Swann, William F.

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A pioneer in particle physics and the study of cosmic rays, W. F. G. Swann was the first Director of the Bartol Research Foundation of the Franklin Institute. From its inception in 1927, Swann guided the Foundation for over thirty years, developing it into a major center for research in the physical sciences.

Born at Ironbridge, England on August 29, 1884, Swann demonstrated an early aptitude for music, but little in the sciences. While his love for music continued to grow, however, Swann nevertheless elected to pursue what seemed to be a more practical course in medicine when he entered Brighton Technical College as a scholarship student in 1900. At Brighton, Swann was introduced to James Clerk Maxwell's treatise on electricity and magnetism, and swayed by its elegance and precision, he switched from medicine to physics, transferring to the Royal College of Science, from which he received his BSc in 1905.

As a Junior Demonstrator at the Royal College, Swann gained valuable teaching experience while strengthening his background in the "practical things of science" by studying electrical engineering. His combination of experimental and teaching prowess earned him an appointment as Assistant Lecturer and demonstrator at the University of Sheffield in 1907, where he worked while completing his doctoral studies at the University College London. He received his DSc in 1910. It was the first stop in an upward climb into increasingly prestigious academic appointments.

Despite low pay and less than ideal working conditions, Swann displayed sufficient promise in mathematical physics, electrodynamics, and in the new quantum theory that he garnered the attention of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Lured away from Sheffield in 1913, Swann was appointed Chief of the Physical Division at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, spending much of the next four years in the design and production of an apparatus to assist in magnetic and atmospheric-electric observations aboard the ship Carnegie, but with his reputation rising, other offers were not long in coming.

After war-time service working on submarine detection with the National Bureau of Standards and with the army to determine why their balloons were prone to explosion, Swann accepted a standing offer to join the faculty at the University of Minnesota. An administrative prodigy, Swann developed the graduate program with such remarkable success, reaping the rewards along the way, that by the time he left in 1923, he had become the highest paid professor at the University. Two of his own students won National Research Council Fellowships, but in his own opinion, his greatest success was in mentoring a young Edwin O. Lawrence.

The next stop in Swann's academic climb was the University of Chicago, who in 1923 offered Swann a substantial increase in pay to replace Robert Millikan. Even before he accepted, however, Yale approached him with even more lucrative honor: full professorship, Director of the supremely well-equipped Sloane Laboratory, and responsibilities for only one postgraduate course. As Yale was courting, other offers poured in, including the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, who struck up what Swann called a "fliratation" in connection with a proposed research institute for "practical Electrical Engineering." Funded by a bequest from Henry W. Bartol (d. 1918), a prominent industrialist and member of the Franklin Institute, the institute got off the ground in 1925, when Arthur Bramley became the first Bartol fellow even before a facility or staff were available.

Faced with a Hobson's choice of Chicago, Yale, or the prospective Bartol, Swann chose Yale. The Ryerson Lab at Chicago, he reasoned, was crowded and antiquated, and the research opportunities at Yale offered by Pres. James B. Angell were simply too attractive to turn down. After only one year at Chicago, and despite his department's pleas, Swann therefore moved to New Haven, bringing Lawrence in tow. As the Bartol got off the ground, however, Swann soon reconsidered, and when the number of fellows rose to five, he was tapped as the first Director of the Bartol Research Foundation.

One of Swann's first acts as Director was to secure an agreement with Swarthmore College to relocate the institute from its temporary quarters in Philadelphia to facilities on the college campus. Always meticulous and detail-oriented, his administrative oversight extended even to minor custodial expenditures, yet he was well regarded by the fellows and staff he oversaw, however his attentions appear to have been well appreciated by Bartol fellows. Swann was concerned that "the great industrial rese'rch laboratories" instilled a culture that led physicists away from "using their own hands," and he therefore insisted on manufacturing his own apparatus, including blowing his own glass, and he was adamant that his fellows follow suit. On a personal level, several fellows considered Swann to be something of a "father confessor" as well as scientist.

An immensely productive researcher, who wrote over 250 publications during his career, Swann continued to blend theoretical and empirical approaches, evolving as rapidly as his discipline to touch on relativity theory, condensed matter physics, atomic structure, matter, antimatter, and gravitation. He was best known, however, for his pioneering work on cosmic rays and high energy physics. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he developed a mechanism for accelerating charged particles to cosmic ray energies by means of changing magnetic fields, a device he named the cygnatron ("swan tube"). More in the public eye, he took part in organizing a number of high profile projects to investigate cosmic ray intensities at high altitudes, including a series of manned balloon flights funded by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army. Swann subsequently took these studies to airplanes, ships, underwater, and on mountain tops. Late in his career, Swann developed a keep interest in the relationship between religion and science and in psychic research.

As charismatic in presentation as he was dramatic, Swann was a natural teacher and effective public spokesman for science at various levels. Throughout his tenure at the Bartol, he conducted seminars for high school students at the Franklin Institute, he lectured on electrodynamics at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and later in life, was Professor of Physics at Temple University. His 1934 book The Architecture of the Universe, its interpretation of the new, and often abstruse developments in modern physics, was a major success with the broader public, and as a result, Swann was regularly called upon to appear on the radio and interviewed in the newspaper. With a slightly eccentric image and trademark shock of long white hair, he was a natural as well for television, hosting a weekly program in Philadelphia popularizing science during the 1950s.

Despite the demands of a rigorous schedule of research, administration, and public appearances, Swann managed to preserve time and energy for his great passion, music. An accomplished cellist who had studied under Diran Alexanian, Swann maintained an active social and musical correspondence with musicians and kept an active hand in the music scene in Philadelphia. In addition to his performing as a soloist and with various orchestras, he helped found the Swarthmore Symphony Orchestra, worked as assistant conductor of the Main Line Orchestra and as director of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and was a supporter and honorary fellow of Trinity College of Music, London. Music entered deeply into his private life as well: After his first wife, Frances Mabel Thompson died in 1954, he married Helene Diedrichs, a former child prodigy, pianist and Chair of the Piano Department at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. Mrs. Swann (who played professionally under her maiden name) had studied under Carl Wendling at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and received degrees from the Royal Academy of Music and the Tobais Matthay Pianoforte School.

Swann was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1926, and served as vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1923-1924) and president of the American Physical Society (1931-1933). He received honorary degrees from Yale (1924), Swarthmore (1929), Temple (1954), and was made a fellow of the Imperial College of Science in Technology (156) and was awarded the Elliot Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1960) for his research on cosmic rays. The final honor awarded Swann vaulted him'literally to the heavens: In 1967, the International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater in Swann's honor.

In August 1959, already 75 years old, Swann retired to emeritus status at the Bartol Institute and was succeeded by Martin Pomerantz. Unburdened by administrative duties, he continued to conduct research almost until the day he died, January 29, 1962. He was survived by Helene Diedrichs, two sons, William F. Swann and Charles P. Swann, and a daughter Sylvia Swann Briggs. Both sons became prominent physical scientists, Charles at the Bartol.

From the guide to the William Francis Gray Swann Papers, 1903-1962, (American Philosophical Society)

Archival Resources
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