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UW Physics: History

Oscar Vilches, 2021

The University of Washington has taught Physics, with labs, since the late 1800's. After the University moved to the present campus from its original place in what is now downtown Seattle, the Physics Laboratories were located in the basement of Denny Hall, the first campus building. Initially a single faculty member, Thomas Eaton Doubt (A.M., U. of Nebraska, 1886), taught the calculus introductory physics, advanced mechanics and electricity classes. He continued, with various assistants, through 1902-03. At that time Electrical Engineering was part of Physics.

In 1902 Frederick Arthur Osborn was hired (from Olivet College) as Director of the Physical and Electrical Labs. In 1903 he brought in Mr. Henry Louis Brakel (a former undergraduate at Olivet) as Assistant. Osborne planned the teaching curriculum and expanded the course offerings to five levels: general interest, engineering, future physics teachers, remedial (high school), and for the home. He introduced more advanced offerings and independent study/research, and was involved in the separation of Electrical Engineering from Physics. Osborn was on leave in 1906-07 at Michigan to complete his PhD, and Brakel finished his Master's degree at UW in 1905 (the first M.S. in Physics, his thesis on "Theory of Batteries" in the UW Library). He took a leave of absence in 1910-12 to attend Cornell U. for his PhD.

Research producing several M.A. and M.S. degrees in Physics continued from 1905 on. The first M.A. in Physics was awarded in 1905 to David Henry Walfle ("Types of Interferometers", also in the UW Library) who had been part of the early teaching faculty. In the 1920s and at the initiative of then University President Suzallo, research expanded across the sciences. A new set of science buildings was planned. Physics became the first building completed (after extensive remodeling and additions in the late 1990s, this "old Physics building" is the western façade of Mary Gates Hall, only a couple of stairs remain inside from the old building). The Department moved out of Denny Hall in 1928 to its new location near the "Frosh Pond". Faculty with excellent knowledge of the "modern" physics of the time were hired, for the first time with a commitment to teach half-time, do research half-time and the PhD program was started [McCurdy (1927), Clinton Utterback (1928), Joseph Henderson (1929), Donald H. Loughridge (1932), Roy J. Kennedy (Research Professor,1933), and Edwin Uehling (1936)].

In 1932, Henry Brakel replaced Frederick Osborn as Executive officer. The first couple of Ph.D. degrees were awarded in 1934, in May to Robert K. Dahlstrom, "The distribution of energy among field current electrons" (Henderson) and in December, to Robert W. Young, "A study of the standing wave pattern formed in the Boehm flute" (Loughridge). By 1939 fifteen PhD dissertations had been completed, supervised by Henderson, Loughridge, Kennedy, Utterback and Uehling, with the first woman PhD being Gertrude Marjory Flemming, "The energy losses attending thermionic and field emission of electrons from metals" (1939) (Henderson). Henderson was also guiding students through the design of a small cyclotron for ion acceleration [Burton J. Moyer, PhD dissertation, "Design and operation of a small cyclotron" (1939)].

In parallel with the research expansion, and on the teaching side, in 1931-32 an advanced atomic physics lab was offered (Physics 195, 196) with Paul McClellan Higgs (UW B.Sc. 1919) in charge. Higgs had been an undergraduate student, lecture demonstrator, and instructor in the Department beginning during WW I. He was an expert in photographic techniques, had introduced courses on photography in general and for scientific use, the use of vacuum tubes in electronics, and was a superb designer of teaching and research equipment. He developed the atomic physics laboratory using spare research equipment. This advanced lab evolved over time, under his guidance through the early 1960s, to be currently amongst the best in the nation with a full year of experimental advanced work on most topics of atomic, condensed matter, nuclear and particle physics.

After WW II, Clinton Utterback became Executive Officer. He oversaw another large expansion of Physics in the late 1940's. A new wing was added to the building (currently the south façade of Mary Gates Hall, facing the rose garden and Frosh Pond, now Drumheller fountain) which included more faculty offices, laboratory space, seminar and lecture rooms, and would house in its second floor, eventually, a new Department of Astronomy. The faculty added brought to the department theoretical nuclear and many body theory (Jacobsohn), experimental nuclear physics (Frederick Schmidt, John Streib, George Farwell), geophysics and atmospheric science (Kenneth Clark), ultra high energy cosmic rays (Neddermayer) and atomic physics research (Geballe). Henderson and Schmidt obtained funding, designed, and built an ion accelerating cyclotron and the needed housing and facilities in the NE corner of campus by a hill that provided shielding. The first ion beam was produced in 1948. This cyclotron, initially for nuclear physics research, soon was used extensively for radiation studies in tissue, bone, and cancer research. It was used until 1986 when UW medicine purchased their own cyclotron.

John H. Manley followed Utterback as Executive Officer, and Ronald Geballe became Chairman in the mid 1960s. Further expansion in the 1950s and 1960s added groups in theoretical and experimental nuclear, elementary particle, atomic and experimental condensed matter physics [Ernest Henley, David Bodansky, Robert (Bob) Williams, Kenneth Young, Jere Lord, John Cramer, Hans Dehmelt, Norval Fortson, Mark McDermott, Robert Puff, John Blair, Ying Halpern, Lowell Brown, Victor Cook, J. Gregory (Greg) Dash, Edward A. Stern, William McCormick, Robert Ingalls, Marshall Baker, David Boulware]. In 1962-63 an NSF grant supported the purchase of a tandem van de Graaf accelerator. A building addition to the cyclotron building was completed in 1964, and the accelerator became operational in 1965. The new facility was called the Nuclear Physics Laboratory (currently CENPA, the Center for Nuclear Physics and Astrophysics). With modifications and the addition of a locally designed superconducting booster linear accelerator in 1987 the van de Graaf-LINAC combo was operational until the year 2000 [for a detailed history of the local accelerators, see the writings by Harold Fauske and Derek Storm at].

In the late 1960s and early 1970s an NSF Science Development Grant (Greg Dash and Bob Williams, co-PIs) allowed further expansion in the elementary particle theory (Naren Bali, Alberto Pignotti) and experimental (Joseph Rothberg) groups and the creation of what was called the Visual Techniques Laboratory from its emphasis on analysis of bubble chamber images (Henry Lubatti, Larry Kirkpatrick), two-dimensional phase transitions and quantum fluids (Oscar Vilches), low energy electron diffraction (Samuel Fain), band structure and surface physics (Jesse Sabo), and theoretical condensed matter/statistical mechanics (Michael Schick). Programs to address deficiencies in the education of students were also started (Lillian McDermott, Arnold Arons).

Ernest Henley followed Geballe as Chairman and installed an Executive Committee to help run the Department, with representatives of the now large subfields that had formed. David Bodansky and Mark McDermott followed as Chairs.

By the mid 1970s the department had grown large enough that two portable buildings between the Physics and Student Union buildings housed graduate student offices, some of the laboratories, and an electronics shop. A new building addition to the East was planned and partially built. This addition housed an expanded instrument and electronics shop, additional space for the elementary particle experimental group, and a materials preparation room. It was supposed to house new lecture rooms and teaching labs with easier ground floor access than those in the 1928/1949 building which were located in the third and fourth floors with only one freight elevator available to use for some of the lecture rooms. This building was never finished for lack of funding. The need of space, though, increased. A national Institute for Nuclear Theory was awarded to a proposal from the Department (Haxton), and the need for a major update to the infrastructure of the building was evident, especially highlighted in the press after the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to Hans Dehmelt (1989).

A new 10-year UW building plan was made around 1990 when it was decided that Physics and Astronomy needed a completely new building with contemporary facilities. The new building was designed by world renowned architect Cesar Pelli, with Seattle firm NBBJ as the local architectural company. It fell upon Mark McDermott (Chair) and David Boulware (Associate Chair) to guide the Department through the process of design, budgeting, construction, and the massive move without interrupting teaching or research.

The Department moved into the present Physics/Astronomy Building (PAB) over a six month period in 1994-95. The current state of the Department of Physics is summarized in the department fact sheet.

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