AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXV , No. 2, Fall 2003


Columbia, Celebrating 250th Anniversary, Expands Physical Sciences Archives
By Marilyn H. Pettit, Director, Columbia University Archives-Columbiana Library
Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the dedication of the Nevis (Westchester County) Cyclotron

Columbia's President, former General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the dedication of the Nevis (Westchester County) Cyclotron, May 2, 1950, with Prof. I. I. Rabi, Visiting Prof. Hideki Yukawa, and Prof. John R. Dunning. Photo courtesy Columbia University Archives - Columbiana Library.

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Columbia University in the City of New York, founded in 1754 by royal charter as King's College, became "Columbia College" in 1784 and "Columbia University" in 1897 as it moved to its present location, Morningside Heights in Northern Manhattan. The move to a new, spacious campus signaled growth and development in a coming-of-age period for American universities, as specialized graduate study and research lodged firmly within University settings. As Columbia University prepares to celebrate its 250th anniversary in 2003-2004, its students on all campuses hail from all fifty states and 100 foreign countries. The Columbiana collection of manuscripts and memorabilia, dating from 1883, merged with a newly-founded University Archives in 1990, with a mission to collect and preserve the records of the University's administrative and faculty offices, student activities, and relevant neighborhood organizations. (Health Sciences has a separate archives on its own campus.) Most collections are accessible to qualified researchers, although administrative and Trustee records are restricted for periods following creation. Archives-Columbiana houses more than 6,000 cubic feet of records, including 4,000 cubic feet of archival records, 500 cubic feet of subject files, and a photo collection of about 35,000 positives and 60,000 negatives. The Archives services 1,600 research requests each academic year.

Columbia's "new" Physics Laboratory building at its opening, 1927. The building was afterward named for Prof. Michael Pupin. Designed by the famous architectural firm McKim, Meade and White to cohere with the design of other campus buildings, the Pupin Physics Laboratories was declared a national landmark in 1965. Photo courtesy Columbia University Archives - Columbiana Library.

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At Columbia's founding, no such discipline as "physics" existed, but the physical world was a world of wonder for those who termed themselves "natural philosophers." Columbia's Physics Department came of age in 1896 when one of the initial buildings constructed on the new campus was "the physics building," now Fayerweather Hall. Michael Pupin (1858-1935, Columbia 1883) and Francis Bacon Crocker (1861-1921, Columbia 1882), professors of "electro-mechanics" and electrical engineering in the School of Mines and Engineering, raised money for laboratories and research after having initially worked in a building so small that students termed it "the cowshed." Pupin ultimately migrated from Engineering into the Faculty of Pure Science.

The Manhattan Project, the Radiation Laboratory, and the Nevis Cyclotron were but a few projects emerging from departmental work during and after World War II, and the Archives houses records bearing on those projects. The collections now being arranged and described include the records of the Department of Physics, 1900- 1985, and the Papers of Professor Emerita Chien-shiung Wu, 1946-1985. The Archives also holds astronomical observatory records dating from the beginnings of the Astronomy Department in the 1880s; Lewis Morris Rutherfurd's four 1865 views of the moon; and a set of very early salted prints. The Archives hopes to attract further collections from Columbia's physical science departments, institutes, and faculty.

For further information the Web site is, e-mail, telephone (212) 854-3786.

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AIP History CenterCenter for History of Physics
Phone: 301-209-3165
American Institute of Physics 2003American Institute of Physics, One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740-3843. Email: Phone: 301-209-3100; Fax: 301-209-0843