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.
From 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 English.
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.
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 century.
Johann 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
Since Johann's 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 again.
If 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.
Posted April 1, 2009