|Columbia University Archives|
Table of Contents
Using the Collection
Note: some material may be restricted or offsite
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At a Glance
Material is arranged into three series.
The material in this collection was primarily collected by Irene Tramm, the Departmental Administrator of the Columbia University Physics Department in the late 1980s and early 1990s, for the creation of a local exhibition on the history of the department, and for information compiled into a publication "A Brief History: The Columbia University Physics Department.".
It is a random assortment of historical material, consisting of photographs, negatives, faculty and guest lecturer correspondence, biographical materials for some of the faculty, programs from various lecture series given at Columbia, publications, picture postcards, and even a sheet of commemorative postage stamps.
Using the Collection
Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Restrictions on Access
You will need to make an appointment in advance to use this collection material in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room. You can schedule an appointment once you've submitted your request through your Special Collections Research Account.
This collection is located offsite. You will need to request this material at least three business days in advance to use the collection in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library reading room.
This collection has no restrictions.
Terms Governing Use and Reproduction
Single photocopies may be made for research purposes. The RBML maintains ownership of the physical material only. Copyright remains with the creator and his/her heirs. The responsibility to secure copyright permission rests with the patron.
Identification of specific item; Date (if known); Department of Physics Historical Records; Box and Folder; University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library.
Selected Related Material -- at Columbia
Central Files, University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Historical Biographical Files University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Historical Subject Files University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Historical Photograph Collection, University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
Office of Public Affairs Photograph Collection, University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University
No additions are expected.
Ownership and Custodial History
This collection was donated to the University Archives by the Columbia University Physics Department in February, 2014.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
2013.2014.M146: Source of acquisition--Department of Physics. Method of acquisition--Gift; Date of acquisition--2014.
About the Finding Aid / Processing Information
Columbia University Libraries, Rare Book and Manuscript Library
Records processed Linda Arthur, SEAS 2014 under the direction of Jocelyn Wilk 2014.
Finding aid written Linda Arthur, SEAS 2014 May 2014.
Finding aid edited Jocelyn Wilk June 2014.
2014-08-28 xml document instance created by Adrien Hilton
2019-05-20 EAD was imported spring 2019 as part of the ArchivesSpace Phase II migration.
2022-02-11 Access note changed. Collection now stored offsite. (JR)
2023-01-26 Folder 8 added to Box 5 (JW).
History / Biographical Note
The Department of Physics was formally established in 1892, although the roots of graduate physics can be traced to the opening of the School of Mines in 1864. The department awarded its first PhD to Robert Millikan who was later awarded the Nobel Prize, as have many faculty and graduates of the department, establishing, from very early on, a prestigious tradition of physics education and research at Columbia University.
The central figure in the early years of the Department was Michael Pupin, who contributed substantially to new discoveries involving X-rays and to the continued understanding and applications of electromagnetism. He served as Department Chair for many years. Under his impressive leadership, the present Pupin Laboratory was completed in 1925 to serve as the home of the Physics Department. After his death in 1935, the building was named for him. The Department still resides in this building.
A few years later, in 1899, the American Physical Association was founded at Columbia, a society that is still very active today, followed by the creation of the Earnest Kempton Adams Fund for Scientific Research. This fund allowed Columbia to invite distinguished scholars, such as Max Planck and H.A. Lorentz, to the University to give lectures.
Over the next few decades, the Department of Physics played a significant role in the development of relativity and quantum mechanics, and the subsequent discoveries made possible with this new understanding of physics.
I.I. Rabi, a Columbia graduate student in the 1920's, was very interested in the new Quantum Mechanics being developed primarily in Europe. After completing his degree, he received a fellowship to spend a few years in European laboratories. On his return to Columbia, he spearheaded successful efforts to put Columbia, and the U.S., at the forefront of scientific research.
In the early to mid-thirties, nuclear physics became wildly popular as fission was theorized and later proved. Wishing to be at the forefront of the nuclear boom, the Department built the Pupin Cyclotron and started smashing atoms. As the U.S. involvement in World War II became a reality, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt requisitioned an atomic bomb, and the Manhattan Project, led by several members of the Department of Physics, was started in the basement of Pupin Laboratory.
After World War II the Columbia Physics Department continued its diverse research in the areas of quantum electrodynamics, microwave techniques, high energy physics, nuclear physics, astrophysics, atomic and condensed matter physics. Notable post-war faculty included James Rainwater, Charles Townes, T.D. Lee, C.S. Wu, and Horst Stormer.
The diversity of scientific opportunities that now exists at Columbia has grown out of a long and distinguished tradition of physics teaching and research. Columbia graduates, along with many other scientists who spent their formative years here, have gone on to make extraordinary contributions to science as researchers, teachers, and intellectual leaders.
(Material used in this history note was adapted from the Department of Physics History found at the Department's website)