Kirt's Cogitations™ #241
You Can't Choose Your Relatives
These original Kirt's Cogitations™ may be reproduced (no more than
5, please) provided proper credit is given to me, Kirt Blattenberger.
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Cog·i·ta·tion [koj-i-tey'-shun] – noun: Concerted thought or
reflection; meditation; contemplation.
Kirt [kert] – proper noun: RF Cafe webmaster.
You Can't Choose Your Relatives
There is a truism that says you get to choose your
friends, but you don’t get to choose your relatives. This is heard by many of us for the first time while being
admonished by our parents about the kids we chose to hang around with. Later in life, it is used to assure others
that the behavior of a crazy uncle or cousin who lives in someone’s attic is not hereditary and has no bearing on
our own disposition – present or future. Sometimes, though, you discover that there is a relative previously
unknown that you are quite happy to learn that you share bloodlines with. It recently happened to me.
a purely secular viewpoint, I might like to report that said long-lost relation was a multimillionaire who had
written me into his or her will, and that the executor of the estate had just put me on notice of a need to travel
to Timbuktu to claim my sizeable inheritance. That is not the case (although come to think of it, I did
get an e-mail like that). However, as one who has had a lifelong interest in physics, I was utterly thrilled to
learn that my great-great-great-great grandfather was the brother of Johann Gottlieb Friedrich von Bohnenberger –
the German physicist who discovered the gyroscope (Gyroskop, in Deutsch) effect! He also is credited for an
invention called the single gold-leaf electroscope. Greatness is in my blood, it would seem ;-)
grandpa Bohnenberger was born on 5 June, 1765, in Simmozheim (Württemberg), Germany. He passed away on April 19,
1831, in Tübingen. Were it not for the family tree provided by the genealogist who sent me the documentation, it
would be nearly impossible to determine the lines of descent since there is almost nothing on the Internet. How,
you might ask, did we go from von Bohnenberger to Blattenberger? The simple answer is that like with many
immigrants who came to America in the mid nineteenth century, part of the original spelling - and usually the
pronunciation of - the surname was changed to fit in with the "locals" so as to not appear like a total outsider.
In those days, unless a family could move into an area already populated by other immigrants of similar
backgrounds, severe discrimination could be a real impediment to success in the New World. I might mention that my
ancestors came to America through Ellis Island in New York, and did so legally, and they learned to speak
The longer answer
takes a bit more work. The "Bohnen" part of Bohnenberger is the German word for "beans," and "berg" means
"mountain." Adding "er" to the end of the word signifies "more of." So, strung together in the manner of those
familiar really long German words, it translates to some like "uber bean farmers of the mountains." Now, the von
Blattenhügels were makers of linens and other white goods. It should come as no surprise that "blatt" means
"sheet" in German. "Hügel" means "hills." Our two families originated in the same area just outside Württemberg, a
particularly rolling part of southern Germany, so the construction of the names is apt. Greta von Blattenhügels
met Johann (John) Bohnenberger at the University of Tuebingen, where he was a professor of physics. She was the
first matriculating female student ever permitted to study there. Boy met girl, boy fell in love with girl, boy
married girl, and the rest, as they say, is history.
But that still does not fully explain the evolution from von Bohnenberger to Blattenberger. As it turns out,
Great-Great-Great-Great grandma Greta was a bit of a pusher of the limits of social norms for the day. When their
first child, Werner, was born, she insisted that his last name reflect a combination of their two surnames, and
hence the formation of von Blattenberger. Notice that somehow her surname managed to appear first in the
contraction; she must have really had 'ol Johann whipped! Finally, upon arriving in America, the "von" was
dropped, and today we have Blattenberger. There are a few variations on Blattenberger prevalent in the New York
and Pennsylvania area today, including most notably, Plattenberger.
I guess it is not so unbelievable if
you consider that a few days ago news came out that Brad Pitt is distantly related to Barak Obama, and that
Angelina Jolie is distantly (my guess is very distantly) related to Hillary Clinton.
first modern gyroscope was designed in the early 1800s by Johann Gottlieb Friedrich von Bohnenberger, while a
professor at the University of Tuebingen, Germany. It was made with a heavy ball instead of a wheel, but since it
had no scientific application, it faded into history. To the left is a photo of Bohnenberger's apparatus at the
United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and probably dates from the early part of the twentieth
also did a little research into electrical charges, and created a device called the single gold-leaf electroscope.
An electroscope is an instrument used to detect the presence of a charge in the vicinity.
time, there has not been a notable member of the Blattenberger clan who has achieved similar notoriety for
scientific endeavors. Four generations of descendants have been skipped over. I can only hope that by the time my
efforts at RF Cafe are complete, that somehow I will have attained Great-Great-Great-Great grandpa Bohnenberger's
level of contribution to the world of science and engineering, and the genealogical trend will be kick-started
you are interested, you can click on the family tree to the left to see the detailed lineage from Johann and Greta
von Bohnenberger to Kirt Blattenberger.