Report from the Chair: Preserving the Present

By David Cassidy, Forum Chair

Joseph Anderson and his colleagues at the AIP Center for History of Physics have recently completed the first systematic study of the contemporary history of physicists in industry. The project studied research at 15 science-based companies with the aim of developing guidelines for preserving historically valuable contemporary R&D records. The companies surveyed, including Raytheon, IBM, Bell Laboratories, and Xerox, varied widely in their practices. Although all dutifully preserved their financial records, their research records received much less attention.

The problem is not unique to the history of industrial research. Not just documents, but history itself, are consequently lost. Although the past may be an influential prologue to the present, it exists today only in the fading memories of the participants and the scattered artifacts and documents–the forensic evidence of an era–that have survived to the present. But as memories fade, the evidence of the past is fading even faster. The reliance on email, computer files, and digital data acquisition and storage means that documentation of the daily workings of research is easily deleted, written over, or rendered unreadable as storage formats change. Paper takes up so much space that it can eventually become unmanageable. Digital electronics has altered even the nature of research. The AIP report issued by the Center laments the decline of the lab notebook and the absence of any electronic replacement for it.

No doubt future historians, too, will have to modify the methods of their work. But they will still need the evidence of the past, in whatever form that evidence might take. I concur with the report’s recommendation that, at minimum, “A small number of records that document the R&D process and policies should be saved permanently and preserved either by the company or in cooperation with external archives.”

The same holds for research groups in universities and many other institutions. Forum Executive Committee members George Zimmerman and Robert Arns have been actively continuing the Forum initiative begun by David Jackson to encourage academic physics departments to preserve their histories and historically valuable documents (See “Preserving Departmental Histories,” History of Physics Newsletter, Fall 2008, p. 4). I am pleased to report that, in concert with the AIP Center, they have recently expanded the initiative to include industrial research facilities. For more information about these efforts, please contact Zimmerman (, Arns (, or Anderson (

The 75-page AIP report, “History of Physicists in Industry: Final Report,” is available on the Web at Print copies are available free by contacting

I wish to thank the Forum’s Program Committee, led by Chair-Elect Gloria Lubkin and Vice Chair Daniel Kleppner, for their organization of the history sessions for the 2009 APS March Meeting (March 16–20 in Pittsburgh) and “April” Meeting (May 2–5 in Denver). You will find specifics about the planned sessions on pp. 4-6 of this issue. I hope you can attend one or both meetings.

We wish our budget allowed us to offer travel support to the speakers, especially the students, in our sessions. Please consider making a donation to the Forum to support a student who is presenting a contributed paper or to an invited speaker at one of these meetings. Such contributions may honor a physicist, or not, as the donor wishes. Contact Secretary-Treasurer Thomas Miller ( or any other Forum officer for more information.

Congratulations to Stephen G. Brush, the 2009 winner of the Abraham Pais Prize for the History of Physics, and to Daniel Kennefick, who has been named an APS Fellow (see p. 3). I encourage you to nominate deserving colleagues for the Pais Prize and for APS fellowship through the Forum. More information on both distinctions can be found on the Forum website and on p. 6 of this issue. In addition, please encourage your historically inclined colleagues to join the Forum through membership in APS; members may join up to two APS forums at no additional cost.

Thanks are due Bill Evenson and the Nominating Committee for assembling our slate of candidates for the 2009 elections. We are especially pleased to have excellent candidates for the new Student Member of the Executive Committee. You will find candidate biographies and statements on pp. 7-11 of this issue. Please take a moment to review this information and vote in the election.

I am pleased to report that Forum Webmaster George Zimmerman, working with Sara Conners at APS, has now posted multimedia materials on the Web from our March and April 2008 program sessions. You may find them on the Forum website. (Under Announcements, go to “March 2008 FHP sponsored presentations” or “April 2008 presentations.” PDFs of the PowerPoint presentations as well as audio files can be downloaded there.) George will continue to post similar materials for future meetings. The Web posting of audiovisual materials from our sessions greatly enhances our services to the history of physics and vastly extends the exposure of speakers in our sessions.

Spencer Weart recently retired as the Director of the AIP Center for History of Physics. In that capacity, Spencer was a valued addition to the Forum Executive Committee for many years. We are sorry to see him leave the committee, and we wish him all the best for the future. Gregory Good, a historian of science formerly at West Virginia University, stepped in as Director on January 1. We welcome him warmly as the Center’s new ex-officio Executive Committee member.

The Forum’s semi-annual “History of Physics” newsletter will continue to be published online twice per year, but because of financial limitations a paper edition will be printed and mailed to members only once per year—usually in the fall. The online version will be available in both PDF and HTML formats at

The PDF version, which is an exact copy of what the paper edition would look like in print, can be downloaded and printed. The HTML version has additional articles and photos that cannot be accommodated in the other versions. It can be printed, article by article, or viewed online by those comfortable with doing so. Editor Michael Riordan welcomes your comments by email (at

Finally, I would like to thank all of the members of the Executive Committee, as well as the chairs and members of our various committees and program activities, for their hard work in making our programs and initiatives a success. And I would like to thank Forum members for your support of the history of physics.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.