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Physics at WVU

A Brief History of the Physics Department Before 1960

West Virginia became a state, separate from Virginia, in 1863 during the Civil War. West Virginia University was founded in 1867. It began as a land-grant university, as did the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1863 and Cornell University in 1867.

Physics became a separate department at WVU in 1897. The first chair of physics was Thomas E. Hodges, who later became president of the University.

Alpheus W. Smith was the first member of the physics faculty with a Ph.D. He received his degree in 1906 from Harvard University, where he did research on the Hall effect. He was the first to suggest that in the Hall effect, the field acting on the electrons is a combination of the external field and the field due to the orbital motion of the electrons. Most of Smith’s career was at Ohio State University, where he served as chair of physics and dean of science. The physics building at Ohio State University is named after Alpheus W. Smith.

Chauncey William Waggoner joined the Department in 1909, the year he received his Ph.D. from Cornell University. In 1909 there were only twenty-five Ph.D. degrees in physics awarded in the entire country. Waggoner’s research advisor at Cornell was Edward L. Nichols. Nichols was very productive at Cornell, publishing fifteen papers in the Physical Review between 1894 and 1909. One of his interests was fluorescence, which was the topic of Waggoner’s dissertation. Most of Waggoner’s research at WVUwas linked to industry such as the strength of carbon steels, the composition of glass, and especially radio research. In 1901 Marconi sent the first radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean and he received the Nobel Prize in physics the same year that Waggoner came to WVU Waggoner ran a radio antenna from the clock tower of Woodburn Hall to the building that is now named Chitwood Hall. He used this in a variety of experiments to receive signals from a large experimental transmitter set up at Arlington, Virginia, by the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. In 1922 Waggoner received a license for a commercial radio station; the first license was issued to KDKA in Pittsburgh just two years earlier.

Otto Stuhman joined the Department in 1919. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1911, working under Karl Taylor Compton, who later served as President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1930 to 1948. At Princeton, Stuhlman’s dissertation was on the photoelectric effect. In the period 1913-1914 he published five papers in the Physical Review with K.T. Compton on that work.

Special and general relativity were first taught at WVU in the Department of Mathematics. In the period 1920-1924 Johan Eisland taught a course entitled,” Differential Geometry of Hyper-Space with Introduction to the Algebra of Tensors and the Theory of Relativity.”

Robert C. Colwell joined the Physics Department in 1924 as Department Head and remained in that position until 1954. In 1910-1911 he had been a research fellow at the University of Chicago and had taken classes from Albert Michelson and Robert Millikan, the first two Americans to win the Nobel Prize in physics. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1918 after doing research there with Karl Taylor Compton. He did post-graduate work at Cambridge University, where he took courses from three more Nobel laureates: J.J. Thompson, Ernest Rutherford, and C.T.R. Wilson. At WVU Colwell saw research as the primary goal for the Department. He specialized in studies of the ionosphere, radio propagation, and the production of practical electro-mechanical systems. He was the first to distinguish the C region of the ionosphere, which is the layer closest to the surface of the Earth. His result was published in Physical Review Vol. 50, 632 (1936) and was confirmed in England at Cambridge University by Robert Watson-Watt, the inventor of radar. Colwell also measured the speed of radio waves between Newfoundland and Morgantown and published the results in Physical Review Vol. 50, 381 (1936) and Vol. 51, 990 (1937).

Charles D. Thomas joined the WVU Physics Department in 1937. He received his Ph.D. as a student of Carl Eckart at the University of Chicago. Eckart was already famous for having proved the equivalence of wave mechanics and matrix mechanics in 1926, one month after Schroedinger’s proof of the equivalence. He is still remembered for his 1930 theorem about matrix elements of irreducible tensor operators that is known as the Wigner-Eckart Theorem. Charles Thomas’ dissertation with Eckart was a comparison of light scattering in classical Born-Infeld model versus Dirac’s quantum electrodynamics and was published in Physical Review Vol. 50, 1046 (1936) and Vol. 54, 367 (1938). He did research at WVU in radioactive decay, solid-state radiation detectors, later on electron magnetic resonance at microwave frequencies and on the hyperfine structure of complicated molecules. Charles Thomas was Department Head from 1954-1968.

The first Ph.D. awarded by the WVU Physics Department went to Robert L. Carroll in 1944 for a dissertation on radio wave diffraction. He later became head of the Physics Department at nearby Fairmont State University. The Robert L. Carroll Chair in Physics was established recently at WVU by the estate of Mrs. Rae Carroll Ramage. The Carroll Chair in Physics award will be given to an outstanding professor with a major interest in a field such as condensed matter physics, laser physics, quantum optics, or energy.

In 1952 Hodges Hall was built to house the Physics Department at a cost of $2 million. The building was named after Thomas E. Hodges, the first chair of the Department, and University President from 1911-1914.

Early Physics Faculty with Doctoral Degrees

  • Alpheus W. Smith, Harvard 1906, joined WVU in 1906
  • Chauncey W. Waggoner, Cornell 1909, joined WVU in 1909
  • Fred A. Molby, Cornell 1910, joined WVU in 1920
  • Otto Stuhlman, Princeton 1911, joined WVU in 1919
  • Robert C. Colwell, Princeton 1918, joined WVU in 1918
  • Enoch F. George , Ohio State 1920, joined WVU in 1923
  • Paul J. Ovebo, Chicago 1928, joined WVU in 1928
  • Maurice C. Holmes, M.I.T. 1930, joined WVU in 1927
  • Orfa Rex Ford, Cornell 1932, joined WVU in 1920
  • Charles D. Thomas, Chicago 1937, joined WVU in 1931
  • Robert L. Carroll, WVU 1944, joined WVU in 1942
  • James O. Buchannan, Yale 1948, joined WVU in 1948
  • John F. Ollom, Harvard 1952, joined WVU in 1948
  • Waldo Curtis, Washington 1955, joined WVU in 1956
  • Oleg Jefimenko, Oregon 1956, joined WVU in 1957
  • Arthur S. Pavlovic, Penn State 1956, joined WVU in 1959
  • Arnold Levine, Columbia 1957, joined WVU in 1957

In 1958 the WVU Physics Department received approval for a formal Ph.D. program with prescribed course requirements and research requirements.

More about the history of the Physics Department is available in the thesis for the M.A. degree in history by Eric S. Wright, entitled “Experimentalism, Relativity, and Quantum Mechanics at a Land Grant Institution: West Virginia University 1920-1960.”