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Water On The Brain

February 23, 1895

As a young boy who liked to swim, Lucien Blake was quick to realize “that the sound of rocks coming together carried much farther through the water as a medium than [it] did in the air.” This future KU scientist, according to a brief memoir written by his wife Mary, seemed “to have unconsciously cultivated the powers of observation,” even as a youth.

And in this particular instance, his precocious understanding of how sound travels in water eventually brought him aboard the Scotland, a US Navy lightship anchored seven miles off the coast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. For some time, the federal government had been trying to perfect ship-to-shore communications without result. On February 23, 1895, however, employing ideas and methods he had been developing since 1883, Blake used an apparatus of his own invention to send the world’s first long distance ship-to-shore, underwater wireless message. It was one of many significant inventions in Blake’s distinguished and, indeed, lucrative career.

The son of a Massachusetts Congregationalist minister, Lucien Ira Blake was born on September 12, 1853. By his 30th birthday, he had earned a PhD in physics from the Royal University of Berlin, studying under the famous scientist Heinrich Hertz, the father of wireless telegraphy. He accepted a position in 1885 as the chair of the physics and electrical engineering department at Rose Polytechnic Institute (now Rose Hulman University) in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he began his experiments in underwater communications.

Blake’s goal was to develop a signaling method for distressed ships at sea to call for help. To test his theories about sending these signals underwater, he set up apparatus in the nearby Wabash River. Two years later, in 1887, the University of Kansas offered him a professorship in physics and astronomy. Blake promptly moved himself to Lawrence, and his submarine signaling experiments into the Kaw River.

Although there had been a Department of Engineering at KU since 1869, it had never offered a four-year program specifically in electrical engineering until Blake arrived. “He at once,” a friend recalled, “put ‘pep’ into his department at KU. His labors were not confined to the classroom [and] he worked in overalls in the laboratory and shops with his students. He encouraged them to organize research and carried it on himself.”

Despite this willingness to work hands-on with his students, often in less than pristine conditions, KU historian Robert Taft noted that Blake “prided himself on being the best-dressed member of the faculty, and was the only one to have a personal valet.” He was also one of the first KU professors to get a hilltop building named after him. In 1892, his tireless lobbying efforts helped persuade the state legislature to appropriate $50,000 for a new “physical and electrical laboratory.” Blake then planned and supervised the construction of this facility. A further mark of Blake’s standing came in 1893, when he was one of 40 “of the most eminent electricians in the world” appointed to the International Electrical Congress convened in conjunction with that year’s World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Blake wanted his students “to apply science,” not merely theorize about it. He expected no less of himself. Whereas many KU professors spent their summers and free time vacationing or relaxing, Blake spent his deeply enmeshed in research, often carrying on many experiments and projects simultaneously. He was a pioneer in the use of x-rays, which he believed would be an immense help in the medical field for diagnosing and treating diseases, especially cancer. “If the rays can be made to penetrate the body to the heart and be reflected back” he told the Kansas City Star in 1896, “we will be able to take instantaneous photographs of the action of the heart and the circulation of the blood, and photograph the condition of the various organs.”

In fact, Blake’s experimentation with x-rays eventually resulted in a significant medical advance. He, along with his colleague, Dr. Edward C. Franklin of the KU Chemistry Department, discovered a way to produce x-ray photographs in just under three minutes, replacing the old process that could take up to 45 minutes. Blake was just as enthusiastic and compelling as a teacher, too. He affectionately called his students his “boys,” and they responded by thinking of him as “their friend, their advisor, their helper, [and] their inspiration to greater accomplishment.” His wife later recalled how much he enjoyed “thrilling his eager listeners by demonstrating Tesla’s famous experiments, allowing a half-million volt current of electricity to pass through his body, lighting an incandescent lamp he held in his hand.”

One of Blake’s more lucrative inventions came in 1901, when the US Government granted him a patent for a mechanism that used static electricity instead of water to separate gold from other ores. He and his partner, Laurence N. Morsher, a former student, called their invention the Blake-Morsher Electro-static Ore Separator, and on November 30, 1901, they sold the patent to a New York mining company for $25,000, a virtual fortune in that day.

Blake’s most significant work, though, was his continuing experiments with underwater signaling, which were aimed at protecting lives on ships, especially during fog conditions. After his resounding success off Sandy Hook, accomplished during a ten-month leave of absence from KU, Blake continued spending his summers in the Northeast perfecting his techniques. Then, in 1905, two Boston entrepreneurs formed the Submarine Signaling Company (SSC), purchased Blake’s patents, and, a year later, offered him the position of chief engineer. Apparently their offer was just too tempting. In 1906, Blake decided to leave the University of Kansas and accept the job. Under his leadership, the company developed underwater communications devices that became standard equipment on naval and merchant ships, both foreign and domestic.

Blake left SSC in 1908 to pursue his own research into a subject he called “cosmic physics,” which he defined as dealing “with these great questions of the cosmos which lie beyond and out of reach of direct experiment, but which have come into every thinking mind at times.” By this point in his life, a friend recalled, Blake had amassed “a comfortable fortune” which “made him financially independent and able to follow the line of study and endeavor most congenial to him.” In 1911, he and his new bride, Mary, began a nearly four-year trip to Europe that was a combination honeymoon and research expedition. But after giving a series of lectures following their return to the US, Blake took ill. He died unexpectedly on May 11, 1916.

While many of his inventions have been improved and modified to the point of being unrecognizable today, Blake’s work in electricity, x-rays, and underwater wireless communications laid a firm scientific foundation for the enormous technological advances of the twentieth century. Although KU’s original Blake Hall no longer stands, his name still graces a campus science building. He remains one of the University’s most prominent and distinguished scholars.

John H. McCool
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: For a wide variety of biographical accounts, newspaper clippings, and related materials on the academic and professional career of Lucien I. Blake, see the Blake File, University Archives, 4th Floor, Spencer Research Library. For his eulogy, written by friend Frank Lundy Webster, see the Graduate Magazine (June 1916), pp. 230-232. Also helpful are Clifford Griffin, The University of Kansas: A History, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1974), pp. 137, 150-151, 158, 316; and Robert Taft, The Years on Mount Oread, (Lawrence, Kan.: University of Kansas Press, 1955), pp. 33, 46, 62.]