Millikan, Robert Andrews, 1868-1953

Alternative names
Birth 1868-03-22
Death 1953-12-19

Biographical notes:

Physicist (photoelectricity, ions) and educator. On the physics faculty at the University of Chicago, 1896-1921; on the faculty at California Institute of Technology: director, Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics and chairman of the Executive Council, 1921-1946, emeritus professor of physics and chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1946; Nobel Prize in physics, 1923.

From the description of Papers [microform], 1847-1953. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 77594601

Millikan was a Nobel prize winner in physics.

From the description of DS, 1928 May 14 : California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. (Copley Press, J S Copley Library). WorldCat record id: 17308506

Robert Andrews Millikan was a physicist, science advisor, and the first executive head of the California Institute of Technology.

From the description of Robert Andrews Millikan collection, 1847-1953. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122539914

From the guide to the Robert Andrews Millikan collection, 1847-1953, 1847-1953, (American Philosophical Society)

Physicist (photoelectricity, ions) and eductor. On the physics faculty at University of Chicago (1896-1921); on the faculty at California Institute of Technology: director, Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics and chairman of the Executive Council (1921-1946), emeritus professor of physics and chairman of the Board of Trustees, from 1946; Nobel Prize in physics (1923).

From the description of Papers, 1847-1953. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 81818866


From the description of Papers of Robert Andrews Millikan, 1847-1953 (bulk 1921-1953). (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 84234366


Robert Andrews Millikan (1868-1953) is best known as an experimental physicist. The oil drop method developed by Millikan enabled him to establish the long accepted value for e, the elementary unit of electrical charge. His pioneering investigations into the photoelectric effect gave important support to the quantum theory of light. For these achievements he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1923. He was also widely known as the author, with Henry Gordon Gale, of a series of textbooks that were the mainstay of physics courses in the first half of the twentieth century. Several generations of Americans literally learned their physics from Millikan.

For twenty-five years (1921-1945), Millikan guided the growth and development of the California Institute of Technology, choosing for himself the title, Chief of the Executive Council. Millikan's vision for Caltech was shared by his two close associates, the chemist Arthur A. Noyes and the astronomer George Ellery Hale. It was Hale and Noyes who had played a determining role in inducing Millikan to come west in 1921. Together, they promoted the development of Caltech, the magnificent Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery, the 200-inch Hale telescope, and a variety of other highly significant projects that helped to make Pasadena an important intellectual and scientific center. Caltech is in a very real sense a monument to these three men.

Before coming to Caltech, Millikan had already distinguished himself as an administrator and promoter of science. He became president of the American Physical Society in 1916 and in the same year was appointed to a committee formed by the National Academy of Sciences to organize the National Research Council, an organization of scientists created to advise and assist the federal government in the mobilization of scientific resources during World War I. As Executive Officer and Director of Research of the National Research Council (he was also commissioned as a major in the Army Signal Corps) Millikan supervised important developments in the areas of submarine detection and chemical warfare. This post also involved him in critical deliberations that were to influence national policies toward science for many years.

The National Research Council became a permanent body at the end of the war, and Millikan remained prominent in its affairs throughout the remainder of his life. One of the accomplishments of which he was most proud was the creation, at his suggestion, of the National Research Council Fellowships. These fellowships made an enormous contribution to the vitality and progress of American science in the postwar decades.

Despite administrative duties, Millikan remained an active scientist. He was intimately involved in the day-to-day work of the Norman Bridge Laboratory at Caltech; under his leadership, it quickly became a mecca for physicists. In conjunction with his students and assistants, dozens of whom later became important physicists, he made significant contributions to the study of "hot spark" spectra and cold emission (today known as field emission) of metals. Investigations into the nature and properties of cosmic rays consumed much of his attention. He made frequent field trips, often to nearly inaccessible places, to measure radiation variations over the surface of the planet. His work in this area involved him in a rancorous scientific dispute with Arthur Holly Compton, also a pioneering investigator of cosmic rays, over the source and character of such radiation.

Unlike many of his countrymen in the years after World War I, Millikan was a confirmed internationalist. He served as a member of the League of Nations Committee on Intellectual Cooperation and the International Research Council. With the advent of the Second World War in Europe, Millikan believed that the United States could not, and perhaps should not, avoid involvement. Under his prodding, Caltech geared itself to wartime pursuits. The aircraft industry of Southern California, already indebted for its primacy to Caltech aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán, relied heavily upon the Institute for research and development of a broad range of critically-needed devices. A program to develop and manufacture armed rockets was begun, leading to the creation of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In 1945, at the end of the war, Millikan officially retired but continued to be active in the affairs of Caltech as well as to pursue his scientific and civic interests. His career had brought him into contact with a broad spectrum of the leading scientists, intellectuals, business people, and political figures of his era. Gregarious and charming, Millikan had made many friends. Though advancing age made it necessary to reduce his burden of commitments, he continued to participate in fund raising drives for Caltech, kept an ambitious schedule of public speaking, and still served on the boards or in advisory positions for several institutions of which he had long been a mainstay.

Millikan's life had been long and productive. Born in Illinois in 1868 into a pioneering family and the son of a Congregational preacher, Millikan never forgot his ancestral heritage. Nor did worldly success cause him to stray from his father's religion; over the years he devoted a considerable amount of energy to the reconciliation of Christianity, morals and science. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1891, took a master's degree there in 1893, received his doctorate from Columbia University in 1895, and then went to Germany for several months of continued studies. In 1896 he joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he remained, with the exception of the war years spent in Washington, D.C., until he moved to Pasadena.

Having overcome his prospective father-in-law's stipulation that he first obtain a larger salary from the University of Chicago, Millikan was able to marry Greta Irvin Blanchard in 1902. They honeymooned in Europe; their frequent, detailed letters written during this and subsequent journeys were carefully preserved. The couple had three sons, two of whom they survived. Clark B. became an aeronautical engineer and joined the faculty of Caltech. Max F. was a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for many years. Glenn A. was killed in his early twenties in a mountain climbing accident. Family relationships were close, and when separated, the Millikans corresponded regularly. The letters Robert and Greta exchanged whenever they were apart were intimate and affectionate throughout their years. Greta died in late 1953. Robert followed within weeks on December 19.

Selected Bibliography. The most widely available as well as the fullest account in print of Millikan's life and works is his Autobiography (New York: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1950). It is informative but not always reliable. Of particular value are his accounts of his early years, his work while at Chicago, and his national service during World War I.

Lee A. DuBridge and Paul S. Epstein, "Robert Andrews Millikan, 1868-1953: A Biographical Memoir," National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs, XXXIII (New York: Columbia University Press, 1959), pp. 240-282, provides a biographical sketch and an appreciation of Millikan's scientific and administrative accomplishments. Appended to the memoir is a complete bibliography of Millikan's published writings, approximately three hundred of which appeared between 1895 and 1950.

Another valuable biographical memoir, emphasizing Millikan's scientific endeavors, is Daniel J. Kevles, "Robert A. Millikan," in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography, IX (1974), pp. 395-400. Kevles has also authored "Millikan: Spokesman for Science in the Twenties," Engineering and Science, XXXII (April 1969), pp. 17-22.

From the guide to the Robert Andrews Millikan papers, 1821-1953, (California Institute of Technology. Archives.)


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