Society History

APS was founded to "advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics."
Nine men seated in a circle in front of a blackboard
American Physical Society Press Conference circa 1959
Credit: AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Physics Today Collection

On May 20, 1899, 36 physicists gathered at Columbia University founded a new organization to "advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics." Initially, APS's main activity was to host scientific meetings, holding four per year. Arthur Gordon Webster, a professor of physics at Clark University who came to be known as "the father of APS," organized the first of these meetings at Fayerweather Hall at Columbia University.

In the 19th century, the sciences were becoming more specialized, with scientists founding professional societies to advance their respective fields. At this time physics had yet to gain the same respect in the United States as it had in Europe. The first American physics professors weren't hired until 1870, and universities prioritized teaching over research, with technological achievements valued above abstract discovery. In the 1890s, as European scientists advanced innovations such as x-rays, the scientific community began meeting internationally.

To collaborate with this international community and improve research standards in the U.S., the founders of APS created the society to connect physicists across the country. As stated by APS's first president, Henry A. Rowland, "to encourage the growth of any science, the best thing we can do is to meet together in its interest, to discuss its problems, to criticize each other's work and, best of all, to provide means by which the better portion of it may be made known to the world."

Physical Review journals

Edward Nichols, a professor of physics at Cornell University, founded Physical Review in 1893. In 1913, APS took over publishing of Physical Review. In 1929, APS also began publishing Reviews of Modern Physics, followed by Physical Review Letters in 1958.

As physics has advanced throughout the 20th and 21st century, the Physical Review collection of journals expanded and divided to cover new areas of research and discovery, with 17 titles by 2023.

APS in the modern era

After World War II, federal funding for physics research increased, as did scientists' public involvement. As a result, APS became more active in public and government affairs, and we continue to advocate for and amplify the voice of physicists.

Today, our initiatives advance physics in education, support the career development of physicists, and elevate physics both in the U.S. and around the world. Our membership is represented by 50 units, spanning geography, interests, and areas of physics.

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