Dr. Isay Balikin: Innovative UC Teacher and Researcher

Isay Balinkin with an inventionOne night in October of 1938, in Cincinnati’s General Hospital (now University Hospital), there was an unusual hustle and bustle as nurses, doctors, and interns searched throughout the building for a tiny piece of uranium which had disappeared. The radium, no larger than a sugar cube, was worth $1400 and hospital staff was intent on locating it.  During the search, it was discovered that Dr. Isay Balinkin of UC’s College of Engineering had an electroscope that could be used to find uranium.  The problem was that it was late at night, and Dr. Balinkin did not have a telephone.  Instead, the hospital sent Postal and Western Union messengers to get Dr. Balinkin and his electroscope at his home on Auburn Avenue.  (Yes it does seem like an odd way to fetch someone only a few miles away.)  They did find Dr. Balinkin and Dr. Balinkin found the uranium in the trash.    Dr. Isay Balinkin spent 40 years at the University of Cincinnati and did even more important things than locating uranium in the middle of the night.  An enthusiastic teacher, he taught an estimated 8000 students demonstrating science with devices like bowling balls, rubber gloves, and mousetraps.  He was also a great researcher and held 7 patents for devices he had invented.  Some of his papers are held in UC’s Archives and Rare Books Library.

Balinkin was born on September 14, 1900 in Odessa, Ukraine.  He attended Commercial High School and the Polytechnic Institute of Odessa.  His father, Avram, owned a factory that made wood type.  As a manufacturer and property owner, Balikin’s father was labeled as a capitalist during the Russian Revolution, and, as a result, Isay was expelled from the Polytechnic Institute.  Isay was able to escape the Soviet Union, but the remainder of his family was unable to join him.  By the summer of 1921, he had made his way to Constantinople (Istanbul) as a political refugee.  A relief commission assisted him in finding a job building a new electrical laboratory at Robert College, an American-sponsored college.  The Dean of Roberts College, L.A. Scipio, befriended Balinkin and assisted him in enrolling for classes in the fall of 1921.  Balinkin studied Mechanical Engineering.

Balinkin with lightBalinkin ended up in Cincinnati by chance.  In his senior year at Robert College, Dean Scipio exchanged positions with Professor A.L. Jenkins of UC.   Balinkin credited Professor Jenkins for convincing him to come to Cincinnati and pursue his master’s and doctoral degrees.  He came to the United States in 1925 and received both a master’s degree (1926) and his Ph.D. (1929) in physics from UC.  He must have shown much promise as he was appointed Instructor of Experimental Physics at UC the same year.  Starting in 1936, he also served as Research Consultant for the Cambridge Tile Mfg. Co.   Balinkin spent 9 months each year teaching and the other 3 conducting research at the Cambridge Tile Manufacturing Co.

Balinkin was described as an enthusiastic teacher known for devising models and classroom experiments to make physics understandable to the non-science major.  He was so popular that he was even featured in an issue of Life magazine (October 1947).  His exciting demonstrations included using mousetraps and rubber balls to explain the chain reaction of an atomic bomb.

Balinkn helped designed the Interchem Color Center at the 1964-1965 World's Fair

Balinkin’s research accomplishments were many and varied.  He co-designed a mercury vapor lamp to be used in laboratories, he patented a process to irradiate fertile queen bees which resulted in gentler bees that produced more honey, and he designed a wave motion machine which demonstrated more than 30 forms of light, heat, and sound waves.  Balinkin made advancements in ceramic tile technology and the study of color to ensure that variation in color between tiles were kept to a minimum.  He patented a new method of mounting ceramic tile to a mesh-like backing, called the SETFAST Ceramic Tile Mounting Method.  Balinkin also gave popular lectures on “Color Phenomena,” and worked on the planning committee of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

If Isay Balinkin sounds interesting to you, check out the finding aid for his papers in the Archives and Rare Books Library on the OhioLINK Finding Aid Repository.  To see his actual papers, visit the Archives and Rare Books Library on the 8th floor of Blegen Library.  For more information on the Archives and Rare Books Library, visit the ARB website.