Calvin Blackman Bridges Unconventional Geneticist (1889-1938)


From his years growing up on a farm and the fact that his grandfather was a woodworker, Calvin was always building and inventing. His daughter Betsey recalls the massive renovations he undertook on their house in Leonia, New Jersey. These practical skills served Calvin well in the lab. In the Fly Room, he quickly saw improvements to be made in viewing and feeding flies – he introduced the use of the binocular microscope and created fly food recipes to replace the rotting bananas hanging in the Fly Room. He designed the incubators for growing fly cultures, etherizers for keeping flies under control, and square-bottomed bottles for housing them.

As Bridges described, “By 1913 pint and half-pint milk bottles had become standard, largely on account of their uniformity of mouths, their heavy, strong glass and the ease with which they could be procured. In 1916 I made experiments to determine the optimum area of culture surface, and concluded that the pint milk bottle was best for the flies, but the half-pint, which was not far inferior in that respect, was greatly superior in ease of handling, etc.

In 1930 I again made designs for a culture bottle for Drosophilas, and the mould and bottles were made by the Illinois Pacific Glass Company at their plant in San Francisco. …The features of the new bottles, which have been subjected to a year's trial, are the following: The glass is heavy and strong like that of half-pint milk bottles, which are subject to hard usage. The mouth is the standard milk bottle mouth, with the groove for paper caps. This type of mouth was adopted for two main reasons: the groove is convenient in receiving and holding the entrance funnel of an etherizer without danger of a slip. Also it seems likely that the paper caps regularly used for milk may ultimately entirely displace the cotton plugs with cheesecloth covers that have been standard since 1921. The use of the paper caps was begun by Demerec in 1928.” (Bridges CB. 1935. American Naturalist 66:250–273.)

Elof Carlson describes the Morgan Fly Room’s practices here. ↑

Calvin’s totem pole for recording his findings about fly chromosomes was an early advance in information theory. This four-sided structure had one chromosome detailed on each side. In his personal recollection of Bridges after his death, Morgan described the white enamel thumbtacks with abbreviated symbols of each mutant type; these were moved from right to left according to the usefulness of the mutant, and up or down according to the accuracy of a particular gene’s location.

Perhaps his most famous invention was his “Lightning Bug” car – a streamlined, three-wheeled vehicle that was very similar to Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car. Calvin built his car in California with the help of mechanic Bob Fuller. According to his daughter Betsey, Calvin had become interested in the idea of streamlining and tested the design of the car in a wind tunnel at Caltech. A 1934 Popular Science article described the frame of the car as chrome and molybdenum; the engine was said to be from a motorcycle. The car, which weighed just 70 pounds, could reach speeds of 60 miles per hour and got 50–60 miles per gallon of gas. Bridges had wanted to drive the car cross country to Cold Spring Harbor for one of his 1930s stays, but parts were slow in coming from Japan and the car was not ready. In a letter to Milislav Demerec, Calvin told him that the car was “a hobby much safer than women.” Calvin got extensive newspaper and newsreel coverage with the Lightning Bug. It is not known what happened to the Lightning Bug. Indicative of Calvin’s widespread interests is his design for a specialized rifle with a long sighting base.

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