History: Physics at Georgia Tech

Introduction: Written by Edward W. Thomas, 2009

Georgia Tech (Tech) was founded in 1888 to teach Engineering through use of workshop practice and apprenticeships. From the Institution’s foundation, Physics was taught at Tech but only as a part of the Engineering curriculum. In 1938 Physics became a School and was permitted to develop its own degree programs. Around this time the Institution reorganized its teaching practices away from the “workshop” approach to a more “academic” program. By the mid 1960s the main focus of the Institution moved heavily towards research programs and graduate degrees. This continues to the present day, and we now see Tech as one of the leading Universities of the nation.

This present work sets out to tell the story of how Physics at Tech evolved from a purely instructional unit to a full academic School. The initial work on this narrative was started by David L. Wyly in about 1982. Subsequent writings have been added by various retired school “Directors” and “Chairs.” [Prior to 1992 the person heading a degree granting school was titled “Director.” In 1992 the title of a School head was changed to the more conventional “Chair.”] This work is a series of narrative “Chapters” representing various phases of the School’s history.

The first Chapter covers the period 1888 through 1938 when Physics was simply a department of instruction teaching the subject for Engineering majors. The second period starts with the creation of the degree granting School in 1938 and ends with the move to the “new” Physics building in 1967; this period encompasses the development of the three degree programs and of the original research capabilities. The third Chapter covers the period 1967 to 1982. During most of this period Jim Stevenson was “Director.” The School’s programs were becoming competitive on a national and international basis; the original research programs were being replaced as the pioneering faculty reached retirement. The fourth Chapter covers 1982 to 1991. During most of this period Edward Thomas was “Director” of the School. For the periods after 1991, we asked School Chairs to write Chapters representing their specific period of office. Thus Chapter five covers the period when Henry Valk was Chair (1991-1996). We are hoping to receive additional Chapters from Raj Roy (1996-1999), Ron Fox (1999-2005), and Mei Yin Chou (appointed Chair in 2005 and still in office at the time of writing, 2009).

Dave Wyly, who started this project, was first employed at Tech in 1938. At the time he contributed to this history (1982), he had a longer association with the School than anyone else surviving at the time. Using historical records Wyly transcribed the list of “Physics” faculty for each year from the School’s foundation until we moved into the new building in 1967. He supplemented this material by vignettes about many of the faculty. Some of the material was based on his own experience of events. Material related to dates before 1938 was obtained from conversations with faculty who had arrived before Wyly and who were still active when he arrived. Wyly also added comments about the major events at the School and at the Institution. This transcription of records and Wyly’s commentary have been included here, without change, as Appendix A (PDF).

The material produced by Dave Wyly provides year-by-year notes on the early changes in the School. This was a critical first step in assembling material upon which a history might be based. Subsequent authors did not feel that the developments of later years could fit into Wyly’s year-by-year format. Moreover, year-by-year notes were not going to appeal to a wide reading audience. It was therefore decided to adopt a purely narrative presentation. Edward Thomas undertook to write a narrative version of the history prepared by Wyly. This material represents the first two chapters of the overall history. All subsequent authors have produced narrative coverage of their assigned years.