Encyclopedia Brunoniana

Blake, Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney Blake (1836-1895), professor of physics, was born in New Haven on April 20, 1836. His great-uncle was Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin. His father was the inventor of the Blake stone-breaker used in road building and was also the friend and helper of Morse in the early days of the telegraph. Young Eli followed in scientific pursuits. He graduated from Yale in 1857, after having blown off the ends of two of his fingers in a chemical experiment. He taught for a year in a private school in Unionville, Connecticut and then resumed his studies at the Sheffield Scientific School. He next studied in Germany at Heidelberg under Bunsen and Kirchhoff, at Marburg under Kolbe, at Berlin under Dove and Magnus. He had planned to be a chemist, but ended up a physicist. Between 1866 and 1870 he taught at the University of Vermont, Columbia, and Cornell. In 1870 he was named the first Hazard Professor of Physics at Brown.

A group of scientists gathered around Blake to work on a particular project. Among them were Professor John Peirce and Dr. William F. Channing, a medical doctor and electrical expert, who was the son of Reverend William Ellery Channing. They were working on the development of the telephone. Students were also involved in the work. William Ely 1879 assisted Blake in the laboratory. James D. Earle 1879 and John J. Greene 1879 strung a wire between their rooms at opposite ends of Hope College in 1877 and were able to converse. Earle and his roommate James L. Wells designed a phonograph which would transmit “Mary had a little lamb” from one room to another. At about this time, Alexander Graham Bell had patented his telephone after submitting a crude model with his application on February 14, 1876. His telephone, with a clumsy receiver weighing ten pounds, was exhibited at the Centennial Exhibition that summer. Bell was aware of, and annoyed with, the work going on at Brown until he learned that it was being conducted for scientific rather than commercial interests. After that, although he patronizingly referred to them as “the experimenters,” he was willing to learn of their progress. In the late winter or early spring of 1877 at Rowland Hazard’s house at 45 Williams Street, where Professor Blake was living, there was a demonstration of the telephone by Blake with William Ely assisting. Walter Lee Munro 1879 wrote this recollection of the event:

The wire was strung between the reception room, just within the front door, and the study at the other end of the long hall, with a telephone at either end. Ely happened to be listening at the receiver in the study, where Prof. Blake was completing his preparation, when he heard a familiar voice at the other end of the wire and said “My father has just come in, I hear his voice; were you expecting him?” Prof. Blake was dumbfounded and elated, for not even in their wildest flights of fancy had the scientists dreamed of the possibility of recognizing individual voices.
The biggest problem with the telephone was the size of the receiver. William Ely can be credited with the idea of replacing the horseshoe magnet with a bar magnet. The result was what John Peirce called the “butter-stamp receiver” because of its resemblance to a household utensil then in use to stamp designs on pats of butter. This receiver also produced clearer tones. Walter Lee Munro remembered the morning in May 1877 when the descriptions and illustrations of Bell’s telephone appeared in the Providence Journal:
“Prof. Blake came into the lecture-room in a state of great excitement, a copy of the paper in his hand and addressed the class substantially as follows: ‘Gentlemen, you have seen the announcement of Professor Bell’s telephone in this morning’s paper. You are all familiar with the instrument; some of you have yourselves made them. I want to tell you that some time ago Prof. Bell came down from Boston to compare notes with Prof. Peirce, Dr. Channing and myself. He told us that he had mastered the principle of the telephone but had been unable to devise a receiver which was not too cumbrous for use. We showed him our receiver with which you are all familiar. I ask you to compare that with Prof. Bell’s as pictured in the paper today.’ It was Professor Blake’s hour of triumph, for he knew that the class knew whereof he spake.”
Blake also invented a process of sound recording from which movie sound tracks evolved. For a long time he was only able to record sound with no way to reproduce it. When Wilson Hall, the new physics laboratory, was built in 1891, he supervised the building process. He resigned in June 1895 because of an illness in the family, but was himself taken ill and died on October 1, 1895 in Hampton, Connecticut. Walter C. Bronson 1887 wrote of Blake:
“Professor Blake was by nature an investigator, not a teacher; in required courses he was not severe enough, and lazy undergraduates easily took advantage of his guileless good nature. He was, nevertheless, a delightful man to know, even across the desk of a lecture room; and those who came away from his classes with very hazy ideas of mechanics and physics were yet the better for contact with so gentle and pure a spirit.”