Dick Tracy, President Harry S. Truman, and Cledo Brunetti
Somehow, although I’ve never been able to quite figure out exactly how, I got incredibly lucky in my life when I married into a 100% Italian family. Not only did I get blessed with a wonderful wife, but I was accepted into a family, and a community, that enriched my life deeper than I ever dreamt possible. My wife is from the Mesabi Iron Range city of Hibbing, Minnesota and this is where I was to receive my ‘lessons’ in being Italian. Her grandparents, God rest their souls, came from Vinchiaturo (D’Aquila and Venditti) and Costacciaro (Casagrande and Brunetti). The Italian-American community in this region of Northern Minnesota was, and still is, tight knit, proud, and wonderful. As a Bohemian kid from Cleveland, Ohio, my lessons in being Italian were many, but I had loving and patient teachers. It wasn’t long before I learned that if there were ravioli and a roast of beef on the dinner table, the roast was the ‘side dish’; that while I grew up knowing the meaning of ‘family’, I was to learn a far deeper understanding of its importance in our lives; and, perhaps most important of all, that I had wasted all too large a portion of my life not knowing the nirvana that is a plate of gnocchi! (A love I might add that led me one night, with my family in tow, to scope out eight restaurants in Little Italy, New York City for a plate of gnocchi in each, but that is a story for perhaps another time).
By trade I am a genealogical historian and it was not long before I was spending my time researching my Italian ancestors and their homes. One morning over coffee my wife began telling me about her great-uncle Cledo. Her stories whet my appetite, but as a genealogist, I was a bit skeptical of some of the stories. After all, I told myself; family history can easily turn into mythology over time. So I began to research Dr. Cledo Brunetti, who was the eldest brother of her Nonna, Helen Brunetti Casagrande. I was not at all prepared for what I was about to find out about this little known, but incredibly accomplished, Italian-American.
My research into Uncle Cledo raised a larger question in my mind. Why does it seem that he and so many other accomplished and impressive Italian-Americans are not better recognized? This has now become a quest for me; to learn about more about hidden gems within the Italian-American community. But first let’s get back to Uncle Cledo.
As with all my research, after I had established the fundamentals through birth, marriage, census, and death records, I started to dig deeper in order to see what I could learn about the life of Uncle Cledo. I wasn’t disappointed. Not in the least.
For starters, I discovered that Uncle Cledo was the first individual to ever receive the degree of Doctorate in Electronic Engineering from the University of Minnesota, taught as a Professor at Minnesota, Lehigh, Stanford, and George Washington University. I next discovered, that yes indeed Uncle Cledo did, in fact, invent the real-life Dick Tracy two-way wrist radio Pittsburgh Press (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 27 January, 1948, page 2. Not only did he invent it, but he was one of the three men to personally deliver one of the first sets to President Harry Truman in the White House Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 December, 1947, page 1.
As I was reading about the Dick Tracy invention, a phrase I was reading caught my eye. It was the two words ‘printed circuit’. Yes, Uncle Cledo was also instrumental in the creation of the very earliest printed circuits, something that we now take for granted in almost every single electronic item we encounter in our daily lives.
Then while I was reading about his successful efforts to place an entire radio station in a lipstick tube Seattle Daily Times (Seattle, Washington), 16 February, 1947, page 11 I noticed that he was working for the United States’ National Bureau of Standards at that time. The historian in me perked up since I knew this branch of the government was heavily involved in some of America’s serious R&D before and during World War II.
While working at the Bureau of National Standards, Uncle Cledo organized and led the departments of Ordnance, Production Engineering, and Engineering Electronics. While there he was an instrumental member of the team that developed a thing call the radio proximity fuse, which was used successfully for the first time with what author Salvatore John LaGumina in his book “The Humble and the Heroic: Wartime Italian Americans” ‘with devastating effect’ against the Germans during their December 1944 Ardennes offensive, interestingly a battle that my own father fought in. The successful invention of this proximity fuse has been referred to as ‘the No. 2 secret weapon of World War II’ and was also instrumental in the United States’ development of the atomic bomb
Chosen and honored as the Outstanding Young Engineer in all of the United States in 1947, you might think that Uncle Cledo’s focus could stray from his family, but it never did. My sister-in-law recalls how he would send his nieces and nephews coded letters as brain-teasers, which they would then have to decode so they could read them. My wife recalls receiving autographed copies of his 1970 book “Your Future in a Changing World”, which I am enjoying reading now, as well as late night private trips to an observatory in order to instill in the younger generation his love of science. She also has vivid memories of visiting with Uncle Cledo when he was taking significant time off in order to return home to Minnesota when his beloved father, Nazzareno Brunetti, was failing and again when his little brother, Arnold, had taken ill.
My final discovery should fill every Italian and Italian-American with pride. I was thunderstruck while learning that the worldwide Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) gives an annual international award “for outstanding contributions to nanotechnology and miniaturization in the electronic arts” and this prestigious award is named ‘The Cledo Brunetti Award’. Perhaps we should all start calling Dr. Cledo Brunetti ‘The Father of Nanotechnology’!