History: Chapter 1 (1888-1938)

Foundation of the Institution to the Foundation of the School of Physics

Written by Edward W. Thomas, 2009. Based on the notes of L. David Wyly, Regent's Professor, and on general historical documents of the Institution.

Institutions of Technology were first founded in the 1800s to provide educational support to the industries of the nation. Probably the first in the USA was Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute founded as the Rensselaer School in 1824. In 1861 there was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, followed in 1865 by the Worcester Free Institute of Industrial Sciences (now Worcester Polytechnic), both in Massachusetts. The California Institute of Technology was founded in 1891 (under the name “Throop Polytechnic Institute”). The Georgia School of Technology (now Georgia Institute of Technology) was founded in 1888, the only institution of this type to be created in the Southeastern USA. Initial discussions about the creation of the school started in 1882, and the legislature voted positively in 1885. Five places competed for the proposed school: Athens (location of the University of Georgia), Macon, Penfield, Milledgeville, and Atlanta. Ultimately Atlanta was chosen. In part the decision was based on the greater financial contribution offered by the city and by private donors. But one might conjecture that the existence of railroads, engineering works and factories in Atlanta also made an impact on the decisions. The school ultimately opened in 1888 with its first entering class [1].

In designing the curriculum the organizers visited a variety of Institutions including MIT and the Worcester Free Institute. MIT taught the academic basis of Engineering. Worcester’s programs were based on workshop practice and apprenticeships. The organizing committee chose to follow the pattern of Worcester, a fateful decision that took 50 years or so to change.

At inception, the school had only a single degree program—Mechanical Engineering. There were 97 entering students. To provide instruction, there were five faculty: one each to teach Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics; one to teach ME; and a fifth to supervise the workshops. The sciences were seen as the underpinning of Engineering and were taught as major components of the Engineering curriculum. This of course continues to the present day.

The first Instructor and Professor of Physics was Isaac Stiles Hopkins, Ph.D. and D.D. He was also the President of the Institution! Isaac Hopkins had studied literature at Emory, Medicine at the Medical College in Augusta, and then returned to Emory for a degree in Theology. He was self taught in the area of “Industrial Arts.” Besides teaching Physics, and presiding over the Institution, Hopkins was simultaneously pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Atlanta. A very busy man!

The Catalog for 1888 (when the school was operating on a Semester system) describes the Physics curriculum as follows:

The Apprentice Class during the first term, study the general properties of matter; during the second term, the laws of motion and machines.

The Junior Class study during the first term, hydrostatics and pneumatics. The second term is given to acoustics and magnetism.

The Middle Class are occupied the first term with electricity— statical and dynamical; during the second term they study the subjects of heat and light.

The Senior Class are engaged for the most part in the physics laboratory and in investigations under the direction of the Professor of Physics. They are taught by lectures and experiment the modes of making precise measurement, the construction, and adjustment and use of instruments of precision.

For the first fifty years of the Institution’s history the “Department” of Physics taught the necessary foundation courses for Engineering and gradually increased the numbers of its faculty. Hopkins resigned from Tech in 1895 to devote himself full time to his clerical duties. The Physics Professor was now R.W. Quick who had a B.S degree and was a local authority on X-rays. From 1896 Mr. Quick also did double duty as a Professor of Electrical Engineering.

In 1923 the Department of Physics acquired its own building the “Old Physics Building,” now known as D. M. Smith, which sits immediately south east of the main entrance to the library. To the right of the main door is a foundation stone indicating that the building was funded by a gift from the Carnegie Foundation. The catalog of 1923 includes the following description of the building:

The ground floor is arranged for general laboratory work, each room being equipped with electric lights, gas, water, compressed air, and storage battery circuits. The main lecture room of the department occupies the central portion of the first floor. It has a seating capacity of two hundred and eighty, the seats being raised so as to allow students a clear view of the lecture table.

Five recitation rooms, library, and offices are on the first floor.  Two class rooms, and laboratory, and research rooms are on the second floor, the remaining space being occupied temporarily by the department of Civil Engineering. The third floor is occupied by the department of Architecture.

Physics did not recover the top floor from Architecture for 20 years! By the early 1960s in the basement there were a small machine shop tended by a machinist and a student shop. Physics occupied this building until 1967. The faculty who moved into the Physics building in 1923 consisted of seven people: Professor J.B. Edwards, Associate Professors J.R. Jenness and R.N. Thompson, Assistant Professors N.F. Beardsley, and A.F.Samuels, Instructors E.E. Bortell and G.B. Estabrook. Two of these had Masters Degrees, three held their degrees in Engineering subjects (there were no Ph.D.s).

Research arrived on the campus in 1934 with the formation of the “Engineering Experiment Station” or EES. This today is known as the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI). EES was designed as a research facility and was expected to assist local Engineering companies. (In many ways it was supposed to parallel the functions of the Agricultural Experiment Station at the University of Georgia.) EES provided an infra structure where research could be performed. It had its own non-academic faculty and technical staff. It was also possible for Faculty in academic units to have a joint appointment and carry a research program in EES. During World War II the EES undertook large amounts of research activities for the government in the general fields of communications and radar. This led to a great expansion in size. While much of the research in EES/GTRI has been “applied,” there always has been the opportunity for its faculty to engage in fundamental studies. Basically, if a faculty member could procure the support for his salary, he could do anything that pleased him. The importance of EES to Physics was that EES provided the initial hiring point for many people who later became prominent faculty.

In 1936, Dr. Joseph Howey joined the Department as its head. Howey had a Ph.D. in Physics from Yale. Three years later in 1939, Physics was made a “School” with the rights to grant BS and MS degrees. Howey oversaw the transformation into a “School,” the creation of the degree programs and, in the 1950s, the formation of a Ph.D.  program and the research activities on which such a program is based.

During the 1920s and 1930s the School employed a number of people who were interesting characters. There was Roger Strout, Instructor in Physics hired in 1927, who built his own yacht in Savannah, and in 1934 took off with his wife to sail around the world. On his return, just before the outbreak of WWII, Strout made a living on the lecture circuit telling about his experiences. His boat, called the “Igdrasil,” is apparently an important design that continues to be discussed in yachting circles. Information about Strout and his boat can be found by Googling on his name. There was Earl Bortell who was hired in 1921 and was still active when Tech granted its first Physics Ph.D.s in 1957.  Bortell was not only a Physics Professor, but also, ending in 1960, was the Tennis Coach at Tech winning 28 of his 30 of his seasons.

[1] The author has drawn much of this information from the book “Images and Memories, Georgia Tech 1885-1985" by B. Eugene Griessman, Sarah Evelyn Jackson, and Annible Jenkins. Published by Georgia Institute of Technology in 1985. The book was created for the Centennial of the Institution.

Note: Biographies of some early faculty members (including Bortell and Howey) are to be found at http://www.library.gatech.edu/archives/. This is a collection of obituaries many written by James R Stevenson (a former faculty member in Physics).