Spring 1998

People of the Century

Blazing New Trails

Admiral Richard Byrd explored Antarctica by ship and flew a plane over the North Pole. On board that plane was the Osiso, an instrument designed by Joseph Legg.

R ecent issues of the Journal have related the stories of two men who were part of the great age of exploration and scientific discovery that stretched from the time of WPI's beginnings well into the 20th century. You can read about Edward H. Thompson, Class of 1878, who explored the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Spring 1995 Journal. The story of Albert H. Bumstead, Class of 1898, was told in the Summer 1994 issue. Bumstead, chief cartographer for the National Geographic Society, also developed the sun compass that kept Admiral Richard E. Byrd on target on his famous flight over the North Pole.

Byrd took another piece of technology developed by a WPI alumnus on that trans-Arctic adventure. It was the Osiso, a camera-sized osillograph invented by Joseph W. Legg '15, which Byrd used to study dead areas that interfere with radio transmissions. Legg was a researcher at Westinghouse Engineering and Manufacturing Co. when he invented the six-element portable osillograph, which was used to study machinery, monitor the action of the heart, locate oil fields, and help the deaf learn to speak. Legg also invented a high-speed camera that could take 3,000 frames a second.

Like Admiral Byrd, William H. Hobbs, Class of 1883, was attracted to the Earth's frozen realms. A professor of geology at the University of Wisconsin and head of the university's Geology Department, Hobbs, a well-known expert on volcanoes, earthquakes and glaciers, was considered one of the world's foremost authorities on Greenland, having led three expeditions there in the late 1920s to study meteorology and glaciers. A glacier in Antarctica bears his name in recognition of his contributions to geology. The maps he made of Greenland helped Charles Lindbergh lay out the most favorable routes for Pan Am to fly on its early trans-Atlantic flights.

During World War I Hobbs campaigned for preparedness among the allied nations, work that won him a decoration from the French government. After the war, he wrote The World War and Its Consequences, which was published with a foreword by Theodore Roosevelt. He was also the author of a biography of Robert E. Peary, the first person to reach the North Pole. In the early 1920s, he led an around-the-world expedition that was partly devoted to the study of oceanic mountain formations in the Dutch East Indies. The photos he took and the maps he made of islands in the Pacific were carried aboard every U.S. warship in the Pacific during World War II.

Two graduates of the 1890s turned their interest in natural history into directorships at New England museums. Charles A. Davis, Class of 1891, pursued natural history as an avocation and developed a national reputation as an expert on entomology and conchology (the study of shells). In 1904, he was elected curator of the Roger Williams Park Museum in Providence, R.I. Chester A. Reed, Class of 1896, was curator and director of the Worcester Natural History Museum, now the New England Science Center. An authority on ornithology, he was considered one of the foremost bird artists of his day. He made paintings of 750 species of North American birds and included them in several widely read books.

Two alumni named Williams made their mark in the field of chemistry. John W. Williams '21 established the nation's first university ultracentrifuge laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. He was a pioneer in the study of macromolecules and developed the technique for removing globulin from whole blood, revolutionizing the field of immunology. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he was once honored as one of the nation's top 10 chemists. James H. Williams '29 was one of the developers of sulpha drugs and Aureomycin (the name he gave the antibiotic chlortetracycline), among other lifesaving products. After working in the patent department of Allied Chemical Corp., he joined the research laboratories of American Cyanamid Co. He later transferred to American Cyanamid's Lederle Laboratories, where he eventually became director of research. In 1945, he was one of the 200 top U.S. scientists chosen by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to study conditions in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries in Europe after World War II.

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