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Founded as a part of the core curriculum at West Virginia University, we gained departmental status in 1867. Since then, we've made significant contributions to science while fostering a culture of academic and professional excellence.

history of the department (1867-1962)

Physics has been a part of the curriculum at WVU since the university was founded in 1867 as a land-grant university. The Morrill Act authorized the establishment of an institution for the teaching of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts, and as a foundational science, physics was critical to meeting the land-grant mission. 

Among the first five faculty members hired at the university was Dr. Samuel G. Stevens who served as Professor of Natural Philosophy and Science. Stevens taught courses in Mechanics, Hydrostatics and Pneumatics, Acoustics, Electricity and Magnetism, Optics, Astronomy, and more (including the first course in medical education). Of special interest to Stevens was Astronomy; as discussed in the next section, he personally purchased the first telescope held at WVU.

During the tenure of President James L. Goodknight (1895-1897), the University underwent a reorganization into colleges and departments. The Department of Physics was established in 1896 within the College of Arts and Sciences. Our inaugural department chair was Professor Thomas E. Hodges. 

Dr. Hodges' Physics Lecture Room in Science Hall, West Virginia University | Identifier: 018804

Although Hodges himself was not a classically trained physicist, time spent working in public schools gave him a foundation on which to build the Department. He made extensive use of former students as teaching assistants and oversaw a tremendous increase in enrollment.  Hodges remained chair of the Department from its foundation in 1896 to 1909, when he became president of the University. He was the first faculty member at WVU who was solely dedicated to physics teaching and research. The first courses taught in the Department were: Experimental Physics; Sound; Light; Electrical Measurements; Dynamos and Motors (AC/DC); and Practical Electricity.

The first graduate student in physics, William Henry Whitham, was appointed instructor in 1899 to assist with Hodges' mission of professionalizing the study of Physics at WVU. Whitham earned his A.M. in 1900 and was elevated to an assistant professorship.  Other former students were also hired as faculty in the early years of the Department, including Alpheus W. Smith Smith earned his undergraduate degree at WVU in 1900 and  his doctoral degree in 1906 from Harvard University.  Most of Smith’s career was at Ohio State University, where he served as chair of physics and dean of science. However, he started out as a WVU faculty member from 1906-1907. Today, the Physics building at Ohio State University is named after Smith, in addition to a lecture series.

Hodges stepped aside in 1909 to serve as President of WVU, and he was replaced by recent Cornell graduate Chauncey William Waggoner. Most of Waggoner’s research at WVU was linked to industry, such as the strength of carbon steels, the composition of glass, and radio research.  Waggoner is remembered for  two major accomplishments at WVU.  Waggoner   worked diligently for the enactment of legislation to regulate the use of weights and measures in the state, culminating in the establishment of the Department of Weights and Measures in 1915.  The Department of Physics worked as the center of operations for many years before it was shifted to the Division of Labor in Charleston, WV. 

Waggoner also introduced radio to the WVU campus by running a radio antenna from the clock tower of Woodburn Hall to Chitwood Hall in 1913. The antenna was used to receive signals from a large experimental transmitter located in Arlington, VA and maintained by the American Telephone and Telegraph Corporation. In 1922, Waggoner received a license for a commercial radio station on campus; the first-ever license was issued to KDKA in Pittsburgh just two years earlier.

Radio Equipment in a Chitwood Hall Physics Lab, West Virginia University | WHOV, Identifier: 018845

Many courses and research pathways were introduced during the early 1900s. In 1918, the Department of Electrical Engineering collaborated with the Department of Physics to offer courses in Radio Telegraphy. This precipitated an increase in research in radio communications and technology.  Special and general relativity were first taught at WVU  in the Department of Mathematics, though they would eventually transition to the Department of Physics and Astronomy. 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.”

In 1924, Robert C. Colwell joined the faculty as Department Head and remained in that position until 1954. Prior to joining WVU, he was a research fellow at the University of Chicago in 1910-11 and studied under faculty including 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 researching 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 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. 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. Thomas served as chair of the Department from 1954-1968.

The first Ph.D. awarded in Physics at WVU went to Robert L. Carroll in 1944 for a dissertation on radio wave diffraction. He later became head of the Department of Physics 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 fledgling doctoral program in Physics.  In 1958, the Department of Physics received approval for a formal Ph.D. program with prescribed course requirements and research requirements. Under the new and formalized program, the first Ph.D. was awarded to Joel Alderson Gwinn in 1962. Gwinn taught astronomy and physics at the University of Louisville, where he became the first instructor to incorporate computer video into his undergraduate courses.

history of astronomy at wvu

Prior to the formal 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.

Student by Observatory, West Virginia University, Morgantown, W. Va. | WHOV, Identifier: 025025

An early example is Samuel G. Stevens, one of the original five WVU 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 first set on November 2, 1919 following the victory of the West Virginia University football team over Princeton University.  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 in 1973.

Flyer featuring Jack Littleton that reads "The Mountaineer Spirit... Catch It!" in the WVU Planetarium | Media Credit: WVU Planetarium and Observatory

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. 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 astronomy, solar physics, and late-type stellar atmospheres. Littleton's efforts to expand astronomy research culminated in the recruitment of several astronomy faculty members.

Littleton oversaw the installation of a full observational dome on the roof of the first planetarium, as well as the creation of an entry-level and upper-division astronomy curriculum. Littleton spoke at public schools in West Virginia, served as faculty advisor for the WVU Astronomy Club, began a planetarium program at WVU, and gave talks at star parties throughout the state. He also used the department’s on-campus telescope to promote public interest in the wonders of the night sky and for many years wrote a monthly astronomy column for the local newspaper.

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

Department 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 Department at a cost of $2 million. The building was named after Thomas E. Hodges, the first chair of the department and a president of the university. The 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."

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Learn more about the history of the WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy:

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Many images used in this timeline are provided by West Virginia History OnView (WVHOV). WVHOV, a part of the online database of the West Virginia and Regional History Center, includes over 50,000 images digitized from their rich and diverse collections. The images portray a variety of topics connected to West Virginia and the Appalachian region. The WVU Department of Physics and Astronomy expresses gratitude to the Center for their faithful stewardship of our collective history.