Skip to main content


A Brief History of the Department 

West Virginia became a state separate from Virginia during the Civil War, in 1863. West Virginia University was founded in 1867. It began as a land-grant university, like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1863 and Cornell University in 1867.  Physics became a separate department of the university in 1897. 

Early Department History

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 WVU was linked to industry such as the strength of carbon steels, the composition of glass, and especially radio research. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi received the Nobel Prize in Physics after sending the first radio signal across the Atlantic Ocean. In the same year, Waggoner arrived at WVU. He would later run a radio antenna from the clock tower of Woodburn Hall to Chitwood Hall. Waggoner used this in a variety of experiments to receive signals from a large experimental transmitter set up in Arlington, VA 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 Stuhlman joined the Department in 1919. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1911, working under Karl Taylor (K.T.) Compton, who later served as President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1930 to 1948. At Princeton, Stuhlman’s dissertation was on the photoelectric effect. In the period between 1913 and 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 Eiesland 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 was 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 K.T. Compton. He did post-graduate work at Cambridge University, where he took courses from three more Nobel laureates: J.J. Thomson, 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 at WVU by the estate of Mrs. Rae Carroll Ramage. The Carroll Chair in Physics award is now given to an outstanding professor with a major interest in a field such as condensed matter physics, laser physics, quantum optics, or energy.

As enrollment numbers for the graduate program rapidly rose in the aftermath of World War II, it became clear that the department would need to formalize the doctoral program in Physics.  I n 1958, the WVU Physics Department received approval for a formal Ph.D. program with prescribed course requirements and research requirements.

Early Physics Faculty with Doctoral Degrees

Early faculty with doctoral degrees

Astronomy at WVU

Prior to the inclusion of Astronomy in the Physics department, astronomy courses were taught by other departments in the university such as Mathematics. However, early Physics faculty members still conducted astronomical research.  An early example is Samuel G. Stevens, one of the department's original five faculty members, who personally purchased our first telescope in 1872. It was a refracting telescope with a 7-foot focal length and an aperture of 5½ inches, crafted in New York City by John Byrne  at a cost of $400. The university constructed a small observatory to house it in 1900-01.  The observatory was destroyed in a fire set on November 2, 1919  following the victory of the West Virginia University football team over the Princeton University football team . Prof. Eiesland rescued the telescope from within the observatory, though it was later destroyed by a fire in the former Mechanical Hall II (where the Mountainlair Parking Garage is currently located).

Astronomy was formally included as an area of study at WVU in 1972, when the responsibility for the astronomy curriculum was conferred to the Department of Physics. The first astronomy position in the department was for a staff-level Department Astronomer, and it was established in 1973.

In 1974, Mr. Harold Tomchin and his wife, Mrs. Sylvia Tomchin, funded the purchase of a new telescope and the establishment of a planetarium. Mr. Tomchin was a graduate of the WVU Law School and a businessman from Bluefield, WV. Their donations resulted in the WVU Planetarium & Observatory, which helped to formalize astronomy research and outreach in the department.

One year later, in 1975,  John E. "Jack" Littleton  was the first astronomy faculty member hired by the Department of Physics. Dr. Littleton received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester in 1972.  His primary research focus was in the development of research activities related to radio astron omy, s olar physics, and late-type stellar atmospheres.  Dr. Littleton's efforts to expand astronomy research culminated in the recruitment of several astronomy faculty members. Shortly after his arrival, the Department was renamed to the Department of Physics and Astronomy.  Dr. Littleton also oversaw the installation of the full observational dome on the roof of the first planetarium and to the creation of an entry-level and upper-division astronomy curriculum.

In 2012, the department was renamed to the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

Building History

Physics classrooms and laboratories were housed in various buildings on campus prior to 1918, including Woodburn Hall, Chitwood Hall, and Mechanical Halls I &II. The department was moved to Martin Hall in 1918, where it would remain for the next 36 years. In 1950,  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. The Physics Department was fully moved into Hodges Hall by 1954.

The Department remained in Hodges Hall until 2010-2012, when White Hall was selected and renovated to be the new home for  Physics and Astronomy. The $35 million renovation project was jointly funded by state-financed Economic Development authority bonds, WVU-issued bonds, and Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. The building was complete and open for classes as the new home of the department in January 2012.

White Hall was first built during in 1940 by architects Tucker and Silling as the Mineral Industries building. An enormous mural painted by Pittsburgh artist Robert Lepper between 1941-1942 graces the front wall of White Hall G09, one of our large lecture halls. According to Caplinger (2020), the mural's purpose is "to express the unity of art and science."

We're still writing our history. Will you be in the next chapter?

Apply Now

To learn more about the his tory of the WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy, see below: