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A History of Physics at Purdue: The Early Years

by Solomon Gartenhaus, Arnold Tubis, and David Cassidy


Physics Faculty 1915: Top Row - Watson, Wayne, Sherman, Ferry, Collins
Bottom Row - Grantham, Little, Wood, Duncan, Smith

The Early Years, Part I, 1874-1904

Physics has been at Purdue University since the university first opened its doors on September 16, 1874, but it was always associated with an engineering program until the establishment of an independent Department of Physics in 1904.

Physics at Purdue was typical of American physics during the last decades of the 19th century: oriented toward empirical, practical, and useful knowledge. According to one estimate, there were fewer than seventy-five physicists in the entire United States during the 1870s and nearly all were at private Eastern colleges. At an average publication rate of only 0.33 articles/physicist-year, Americans could not keep pace with Europeans in new discoveries. (1) Instead, during the post-Civil War industrial boom years in the U.S., especially in the railroad and electrical industries, land-grant colleges such as Purdue educated large numbers of engineers & people trained in industrial processes and the construction of such industrial hardware as steam engines and electrical apparatus. For those reasons physics at Purdue became mainly an engineering support science.

Changes in Purdue science and the physics curriculum mirrored broader industrial changes. In 1875, Purdue's second president (the first, Richard Owen, resigned on March 1, 1874), Abraham C. Shortridge, established a new four-year program in industrial education to supplement the prior emphasis on agricultural training, with required courses in physics, chemistry, and civil and mechanical engineering. Physics at that time was taught in the School of Natural Sciences, which consisted of three disciplines: physics and industrial mechanics, chemistry, and natural history. Shortridge's successor in 1876, Emerson E. White, shifted the balance at Purdue from agriculture to engineering and elevated physics instruction to a Special School of Physics and Mechanics. (2)

The university's first appointed professor was a native Hoosier, John S. Hougham, who prior to the university's official opening in 1874 taught a special pre-session and served as interim university president for over three months until White's arrival on February 17, 1876. By opening day he was designated Professor of Physics and Industrial Mechanics. He was relieved a year later by the new chemistry professor, Harvey Washington Wiley, who apparently taught physics as well as chemistry until the appointments in 1883 of Henry Augustus Huston as Professor of Physics and Electricity and Albert W. Stahl as Professor of Physics and Mechanical Engineering. (3)

As a constituent of the School of Natural Science, the subject of physics and industrial mechanics occupied the newly built Science Building, the exact duplicate of a building at Brown University. Unfortunately the new building came completely unequipped for laboratory work. With the help of a generous state appropriation in 1876, Wiley outfitted one large lab for all physical science instruction. The catalogue for 1876 states: The physical laboratory, recently equipped and opened, is not yet complete, but it affords ample facilities for a year's work, two hours a day.

During his decade at Purdue from 1874 to 1883, Prof. Wiley enjoyed wide popularity as teacher, coach of the baseball team, and friend to students. He had earlier distinguished himself as a food chemist, physician, and teacher of Latin and Greek at Butler University. By harnessing a steam engine to a Gramme dynamo and attaching the output to two sticks of carbon, he fashioned the first electric light from a dynamo ever seen west of the Allegheny Mountains. Despite this marvel the Trustees considered his custom of riding a high-wheeled bicycle to campus from his home in full bicycle-rider regalia conduct unbecoming a Purdue faculty member. Wiley left Purdue in 1883 to become chief of the Division of Chemistry of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He later gained fame as the father of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

With Wiley's departure and the arrival of a new university president (James A. Smart), Stahl and Huston both offered physics instruction, but physics is listed in the official course catalogues only under Huston, the Professor of Physics and Electricity. A Maine Yankee and graduate of Bowdoin College, Huston had come to Lafayette to teach high school science. Spending afternoons in Wiley's lab, he received a degree in analytical chemistry in 1882 and was appointed the next year to his new post. Described as a bundle of barbed wire and good humor, he obtained the university's first electric motor for class room use, a three-dollar rental from a New York firm. He later served as Professor of Agricultural Chemistry and head of the Indiana Weather Service. He resigned in 1903 to enter the potash industry and lived to the age of ninety-nine. He credited his longevity to, among other things, breakfasts of string beans and Danish blue cheese, capped by a glass of sherry. (4)

Descriptions of the physics curriculum in the annual course catalogues for this period reflect the emphasis on engineering. The catalogue for 1885-86 requires of all students 38 weeks of physics instruction (4 hours/week) in the sophomore year, with physics as an elective in the junior and senior years. The sophomores studied mechanics, hydrostatics, pneumatics, acoustics, heat, light, and electricity, with some lab work. For the upper-class electives, the weekly course load was doubled, but with two-thirds of the time spent in the laboratory learning practical measuring devices and techniques. Seniors studied the use of electricity in telegraphy, electroplating, and gilding. A list of reference books used in the physics courses included such French classics as Deschanel's Elementary Treatise on Natural Philosophy (J.D. Everett, trans.) and Ganot's Elementary Treatise on Physics, Experimental and Applied (E. Atkinson, trans.)

The 1885-86 physics curriculum remained in effect for a decade, when two major changes appear in the catalogue: physics is subdivided into two subjects, general and practical physics; and research is mentioned for the first time. According to the 1895-96 catalogue, each of the annual courses in practical physics is devoted to precise physical measurements of a variety of quantities, using instruments common to engineering practice. But in the junior year a short exercise in special research work appears. In the senior year each student was given a subject for original investigation, which could serve as a senior thesis. The lecture courses in general physics covered the usual classical subjects, but with heavy emphasis in the senior year on electricity and magnetism. For the first time especial attention is given to the recent advances in physical science.

With the rise of the electrical industry after Maxwell's formulation of electrodynamics in the 1860s, Purdue established a new School of Electrical Engineering in 1888, the same year in which Heinrich Hertz published his experimental confirmation of electromagnetic waves. Under the aegis of the new school - actually equivalent to a department - the total number of physics faculty gradually increased. By 1902, the faculty of Electrical Engineering included as physics faculty Prof. Ervin Sidney Ferry, two physics instructors, L.E. King and C.M. Smith, and two assistants. Two years later, the University established physics as a separate department and appointed Ferry as its head.


The Early Years, Part II, 1904-1928

Ferry remained as head and guiding force of the department for nearly thirty years until two years after the arrival of Karl Lark-Horovitz in 1928. Born in New Hampshire in 1868, Ferry grew up in New York City, received a degree in Science from Cornell University in 1889, studied at Uppsala, Sweden and was appointed Professor of Physics at Purdue in 1899. Ferry's early research dealt with the physics of perception. A law governing retention of images by the retina of the eye is named for Ferry. After coming to Purdue, Ferry's scholarly efforts concentrated on the publication of a remarkable number of widely used textbooks and monographs for science and engineering students. Research in the Purdue University Libraries and the National Union Catalogue led to the following listing:

Textbooks Published by Prof. Ervin S. Ferry

  • A course of practical physics for students of science and engineering. Part I: Fundamental measurements and properties of matter; Part II:Heat. Lafayette, 1903.

  • A course in elementary dynamics given to the students of the sophomore class of Purdue University. 1904-1905. Lafayette, 1904.

  • A brief course in elementary dynamics, for students of engineering. Lafayette, 1906; New York, 1908, 1909. with Arthur Taber Jones. A manual of practical physics for students of science and engineering.Vol. 1: Fundamental measurements and properties of matter, heat.New York, 1908.

  • with Glenn A. Shook and Jacob R. Collins. Practical pyrometry; the theory, calibration, and use of instruments for the measurement of high temperatures. 1st ed., New York, 1917; 2 ed., rev., New York, 1920.

  • A handbook of physics measurements. with O.W. Silvey, G.W. Sherman, Jr., and D.C. Duncan. Vol. 1: Fundamental measurements, properties of matter and optics; Vol. II: Vibratory Motion, Sound, Heat, electricity and magnetism. 1st ed., New York, 1918; 2d ed., revised, New York and London, 1926; 3d ed., New york and London, 1929.

  • General physics and its application to industry and everyday life. New York, 1921; 1st ed., corrected with additional problems, 1923; 2d ed., revised, 1925; 3d ed., revised, 1928.

  • Applied gyrodynamics, for students, engineers and users of gyroscopic apparatus. New York and London, 1932.: 1st ed., rev., 1933.

Ferry's skills as a textbook author were matched by his effectiveness as the leading proponent of a separate physics department and the construction of a new building to house it. Due to the increasing numbers of science and engineering students everywhere, new physics buildings were a common sight at colleges in the United States and Europe shortly after the turn of the century. As elsewhere, overcrowding in the lecture halls and teaching laboratories was a leading argument offered for new construction. In a letter to Purdue President Winthrop Ellsworth Stone on 3 October 1902, Ferry explained in part:

Our largest lecture room was designed to accommodate seventy students, but by filling with chairs the space around the lecture table, the two aisles and the right half of the middle aisle, seats have been provided for one hundred and twenty-three students. But even with this addition ... there are still eleven students who can not be provided with chairs at the lectures ... In addition ... everyone in the room becomes soon affected by the quickly vitiated atmosphere. Even at the present season of the year when windows can be left open throughout a lecture period, the atmosphere in the over crowded room becomes so impure as to produce severe headaches. (5)

In response to Ferry's plea, President Stone successfully petitioned the state legislature for an appropriation of $60,000 for a new building. Ground was broken in April 1904. The first classes were held in January of 1905, the same year in which Albert Einstein published his revolutionary papers on special relativity, light quanta and Brownian motion. The 75-by-130 feet building became the Biology Annex when the first section of the current Physics Building on Northwestern Avenue was built in 1941. It was renamed Stanley Coulter Annex in 1953 and subsequently Peirce Hall. The recently completed Class of 1950 Lecture Hall now occupies the site of the first Physics Building.

Purdue physics registered noticeable changes with the opening of the new building, but teaching, rather than research, remained the primary mission of the department. The 1905 student year book, Debris, listed an expanded physics faculty of six: one professor (Ferry), one assistant professor (Charles Marquis Smith), two instructors, and two assistants. The irreverent yearbook (Debris, 1905) wrote of Ferry: "Tis said that Ferry's strut much resembles that of a bantam rooster. The advent of both the new physics building and his much talked of physics book have proven too much for him and now he treads only on air."

Ferry and his faculty arranged the new building (with a lecture hall now seating 300), in close concert with a completely revised curriculum. The course catalogue still lists general physics as a course, with its own laboratory space, but practical physics is now divided into three subjects, each with its own well-stocked laboratory, and each designed to serve designated engineering students. Other than the lab for general physics, the new teaching and research labs included one each for heat studies (required of mechanical engineering students), electrical measurements (required of electrical engineering students) and acoustics (for future telephone technicians).

Physics majors could not claim total neglect, however. The new curriculum included for the first time separate advanced courses in the more modern-sounding topics of experimental physics, theoretical physics, and optics - all taught at first by Ferry. In concert with these advanced courses, the new building housed ten small rooms set apart for special experimental purposes. Three of these were for optical studies, one equipped with a Michelson interferometer; the remainder were for special research and machine shops.

Except for the occasional addition to the physics labs of such items as two pieces of motor-driven apparatus for the determination of the lubricating qualities of oils at various loads and temperatures, the organization remained unchanged until well after the arrival of Karl Lark-Horovitz. The faculty, however, expanded to 12, while the course offerings increased to an astonishing 38 one-semester courses, as listed in the 1925-26 catalogue. In addition to Ferry, members of the department in 1926 included Professor Charles Marquis Smith, Associate Professor George William Sherman, and Assistant Professors Raymond Barrington Abbot and William Henry Bair. Smith, who received his B.S. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1899, had studied in Munich, Germany before coming to Purdue as an instructor in 1901. Sherman had received an M.S. degree from Purdue in 1914 and had joined the faculty as an instructor. Abbott and Bair were the first physics faculty to have received doctorates, both from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1919. Elizabeth Mitchell (A.M. Cornell University, 1913) was appointed the first female instructor around 1919. She became assistant professor in 1931 and remained on the faculty until 1941.

In line with the multi-faceted demands placed upon a twentieth-century physics department, the curriculum by the mid-1920s fell into three stages: lower and upper undergraduate courses and graduate work. The lower-level courses were tailored to a wide spectrum of students, from future physicists and engineers to agriculture majors and home economics students. Upper-level undergraduates could enroll in courses in electromagnetic waves, radioactivity, and atomic structure. Graduate students received a heavy dose of theoretical physics (for that period): four two-semester surveys of theoretical topics, as well as up-to-date courses on relativity theory, the Bohr-Sommerfeld theory of atomic spectra, and the electron theory of matter. Textbooks listed for the advanced undergraduate and graduate courses included such outstanding classics as Barton's Analytical Mechanics, Planck's Lectures on Thermodynamics, Drude's Theory of Optics, and Jeans' Mathematical Theory of Electricity and Magnetism.

School of Science

In 1907 Dean Stanley Coulter founded a new School of Science, consisting of the departments of physics, biology, chemistry, industrial arts, and sanitary science. The express purposes of the school included the training of professional scientists. As such, Dean Coulter intended research and scholarly publication to be prime activities of the new professional school, while the President's annual reports reflected this view for the entire university. Available statistics indicate the success of the new school in attracting future scientists, for whom graduate degrees were now essential. By 1922 the School of Science dominated graduate education at Purdue. In that year, Purdue hosted a total of 3232 students (487 of whom were women) which included 76 graduate students. There were 302 faculty members. The School of Science could claim only 567 undergraduates but nearly half (32) of all grad students and over one-third (137) of the entire faculty. (6)

Despite this success the School of Science faculty did not fulfill Dean Coulter's vision of thriving research and scholarly publication. This certainly held for the Department of Physics, as indicated not only by the structure of the laboratories and curriculum but also by descriptions such as the following. An unnamed staff member reported as late as 1928 that the physics library consisted of one corner of a very small room that had a few shelves of textbooks for general physics. People were told that if they wanted to do research work they would have to do it at their own expense and on their own time. (7) The Physics Department did not award its first doctorate until 1934! An agriculture student had already received the university's first doctorate in 1897.

Aside from Ferry's textbooks (no doubt occupying those few shelves), Professor Abbott provided the only other evidence of scholarly activity. In addition to public lectures on topics ranging from Einstein's theory of relativity to the workings of an electrical stethoscope, Abbott had published four research items by 1929, two of which were abstracts of conference papers appearing in The Physical Review. (8)

In his final report on the School of Science, submitted in July 1926 just prior to his retirement, the disappointed dean levelled a scathing criticism at the seeming intellectual sterility of a faculty whose response may not have been unique:

The main criticism which can be heard against the teaching staff in the School of Science is its apparent lack of productivity. Publications in technical journals in the various departments represented in the School are too few in number. Where I have attempted to account for this seeming intellectual sterility I have been met with the statement that the time of the members of the staff is so thoroughly taken up with assigned duties that they had neither the strength nor the time for work of this character. I am not inclined, personally, to believe that this reason is sound but I submit it as explanation given in each case in which I have attempted to urge them into greater productivity ... (9)

Two years later Coulter's successor, Richard Bishop Moore, brought a Viennese-born physicist, Karl Lark-Horovitz, to Purdue, and within a decade the Department of Physics had completely changed its course.

Next: The First Phase of the Lark-Horovitz Era, 1928-1942Back to top |

  • Course catalogues, annual.
  • Debris, 1899, 1905
  • Solomon Gartenhaus and Arnold Tubis, A Short History of the Physics Department of Purdue University, manuscript; abridged version published in Sequel.
  • Hugh F. Henry, Physics: Its Development in Indiana, Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science for 1966, 76 (1967), 129-141.
  • Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America (New York: Knopf, 1978).
  • Robert W. Topping, A Century and Beyond: The History of Purdue University (West Lafayette: Purdue University Press, 1988).
  1. Kevles, p. 7.
  2. Minutes of Board of Trustees, 30 July 1874 (archives); and Topping.
  3. Course Catalogue, 1883-84; Debris, 1899.
  4. Topping, pp. 128-129.
  5. Annual Report of the President, year ending June 1901, pp. 52-53.
  6. Topping, pp. 193-194.
  7. Henry, p. 135.
  8. Phys Rev, 21 (1923), 200; 31 (1928), 313; and personnel file (archives).
  9. Gartenhaus and Tubis, Sequel.
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