Hyer as a Scientist

The following material is taken from To Survive and Excel: The Story of Southwestern University, 1840-2000 (Southwestern University, Georgetown, Texas, 2006), by William B. Jones, Professor Emeritus of History and University Historian.

Two special curator committees on academic matters had been appointed at the meeting just completed (1897).  One dealt with the library, the other with the Natural Science Department.  The purpose was to determine what might be done to enhance the work of each area.  The library had been upgraded significantly in 1895 when the old chapel was refitted for library and reading room purposes.  Homer S. Thrall, one of the most intellectual Methodist ministers in service, had also willed his library to the university.  Two years later the curators reported that the library contained 2,300 volumes.[i]  The library committee made several suggestions duly adopted by the curators about how to further develop the library.

The other committee dealt with the Natural Science Department.  Here its members came into contact with Robert S. Hyer, who, during the 1890’s, had brought Southwestern into the world of international research in physics.  In the summer of 1891, Hyer had gone to Harvard to attend a series of lectures on the latest developments in physics.  The subject matter for the lectures was the work of James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) on electromagnetism at Cambridge, England, succeeded by that of Heinrich Rudolph Hertz (1857-1894) on radio waves at the University of Bonn, Germany.  Returning home, Hyer repeated the experiments of Hertz.  By adding a transmitter and a receiver to the Hertzian apparatus, he discovered he could send and receive messages by wireless.  By 1894 he was sending messages from his laboratory on the old campus to the jail in Georgetown, a distance of over a mile.  According to some observers, this result anticipated that of Marconi by a year.  He did not, however, publish his results or seek a patent.[ii]

By 1894-95 physicists such as Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen (1845-1923), professor of physics at the Royal University of Würtzberg, Germany, were turning their attention to a new discovery called the X-ray.  Hyer was quite excited by this research and worked on it diligently in his laboratory.  He assembled an X-ray machine for himself by ordering parts from a scientific supply house.  “He built a fluoroscope using heavy card board for the sides, lining the inside with black cotton flannel, whittling a handle from a cedar post.”  It is this machine that can be seen on the table in a well-known laboratory picture taken of him and the rest of the faculty. 

Hyer learned that these rays would not penetrate bone or metal, leading to all sorts of possible uses for the machine.  People in Georgetown and in neighboring towns became excited over the machine, and Hyer used it on several occasions to help physicians diagnose fractures and to locate foreign objects in the body.  “For these pictures,” says his daughter, “he would charge one dollar, the price of the plates.”  When Dr. A. C. Scott, of the Scott & White Sanitarium at Temple, got an X-ray machine in 1897, he invited Dr. Hyer to illustrate what he had learned about it from his own experiments.  He finally wrote a monograph on “electric waves” that was published in The Journal of the Texas Academy of Science.[iii]

Little wonder that the curator committee gave a glowing description of his work when it reported back to the assembled curators in full meeting.  It said:

. . . Your committee is unanimous in the opinion that if Prof. Hyer had the facilities he ought to have, he could easily put our university in the very front rank on the lines of his special department.  . . . .  The results of his patient study and careful investigation are sought for and complimentary notices are given both in England and America.  This department needs apparatus.  So much more could be done if it were well equipped.[iv]  

[i] Jones, SU 1840-1961, p. 211.

[ii] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 36-37.

[iii] Brown, Hyer:  The Man I Knew, pp. 38-41.  The Special Collections section of the SLC possesses an X-ray picture made by Hyer in the summer of 1899.  Presidents, Score Correspondence 1947-49.  

[iv] SU Curators-Trustees 1869-1912.  May 28-June 1, 1897, pp. 326-328.