APS News

First American Physics Nobelist Paints Pretty Picture

By Ernie Tretkoff

Robert Ritzmann with painting.
Robert Ritzmann with painting.
A.A. Michelson painting owned by Robert Ritzmann
Closeup of painting

The painting on the index page of the March issue is by Albert A. Michelson (1852-1931), best known for his measurements of the speed of light that helped put to rest the concept of the ether. (See the extensive discussion in Letters section.) Michelson became the first American to win the Nobel Prize in physics, in 1907.

Among his hobbies, which included billiards, chess, and playing the violin, Michelson enjoyed painting, mostly watercolors of California landscapes, many of which he hung on the walls of his house and office at the University of Chicago.

This particular painting, a small, 10 x 13 cm watercolor, belongs to Robert Ritzmann, a retired nuclear engineer whose mother worked as a secretary and stockroom clerk in the University of Chicago physics department in the early 1930's. Mrs. Ritzmann worked across the hall from Michelson's office, and during his recuperation after a cerebral hemorrhage in 1930, she would deliver Michelson's mail to his house and let him dictate replies to her.

Ritzmann said the reprint of Robert Millikan's 1949 article, "Albert Einstein on His Seventieth Birthday," [APS News Back Page, January 2004] brought back memories of tagging after his mother in the University of Chicago physics department. At the time, Ritzmann recalls, money was tight, so his mother had him selling the Saturday Evening Post and the Ladies Home Journal to graduate students, staff, and professors in the department, though at the time he didn't know who these people were. "As a seven year old I hadn't the slightest idea of the accomplishments of Drs. Michelson, Compton, Millikan and others," said Ritzmann.

According to Ritzmann, one day in Michelson's office across from the stockroom, his mother told Michelson she'd like to have one of his paintings. He reached up, took this small, framed watercolor off the wall, turned it over, and signed it, "With Kind Regards A.A. Michelson." Mrs. Ritzmann kept the painting for over fifty years and passed it on to her son.



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