Preserving Departmental Histories

By J. David Jackson

The APS Forum on History of Physics renews the call (from APS News, January 2007) to every physics department to help preserve its history and accomplishments by updating an existing history or preparing a new one. The histories should be deposited with the AIP Niels Bohr Library and entered in the Forum’s new Register of Departmental Histories and Records (see below).

A coherent historical narrative may be supplemented by specialized records and documents, such as annual faculty lists and course descriptions from university catalogs. Examples of the diversity of materials already on hand at the AIP are the informal and probably incomplete listings found in the Niels Bohr Library catalog for Cornell University and the University of Michigan, as given below. Note, however, that the most recent of these items are over 20 years old, and most are much older.

Cornell University:
  • “Seventy years of physics at Cornell,” by Harley Earl Howe, 1958.
  • “The Cornell Physics Department— recollections and a history of sorts,” by Paul Hartman, 1984.
  • Pages from faculty listing of the Cornell University Department of Physics, 1910–1940, by Cornell University.
University of Michigan:
  • “The University of Michigan Department of Physics, 1843–1944,” by Charles F. Meyer, 1944.
  • “Physics and the Department of Physics since 1900—Definitions and Reflections,” by David Mathias Dennison, 1967.
  • “On the history of physics at Michigan: Nuclear physics,” by W. C. Parkinson, 1986.
  • “The Michigan Symposium on Theoretical Physics,” by Samuel A. Goudsmidt, ca. 1961.
  • Pages from catalogs listing faculty of the physics department, 1910–1940, by University of Michigan Department of Physics.
  • Catalogs listing of courses in physics and staff of the University of Michigan Department of Physics, 1925–1941, by University of Michigan.
  • Copies of physics and chemistry examinations, 1896–1901, by University of Michigan.
  • A directory of research in the Physics Department of the University of Michigan, 1962, by University of Michigan Department of Physics.
To the extent that an up-to-date historical record is not on file at the Niels Bohr Library, the Forum urges a physics department to prepare or update a history of its department and any research laboratories, and to send a copy (in whatever form) to the Niels Bohr Library, in care of  Dr. Spencer Weart, AIP Center for History of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Placing historical documents on the departmental web site would also give increased access to all.

Separately the Forum has established a Register of Departmental Histories and Records, to be published periodically in the Forum newsletter and on its web site. Entries should be standard bibliographic citations with indications of availability in institutional or departmental libraries, through web links, and (we hope) at the Bohr Library. This Register will provide another tool for finding information about past activities in physics research and education, to serve as a starting point for more focused searches. Please send Register entries for existing histories, other materials and new entries as they are produced to J. D. Jackson, 50A-5104 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley CA 94720. The materials themselves should be sent to the Niels Bohr Library (address above).

The APS Forum on History of Physics congratulates those departments with an up-to-date history on file in its library and at the Niels Bohr Library. If it does not exist, please prepare one! Forum members are encouraged to take the initiative in preparing these histories.

Register of Departmental Histories and Records

(Submitted January – June 2007)

American Physical Society
“History of the APS Forum on Physics and Society”

Case Western Reserve University
“Physics at a Research University: Case Western Reserve 1830–1990” by William Fickinger, Professor Emeritus (Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University, 2006), 360 pages. availability: Library of Congress, Catalog LCCN 2005933988; also at the CWRU bookstore and on the web at

Michigan Technological University
“History of the Physics Department, Michigan Technological University”

Purdue University
“History of the Purdue Physics Department” from newsletter articles and other material, collected on a web site:

University of California, Berkeley
“History of the Physics Department, University of California, Berkeley, 1950–1968” by August Carl Helmholz, edited by John David Jackson (Berkeley, CA: University of California, 2004), 75 pages. availability: UCB Physics Department; UCB Library; Niels Bohr Library

Williams College
“Williams College’s Hopkins Observatory: The Oldest Extant Observatory in the United States”by Jay M. Pasachoff, Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage 1:1 (1998), 61-78.