In 1930-31 the department counted 60 undergraduates and 18 graduate students, a total of 78, making the department twelfth in size in the Institute. The increase in the number to the 152 in 1939-40 is a measure of the increase in opportunities for physics research, and also of departmental academic responsibilities.
The simple truth is that the involvement of undergraduates in research laboratory work started before the other war, the Civil war. In 1861 the enabling legislation for the founding of MIT was passed by the Massachusetts legislature. The legislation envisaged the instituting of a Society of Arts, a Museum of Arts, and a School of Industrial Science. The first meeting of the Society of Arts, presided over by William Barton Rogers was held in the Mercantile Building on Summer street in Boston in December 1862. The Museum project was never carried out, and the School of Industrial Science was delayed by the Civil war. It was not until 1864 that the plan for the School of Industrial Science of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology drawn up by President Rogers was adopted by the Corporation. The School was formally opened in the Mercantile Building in February 1865 with an entering class of 27 students. It is noteworthy that the Rogers' Scope and Plan provided for the establishment of four laboratories, one of which was for the instruction of Physics and Mechanics. An MIT historical account (Technology Review, May 1933, pp. 287ff.) states that ``as far as is known this is the first clearly defined proposal to teach physics by the laboratory method''. In 1869 Professor Pickering worked out Professor Rogers' original idea of supplementing lectures and class room work in physics with laboratory experiments performed by the students. In the Fall of 1869 the first laboratory for instruction in physics was opened under his direction.
The first laboratory was in the Rogers Building. In 1872 the Corporation resolved that the laboratory be designated and known as the Rogers Laboratory of Physics. Professor Pickering was appointed the first Director of the Rogers Laboratory of Physics. In 1877 he resigned to become Director of the Harvard College Observatory. By that time 14 papers from the Laboratory had been published. At that time there began a series of Contributions from the Rogers Laboratory of Physics in the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, that continued for many years until journals of the professional societies became established to publish the papers. In 1883 the General Laboratory was moved to more spacious quarters in the recently completed New Building, Walker, and the Department acquired its own lecture room. After Pickering left, the main emphasis of the Laboratory was primarily on teaching rather than research, though a few valuable papers were published.
In 1916 the Institute moved from Boston to Cambridge. By that time the Rogers Laboratory was comprised of fifteen individual laboratories ranging from a second year Laboratory of Mechanics, Optics and Heat, to a Laboratory of Applied Electrochemistry. By this time some Laboratories such as those for Electrical Engineering had been relinquished to other new departments. Electrical Engineering, Course VI, for example, had been established in 1902 at the request of the Director of the Rogers Laboratory, Professor Cross. The dedication of the Eastman building, building 6, in 1932 allowed the Rogers Laboratory to move once more, this time to rooms in the basement of 6. Finally, the prominence of physics in the WWII gave the department the opportunity to request and obtain more real estate from the administration. So the third floor of building 4 became the location of the Rogers laboratory. The bronze tablet commemorating the Laboratory was finally brought to that location and installed.