiskered countenance. He invented the machine in 1811 and presented a model of it to the Warsaw Society of the Friends of Science in 1815. Through the intercession of influential members of this society, he was given an audience with Czar Alexander I, who dabbled in sciences himself, for a demonstration. When my great-grandfather was brought into His Majesty’s presence, a courtier suggested a speed contest between the Czar and the machine. He must have taken it for granted that Abraham Stern would let the Czar win. But no sooner had a problem been posed than my great-grandfather, after a few clicks on his machine, announced the solution. The Czar who had barely begun counting, looked at the inventor with some puzzlement. “The machine is good,” he said, “but the Jew is bad.”

Despite this serious breach of protocol on the part of my great-grandfather, the government of Alexander I gave him a state subsidy of twelve hundred rubles for further experiments. Abraham Stern repaid the imperial munificence by dedicating an ode in Hebrew to the new Czar Nicholas I on the occasion of his coronation in 1825. But while he could be loyal to the Russian monarchy, he could not be bent from his rigid adherence to the doctrines of Judaism. When he was offered the directorship of a newly founded rabbinical seminary in Warsaw, he declined on the ground that the teaching there departed from Orthodoxy.

Living in the house of his father-in-law, Slonimsky rapidly acquainted himself with Abraham Stern’s calculating machine. After Stern died in 1842 he decided to build an improved model. It consisted of a single box containing eight revolving cylinders with connecting cogs; its principle embodied all the essential elements of the modern calculator. It could do additions, subtractions, multiplications, and divisions with a crank of the handle. A special attachment made it possible to extract square roots. In 1842 the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg awarded my grandfather the prestigious Demidov Prize of twenty-five hundred rubles for the machine, and in 1845 the Russian Minister of Education bestowed upon him the title of an Honorary Citizen, an extraordinary distinction for a Jew. By a stroke of luck he managed to sell the rights of the manufacture of his adding machine to England for £400. He invested the money in the acquisition of a fruit orchard in the Ukrainian town of Tomashov.

In 1844 a Vilna cloth merchant financed my grandfather’s trip to Germany to demonstrate his adding machine at the University of Königsberg, where Kant gave lectures forty years before. He also traveled to Berlin where he was introduced to the famous naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who had already been acquainted with his scientific writings in translation. In turn, Humboldt arranged a private audience with Friedrich Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia. In 1857, my grandfather published a dedicatory brochure for Humboldt on the occasion of his eighty-eighth birthday.

____________

 

By tradition and ancestry, my grandfather belonged to the Jewish community of Lithuania and Eastern Poland, which was guided by the spirit of Haskalah, the Hebrew word for Enlightenment. Its scholars were preoccupied mainly with a scientific inquiry into the material universe. In this they differed from the Jews of Galicia who concentrated on the abstract doctrines of the Jewish law and theology. David Frishman, one of my grandfather’s early biographers, states that the name of Chaim Selig Slonimsky stood in prestige second only to that of the powerful Baron Aaron Günzburg. It was the firm belief among the Polish and Lithuanian Jews living in the restricted Pale of Settlement under the oppressive Russian rule, that the Baron could solve all political and social problems for them, while my grandfather could enlighten them in the great mysteries of the stars, planets, meteors, comets, and awesome eclipses.

As part of my grandfather’s campaign to spread scientific information among the Jews of Western Russia, he petitioned the Czarist authorities for a permit to publish a weekly journal in the Hebrew language. The permit was refused, not so much on account of the endemic anti-Semitism of the authorities as because of competing interests within Jewish publishing circles. He persisted, and after his third application, the permit was granted. The first issue of the weekly, Ha-Zefirah (“Dawn”), made its appearance on February 4, 1862. It was not the earliest Hebrew periodical; a short-lived weekly, Ha-Magid, which had begun publishing in 1856, anticipated it. But Ha-Zefirah was a cultural event of prime importance in the Jewish community because of the vast amount of miscellaneous information that was generously spread across its pages.

When Ha-Zefirah began its publication it was dedicated to my grandfather’s cherished idea of disseminating information on science and culture among his largely parochial Jewish readers. Under the pressure of the more Orthodox section of the community, the paper expanded its scope, and included articles of general interest, and even short fiction. Darkness descended in 1881 after the assassination of Alexander II and the accession to the throne of the most reactionary of all Russian monarchs, Alexander III. The tempo of anti-Semitism was stepped up once more, even though there were no Jews among the five who were hanged for the conspiracy in the assassination. While the government did not actually encourage pogroms, the Russian police did little to prevent them. One of the many inconspicuous measures taken against the Jews was an official order to the editorial staff of Ha-Zefirah to reduce the amount of comment on the Jewish question in Russia and a prohibition on mentioning the pogroms which were growing ominously in frequency and violence. Still, the circulation of the paper increased, and by 1891 reached ten thousand copies. The paper long survived my grandfather and continued publication until 1931.

____________

 

Scientists and scholars are noted for their longevity, or so we are assured by the actuarial tables. My grandfather confirmed the accuracy of these prognostications. He carried on in excellent mental and physical health well into his tenth decade. His spirits were high, and he enjoyed Polish and Jewish jokes in which one of his three sons, a popular Warsaw physician, excelled. He took regular walks, and he often remonstrated with restive Warsaw youngsters, brandishing his heavy cane at them as an emblem of punitive authority. And he never ceased publishing provocative pamplets on sacrosanct subjects. In one of them he openly defied the belief of devout Jews that during the Hanukkah holidays the cruse of oil lasted eight days. Not so, he declared. There is not enough oil in an average cruse to last a single day. The Hasmoneans, the priests who were in charge of stocking oil for Hanukkah, simply rationed it and burned a little of it each day to create the impression in the populace that a miracle of inexhaustibility had occurred. The suggestion that the Jewish priesthood resorted to chicanery and deception in a matter of ritual, coming from a revered scholar, caused consternation among the Orthodox Jews of Warsaw. But my grandfather would not be intimidated by the universal shrugs of shoulders, clicking of tongues, shaking of heads, and the raising of eyes aloft. Far from seeking a compromise, he published a pamphlet in Odessa in 1893 reasserting his views and attacking his critics for ignorance and bigotry.

Even a mind as restless as my grandfather’s had to find its peace in death. He died in Warsaw on May 15, 1904, at the age of ninety-four. One of his close collaborators, Jacob Samuel Fuchs, wrote in an obituary published in the London Jewish Chronicle, May 27, 1904:

With Chaim Selig Slonimsky has passed away the most original and the most popular veteran of the neo-Hebrew scholars. His life has been inseparably bound up with the development of neo-Hebrew literature and modern Jewish science. Had Slonimsky devoted his genius and energy to general science he would undoubtedly have filled one of the most prominent places among those in his own special domain. But his talent and profound learning were almost exclusively consecrated to the noble cause of Judaism to the very last of his worthy and honorable life. . . .

____________

 

A product of the modern Diaspora, I never knew my grandfather. Sixty years after his death I sought out in the outskirts of Tel Aviv a street named after him. Here, one-quarter of the genetic material of Chaim Selig Slonimsky, which was I, stood on the soil of Israel, barely able to make out the boustrophedon of Hebrew letters which vowellessly spelled his venerated name. This was the country the national language of which he cultivated with such devotion. What were the chances, as computed from his vantage point, of such a linguistic dream becoming a reality? My grandfather would have proved mathematically that its probability of fulfillment was infinitesimally small. That a nation could have arisen upon an extinct heritage, that young people who did not even look like Warsaw Jews would speak the ancestral tongue as naturally as Germans speak German or Russians speak Russian, my grandfather would have cogently argued, with the aid of his calculating machine, was a statistical improbability of the highest order, compounded by historical implausibility. And yet, there it was; and children in a nearby playground whom I asked where Chaim Selig Slonimsky Street was, had no trouble either in recognizing or accurately pronouncing the difficult name, and gave me easy directions how to get there.


Footnotes

1 Sura Institute for Research (Jerusalem), 1970.

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