About MIT Physics

 

Headquarters

Department of Physics, 4-304
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617.253.4800
fax: 617.253.8554
email: physics@mit.edu

Academic Programs

Department of Physics, 4-315
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02139-4307
tel: 617.253.4841
fax: 617.258.8319
email: physics@mit.edu
Undergraduate email:
physics-undergrad@mit.edu
Graduate email:
physics-grad@mit.edu

New Labs and New Frontiers : 1916-1939

When Karl T. Compton became President of MIT, he embarked on an ambitious program to turn the Institute into a world-class research establishment, with physics as one of its fundamental backbones.
When Karl T. Compton became President of MIT, he embarked on an ambitious program to turn the Institute into a world-class research establishment, with physics as one of its fundamental backbones.

THE INTERWAR GROWTH OF PHYSICS AT MIT

When the Physics Department moved along with the rest of MIT to Cambridge in 1916, its strengths were primarily in teaching and in applied physics. The Eastman Court building, in which the whole of MIT was to be housed, provided a dramatic increase in new facilities and floor space, and from the period between the end of the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War the Institute boasted a six-fold increase in physics graduates. This was largely a result of the appointment of Karl T. Compton as President of the Institute in 1930.

The idea of a technical institute in the 1910s and 1920s was, in general, to function as a training ground for industrial workers rather than as a front-line for new research in science and technology. In 1930, though, the Corporation approached Compton, previously chair of the Physics Department at Princeton University, to become the Institute's new President. Compton was explicitly meant to be a reformer: his appointment, he wrote was meant to be an explicit "approval of the thesis that the fundamental sciences must be made the backbone of the Institute." His timing could not have been better: it was becoming evident that the effects of the great stock market crash of 1929 were not going to be temporary, and the dangers of the Institute being too dependent on the fortunes of industry was becoming painfully clear.

In a reforming spirit, Compton set out to turn MIT into a world-class research institute as well as being a world-class educational institute. One of his first efforts in this regard was to create new research facilities and to populate them with young blood. He tapped into the MIT Building Fund in order to create a $1.2 million research laboratory for Physics and Chemistry, and then began a major shake-up of the Physics Department's faculty.

THE COURTING OF JOHN C. SLATER

To head the reborn Department, Compton courted John C. Slater, a theoretical physicist then at Harvard. Though only twenty-nine years old, Slater was already an accomplished theorist and a participant in the development of what would become known as quantum mechanics. In his first years as an administrator, Slater was fortunate enough to have Compton's ear, and both shared the belief in the essential necessity of physics. Slater and Compton together sought to bring in a coterie of up-and-coming physicists to MIT to reconstitute the existing department.

George R. Harrison, pictured here with his 'automatic comparator,' which allowed for the wholesale measurement of spectral wavelengths at much higher speeds than had previously been accomplished.
George R. Harrison, pictured here with his 'automatic comparator,' which allowed for the wholesale measurement of spectral wavelengths at much higher speeds than had previously been accomplished.

THE EXPANDING DEPARTMENT

Among their new hires, the Department recruited George R. Harrison from Stanford to head up the new George Eastman Laboratory. Harrison's own research was in spectroscopy -- the identification and analysis of chemical substances through their spectral lines -- and his Spectroscopy Laboratory developed an "automatic comparator," which allowed for high-speed measuring, computing, and recording of spectral wavelengths at the rate of a thousand per hour, some fifty times faster than previous methods.

Slater and Compton also recruited Philip M. Morse, a theoretical physicist, who had co-authored the first American textbook on quantum mechanics. Mores also had a practical side. He was able to apply his thorough knowledge of wave behavior gained from his study of quantum mechanics to engineering problems in acoustics. He would in the coming years play a major role in MIT's war effort.

In 1934, the Department hired Robley D. Evans, a young scientist who had begun studying the biological effects of radiation in the 1920s while a student at the California Institute of Technology and at the University of California, Berkeley. Evans established the new Radioactivity Center on campus where he did pioneering work in nuclear medicine and research into safety standards for radioactive materials. In 1938, Evans was responsible for organizing the building of MIT's first cyclotron, a particle accelerator that would be used to generate radioactive substances for medical research.

At an alumni meeting in the 1930s, Robert Van de Graaff (at left) wowed the crowed in the Hotel Statler with fully-working scale models of his eponymous generators and their display of electricity and sparks.
At an alumni meeting in the 1930s, Robert Van de Graaff (at left) wowed the crowed in the Hotel Statler with fully-working scale models of his eponymous generators and their display of electricity and sparks.

From Princeton, Compton brought his colleague Robert Van de Graaff, an experimental physicist, who had developed an electrostatic generator that probed the inner workings of atoms. Compton recognized that this work could be, with the right resources, scaled up immensely. He sent Van de Graaff to Round Hill, South Dartmouth, a private research installation long affiliated with the Institute. There Van de Graaff built hulking, globe-topped generators capable of sending off electrical bolts and showers of sparks. The most massive of these, constructed in 1931 and dubbed the "Colossus of Volts," could generate up to 5 million volts of electricity and was large enough to host small laboratories in its domes spheres.

WAR ON THE HORIZON

By the end of the 1930s, Compton and Slater had begun the transformation of MIT into one of the country's top physics departments. But a war was looming in Europe and Asia, and the physicists in particular were beginning to think about how they could apply their knowledge and techniques to the coming conflict. Many suspected that physics would change war, but few would have guessed that war would change physics.

Bibliography

On Compton's reforms to MIT and to Physics in particular, see: Stuart W. Leslie, The Cold War and American Science: The Military-Industrial-Academic Complex at MIT and Stanford (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993): 134-140; John W. Servos, "The Industrial Relations of Science: Chemical Engineering at MIT, 1900-1939," Isis 71, No. 4 (1980): 530-549; and Larry Owens, "MIT and the Federal 'Angel': Academic R&D and Federal-Private Cooperation before World War II," Isis 81 No. 2 (1990): 188-213.

For detailed descriptions of different fields of investigation and work of various professors in the 1930s, see John C. Slater, "History of the MIT Physics Department, 1930-1948," unpublished m.s. [1948], Box 171, Folder 1, Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Office of the President, 1930-1959 (A4), Institute Archives, MIT. For the period before 1930, see H.M. Goodwin, "The Department of Physics," in A History of the Departments of Chemistry and Physics at the M.I.T., 1865-1933 (Cambridge, Mass.: Technology Press, 1933).