Columbia University Archives

Department of Physics Historical records, 1862-1997, bulk 1906-1957

Summary Information


This collection of various historical materials collected by the Columbia University Physics Department includes photographs and negatives of faculty members, faculty biographical information, images of related buildings and grounds, correspondence between faculty members and others, publications, information concerning guest lecturers in the department, as well as materials used in exhibitions and presentations depicting the department's history.

At a Glance

Call No.: UA#0200
Bib ID 10650114 View CLIO record
Creator(s) Columbia University. Department of Physics
Title Department of Physics Historical records, 1862-1997, bulk 1906-1957
Physical Description 2.29 linear feet (5 document boxes, 1 half-size document box); 2.29 linear feet (5 document boxes, 1 half-size document box)
Language(s) English , Chinese , Latin , English , Chinese , Latin , French , German .

This collection is located on-site.

This collection has no restrictions.



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.

  • Series I: Columbia University Department of Physics, 1905-1992

    This series contains materials generally associated with activities of the Department of Physics. Materials include exhibition labels, histories of the department, photographs, correspondence, catalogs, event planning documents, correspondence, and some departmental records. Of particular interest are press releases and photographs concerning the original cyclotron in Pupin and its removal in 1965.

  • Series II: Individuals, 1862-1997

    This series consists of materials related to individual faculty members and other individuals with ties to the Department of Physics, usually as a guest lecturer. Materials include original correspondence between prominent physicists from within and outside the Columbia University community, photographs, negatives, notes, and lecture announcements. Files are arranged alphabetically by last name of the individual. Much of the correspondence from these individuals is with Dean George B. Pegram. Of particular interest are two notebooks of George B. Pegram from when he was a student at Columbia in 1899 as well a notebook of lectures by Professor McCullogh as transcribed by Peter A. Jay in 1862. Files containing correspondence have date ranges noted; those with just photographs are almost always undated.

  • Series III: Publications, 1881-1999

    This series consists of copies of published books and brochures maintained by the Department of Physics over the years. Some books that came in the original accession have been added to the rare books collection at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Books that were found to be housed in other parts of the Columbia Libraries were returned to the Department in summer 2014.

Using the Collection

Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Restrictions on Access

This collection is located on-site.

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.

Preferred Citation

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

Processing Information

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.

Revision Description

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.

Subject Headings

The subject headings listed below are found in this collection. Links below allow searches at Columbia University through the Archival Collections Portal and through CLIO, the catalog for Columbia University Libraries, as well as ArchiveGRID, a catalog that allows users to search the holdings of multiple research libraries and archives.

All links open new windows.


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
Commemorative postage stamps Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Correspondence Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Picture postcards Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Printed Ephemera Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Slides (photographs) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
black-and-white photographs Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
negatives (photographs) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
publications (documents) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID


Heading "CUL Archives:"
"CUL Collections:"
"Nat'l / Int'l Archives:"
American Physical Society Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bethe, Hans A (Hans Albrecht), 1906-2005 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bjerknes, V (Vilhelm), 1862-1951 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bohr, Aage Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bohr, Niels, 1885-1962 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bragg, William Henry, 1862-1942 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Bragg, William Lawrence, Sir, 1890-1971 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University -- Faculty Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Columbia University. Department of Physics Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Cooper, Leon N (Leon Neil), 1930- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Cyclotrons Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Debye, Peter J. W (Peter Josef William), 1884-1966 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Ehrenfest, Paul, 1880-1933 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Einstein, Albert, 1879-1955 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Fermi, Enrico, 1901-1954 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Fitch, Val L., 1923-2015 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Gell-Mann, Murray Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hahn, Otto, 1879-1968 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Hallock, William, 1857-1913 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Kusch, Polykarp, 1911-1993 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Lamb, Willis E (Willis Eugene), 1913-2008 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Langmuir, Irving, 1881-1957 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Lederman, Leon M. Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Lorentz, H. A (Hendrik Antoon), 1853-1928 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Los Alamos (Calif.) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Lummer, O (Otto), 1860-1925 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Manhattan Project (Organization) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Mayer, Maria Goeppert, 1906-1972 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Millikan, Robert Andrews, 1868-1953 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Nobel Prizes Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Pegram, George Braxton, 1876-1958 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Penzias, Arno A. Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Perrin, Jean, 1870-1942 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Physics -- Study and teaching Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Planck, Max, 1858-1947 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Pupin, Michael, 1858-1935 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Quimby, Shirley L. Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Rabi, I. I (Isidor Isaac), 1898-1988 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Rainwater, Leo James Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Ramsey, Norman, 1915-2011 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Rubbia, Carlo, 1934- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Schawlow, Arthur L., 1921-1999 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Schwartz, Melvin, 1932-2006 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Schwinger, Julian, 1918-1994 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Serber, R (Robert) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Sommerfeld, Arnold, 1868-1951 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Steinberger, J Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Szilard, Leo Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Ting, S. C. C (Samuel Chao-chung), 1936- Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Townes, Charles H Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Urey, Harold Clayton, 1893-1981 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Weinberg, Erick J Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Wick, G. C (Gian Carlo) Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Wien, W (Wilhelm), 1864-1928 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Wu, C. S. (Chien-shiung), 1912-1997 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID
Yukawa, Hideki, 1907-1981 Portal CLIO ArchiveGRID

History / Biographical Note

Historical 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)