History: Physics at Georgia Tech

Introduction: Written by Edward W. Thomas, 2009 (updated in 2016)

Georgia Tech was founded in 1888 to teach Engineering through use of workshop practice and apprenticeships. From the Institution’s foundation Physics was taught at Tech but only as a part of the Engineering curriculum In 1938 Physics became a school and was permitted to develop its own degree programs. At around this time the Institution reorganized its teaching practices away from the “workshop” approach to a more “academic” type of program. By the mid 1960s the main focus of the Institution is moving heavily towards research programs and towards graduate degrees. This continues to the present day and we now see Tech as one of the leading Universities of the nation.

This present work sets out to tell the story of how Physics at Tech evolved from a purely instructional unit to a full academic School. The initial work on this narrative was started by David L Wyly, in about 1982.  Subsequent work has been performed by various retired school “Directors” and “Chairs” [Prior to 1992 the person heading a degree granting school was given the title “Director”. In 1992 the title of a school head was changed to the more conventional “Chair”]. The work is now a serious of narrative “Chapters” representing various phases of the school’s history. Also provided are a series of Appendixes which give a chronological summary of events along with some personal reminiscences.

The first Chapter covers the period 1888 through 1938 when Physics was simply a department of instruction teaching the subject for Engineering majors. The second period starts with the creation of the degree granting School in 1938 and ends with the move to the “New” Physics building in 1967; this period encompasses the development of the three degree programs and of the original research capabilities. Both these chapters were written by myself and are based entirely on the chronological notes created by Dave Wiley. The third Chapter covers the period 1967 to 1982. During most of this period Jim Stevenson was “Director” and he is the writer. The school’s programs were becoming competitive on a national and international basis; the original research programs are being replaced as the pioneering faculty reach retirement. The fourth Chapter covers 1982 to 1991. During most of this period I was “Director” of the School and I am responsible for this Chapter.  Chapter five by Henry Valk, covers the period when he was Chair (1991-1996).

Dave Wyly, who started this project, was first employed at Tech in 1938. At the time he contributed to this history (1982) he had a longer association with the School than anyone else surviving at the time. Using historical records, principally the Institution’s “Catalog”, Dave transcribed the list of “Physics” faculty for each year from the school’s foundation until we moved into the new building in 1967. He supplemented this material by vignettes about many of the faculty. Some of the material was based on his own experience of events. Material related to dates before 1938 was obtained from conversations with faculty who had arrived before Dave and who were still active when he arrived.  Dave also added comments about the major events at the School and at the Institution. This transcription of records and Dave’s commentary have been included here, without change, as Appendix A (PDF).

Subsequently I set out to continue Dave Wyly’s chronological listing of events. I had arrived at Tech in 1964 and my own experience overlapped with Dave’s experience. I created two listings of faculty changes and major event in the school’s history. The first from 1967 until 1978 was a period from occupancy of the “New” Physics Building when Vernon Crawford was Director through the subsequent Directorship of Jim Stevenson. The major source of the information was again the Institutional “Catalog” supplemented by my own recollection of events and of personalities. The second chronological listing was from 1979 through 1991 and covered the period when I was Director of the School plus a few interim years when the Directorship went through some rather rapid changes. Again this listing drew first on the Institutional Catalog which lists all the faculty. For this period I also had access to the “Annual Reports” written by each School Director. (No annual reports dated prior to 1978 exist in the Dean’s Office or in the Schools records. Either they were not written or else they have not been retained). For part of that period I was the School’s Director and responsible for the reports! These two chronological listings include my personal comments about the individual faculty and their careers. These three chronological listings of events, the first by Dave Wyly and the second two by myself, are included here as three Appendixes.

The inclusion of anecdotal information through the Appendixes allows one to give some awareness of the richness of character that has been a feature of this School. Our Faculty have included a noted yachtsman who circumnavigated the globe, a critically acclaimed woodworker (who married one of the school’s secretaries and also had a hand in designing our present building). One of our faculty was, unfortunately, murdered on Fifth Street.  Faculty of the school have progressed to become Presidents of other Institutions and even Provost of the University System of this State.  Our graduates include a former CEO of Apple Computers and the founder of Scientific Atlanta (at one time the largest Technological company headquartered in this city). It is a rich and varied history which does not readily fit into a narrative of a school’s intellectual and academic development.

Each of the authors who have contributed to this material take responsibility for what they have written and apologize in advance if it causes any unhappiness. All of the authors worked independently of the others. We all hope that those who follow us will contribute to documenting the development of this remarkable school.