John William Lieb, Class of 1880: Power Pioneer, da Vinci Scholar, Benefactor
Lieb attended Stevens during an exciting time for invention. The new incandescent light bulb, phonograph and telephone were all making huge impacts on industrial and residential America.
Inspired by the times, Lieb and his classmates would later create their own working telephonic apparatus and visit Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory. The young student's enthusiasm for Edison's creations would persist throughout his studies and then his career, eventually bringing history and innovation full circle back to the Stevens campus.
Lieb was born in Newark, New Jersey, the son of German immigrants. When it was time to head to college, he had his mind set on the recently opened Stevens Institute of Technology. Within a year of graduation, he was working for the newly formed Edison Electric Light Company, where he was charged with operation and maintenance of the Pearl Street Station, the nation's first central power station for supplying incandescent lighting. Lieb was so dedicated to the task that he actually slept right in the station, in a room where he rigged a special pair of lights that lit red at any sign of trouble with the lighting system.
Lieb moved rapidly up in the company, securing Edison’s trust: the great inventor once described Lieb as “one of my most able assistants” and sent him abroad to Italy to establish Milan's Central Station's alternating current distribution system.
He would spend 11 years in Italy, becoming deeply interested in da Vinci's life and work after visiting a construction site in the Lombardy region, where the remains of canals, locks and irrigation sluices showed the distinctive hand of the master's design. Lieb became fascinated with da Vinci’s engineering know-how and began collecting every book, folio, pamphlet or manuscript on Leonardo da Vinci he could locate.
Later donated to Stevens, the university's John W. Lieb Memorial Collection of Leonardo da Vinci (housed in the Samuel C. Williams Library) now consists of some 1,200 titles: one of the world's largest collections of da Vinci-related works.
One of the highlights of the collection is a very rare copy of the "Divina Proportione," a technical treatise by Luca Pacioli — a preeminent mathematician of the time who also served as da Vinci’s math tutor. The artist drew elaborate geometrical woodcut illustrations for the volume's publication, and when published in 1509, it became the only da Vinci work to appear in print during his own lifetime.
After Lieb returned home to the United States, he became a sought-out expert on da Vinci and frequently lectured on the great man. In one talk, he noted that “the grasp of Leonardo’s mind was so nearly superhuman that he never, in anything he affected, satisfied himself or realized his own vast conceptions.” True indeed.
Today the Stevens community continues to benefit daily from Lieb's exceptional generosity.