Note: 2018 marks the 150th birthday of Robert A. Millikan, the first American-born scientist to win the Nobel Prize for
physics. He graduated from Maquoketa High School in 1885 and throughout his life credited his success to his early upbringing in Maquoketa.
The opportunity of an assistantship at the University of Chicago in the fall of 1896 brought Robert Millikan back to the United States; he had been in Germany studying, researching, attending seminars and collaborating with leading scientists of the age.
Though hired to teach and research, it was obvious that the Physics Department at the university needed textbooks, an organized curriculum, and much research equipment. So, Millikan began writing the textbooks, organizing the physics curriculum, and designing and arranging for the manufacture of laboratory equipment.
What Millikan accomplished at the University of Chicago helped to establish a firm foundation for the study of modern physics. Many of the textbooks he and his collaborators wrote in the early 1900s were still in use at the time Millikan wrote his autobiography in the 1940s and have been used by millions of physics students.
By 1910, Millikan was a full professor at the University of Chicago and was able to spend more time on his own research. His oil drop experiment was a project that would have important results for future research and development. A previous article in this series described the experiment which resulted in Millikan winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1923.
As World War I threatened, it appeared the United States was unprepared for war. Millikan was given leave from the University of Chicago to oversee, organize and implement the work of the National Research Council. The Council encouraged cooperation between industrial, military, governmental, educational and other scientific organizations in undertaking research to solve technical, logistical and scientific problems of wartime and strengthen national defense and security.
One of the first projects of the NRC was to develop a listening device to detect enemy submarines, which was described in the previous article in this Millikan series. The contributions of the NSC to the wartime efforts were invaluable, and Millikan was working with individuals at the highest level of government, military, education and industry.
Though World War I ended Nov. 11, 1918, Millikan continued to work with the National Research Council for another year before returning to the University of Chicago. Though the NRC was established to solve wartime problems, its importance to scientific progress was obvious. In order for it to become a permanent institution, it would need the approval of the President of the United States, which came by executive order from President Wilson.
A fellowship plan was instituted whereby worthy, young doctorate students would be awarded research fellowships funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, thus helping to ensure the continuation of young, highly-trained research scientists.
The NRC also wished to have a permanent location for the organization. The site for the building on the Mall in Washington, D.C was secured in 1919, the building was dedicated in 1924 and is on the National Register of Historic Places. Funding for the building was raised by Millikan’s personal contacts with the Carnegie Foundation and major industrialists with names like Harriman, Eastman, Mellon, DuPont, Ford, McCormick, Swift and others.
Millikan returned to his students and his research at the University of Chicago late in 1919 and stayed for two more years before moving to CalTech in Pasadena, California. In the 25 years since he had come to the University of Chicago, Robert A. Millikan had become one of America’s leading scientists.
– Compiled by Carol Breuch. This is the fifth in a series of columns to be presented by the Robert A. Millikan Committee of the Jackson County Historical Society. Breuch obtained her information from Millikan’s autobiography.