History on Display

By H. Frederick Dylla, Executive Director and CEO of AIP

In my career as a student, teacher, and practitioner of science, I have always valued the history behind the development of a theory or invention: The historical context adds richness and human drama to the quest for scientific knowledge. For that reason, it is my pleasure to highlight several new resources provided by AIP’s Center for History of Physics.

The History Center has been developing web resources for more than 15 years, which have proven to be quite popular based on the download statistics. The online exhibit “Bright Idea: The First Lasers” (see first article) is the latest in a successful series of exhibits that span key developments (from the discovery of the electron and superconductivity to the invention of the transistor) or center on pioneering personalities in physics (such as Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Ernest Lawrence).

These online exhibits draw on the photographs, oral histories, documents, publications, and other sources in the AIP Niels Bohr Library & Archives and many other collections. The five most popular exhibits (out of 14 total) received more than 1,700,000 visits during 2009.

I first took advantage of these marvelous tools when I was working at Jefferson Lab in 1997, preparing a lecture on J. J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron. In honor of the centenary of Thomson’s 1897 discovery, the History Center had prepared one of its first online exhibits, which brought a completeness and coherence to Thomson’s life and work.

Thirteen years later in 2010, the exhibit still trumps Wikipedia’s offerings. As I perused the site and studied the linked references, I became interested in some of the scientific tools that led to his electron discovery, such as the intricate hand-blown glass tubes containing electrodes for exciting discharges in gases, the induction coils for inducing high voltages across the tubes, the early vacuum pumps for evacuating air from the tubes, and the spectroscopes to analyze the composition of the excited gases. By good fortune, excellent examples of these early instruments were maintained as part of the Garland Collection of classical physical instruments at Vanderbilt University.

With the help of David Ernst from Vanderbilt, I arranged for the 19th century apparatus related to Thomson’s discovery to be borrowed from Vanderbilt for display at Jefferson Lab. This collection has recently been transferred to the American Center for Physics, where it is now on display (photo below) in the lobby of the Niels Bohr Library & Archives.


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