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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Frederic Palmer

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Interview with Dr. Frederic Palmer
By Donald Shaughnessy
At New York City, American Institute of Physics
January 26, 1963

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Frederic Palmer; January 26, 1963

ABSTRACT: Education Phillips Academy; Harvard University; Haverford College as Dean; Ph.D. from Harvard 1913; American Physical Society (APS) member from 1905; Cleveland meeting; December 1930; Homer Dodge becomes president and Palmer vice-president of the American Association of Physics Teachers and representative on APS council; American Institute of Physics (Karl T. Compton); Palmer president of AAPT in 1933, AAPT Journal with Duane Roller as editor; secondary teachers in AAPT; APS and AAPT relations; Palmer proposes Book on demonstration experiments, Palmer finances project secretly; McGraw-Hill publisher; the Oersted Medal (William. S. Franklin); Palmer on “multiple choice” testing. Also prominently mentioned are: Harold DeForest Arnold, Homer Levi Dodge, Paul Ernest Klopsteg, C. J. Lapp, Dayton C. Miller, Floyd K. Richtmyer, Marshall Ney States, Richard Sutton, and W. S. Webb.

Transcript

Shaughnessy:

Dr. Palmer, I haven’t had a chance to look over these notes that you gave me. I have some questions of my own that I would like to ask. May I suggest that I might ask you these questions? Maybe we’ll go over some of the points that you’ve outlined. One of the first things that interests me about the organization of the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) is its origins. I wonder why people like yourself, like States, Klopsted and Dodge, were interested in the method of teaching physics? What in your background led you to develop an interest in methods of teaching physics?

Palmer:

Well, when I graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover, in 1896, I gave as my probable future that of a minister, because my father was an Episcopal minister. In my senior year at Phillips Academy, I had had my first physics course, and enjoyed it very much. When I went to Harvard as a freshman, I decided to go on with physics because I liked it, perhaps as a preliminary to a medical career. I didn’t have money enough to go on with my proposed medical career. I did go on studying physics all four years. I took that up as a stopgap between the time of my graduation and the time when I would have money enough to go to medical school. But I never got enough. Not only I never got enough, but I taught school in Ashville, North Carolina, one year and Worcester Academy, Massachusetts, for two years, and then went back and took a Master’s degree in physics from Harvard. I found that I enjoyed boys, and I could handle boys. I enjoyed trying to make the subject clear to them, so it just naturally worked out in that way. When I first went to Haverford College, I was put in charge of the dormitory and of the dining room, which had had no supervision up to that point at all. You could imagine that it was not easy, but I outlived it. I got through it, in spite of some difficult situations, and in three or four years I became Dean of Haverford College, as a result of my being able to do those things, you see. For twenty-one years I was Dean of Haverford College and also Professor of Physics.

Shaughnessy:

What developed your interest in the teaching of physics. The methods? Why weren’t you oriented toward the research aspects of physics?

Palmer:

It was not impossible but it was very difficult to do scientific research at a small institution like Haverford, at which there never had been work of that sort done. I tried to take my research that I’d worked on at Harvard down there and go ahead with it, but I had no help, no shop help, no facilities really at all to carry it through. I did, however, have a year’s leave of absence every now and then, and I went back to Harvard and carried on that research there, enough so that in 1913 I got my Doctor’s degree. But I think there was something more to it than that. I don’t think I was cut out for a research man. I couldn’t do physical research well enough, and I could do the teaching better than the research men could. So I think it combined. I just found that I was better fitted for teaching than I was for carrying out research, although I carried it out all the time I was there, devoting as much time to it as I could. I’ve got some leftover data now that I’m trying to get together, to publish another paper as a result of some research that I began 25 years ago.

Shaughnessy:

When did you join the APS? (American Physical Society)

Palmer:

In 1905.

Shaughnessy:

Do you recall, at the APS meetings that you attended any time after you joined, discussions on the methods of teaching physics?

Palmer:

Oh no. Oh, no -- it was taboo. No, nobody ever became a teacher of physics by chance. It was only because he couldn’t do any research. You couldn’t get any recognition from the APS proper at that time for talking about teaching at all. It was just taboo.

Shaughnessy:

Was the subject discussed in the halls or corridors at the wee tinge?

Palmer:

I should say not!

Shaughnessy:

I gather that this attitude of the American Physical Society persisted for quite a number of years?

Palmer:

Oh, it certainly did, yes.

Shaughnessy:

If you were asked to identify one or two or three leading spirits of the APS who opposed the introduction of the subject of the teaching of physics, whom would you name? Anybody on the council most violently opposed?

Palmer:

Yes. I can’t think of his name now. He was in Bell Telephone.

Shaughnessy:

Do you remember D.C. Miller?

Palmer:

Oh, D.C. Miller was quite the opposite. Oh, yes.

Shaughnessy:

What was his attitude?

Palmer:

I think he was strong for the AAPT, and for recognition of the teachers. I think Arnold was the name of the man who was a member of the Council at that time; I remember even when the AAPT had been formed and I was on the Council as representative of the AAPT, a position that I held for nine years, he was almost antagonistic -- after it had been done, after the whole thing had been organized. He still felt that way. I remember feeling quite bitter at him, at some of the things that he said in the meetings that I attended as a representative of the AAPT. This was after the AAPT was formed.

Shaughnessy:

Was he prominent in the APS prior to the formation of the AAPT?

Palmer:

Yes. Oh, yes. Now, F.K. Richtmyer was also on that group of APS people, but as you know, he was one of the men that helped us most to dig in and get organized. He helped us a great deal.

Shaughnessy:

If you had to explain this over-emphasis upon research prior to 1930, to what would you attribute this?

Palmer:

I think research of that character was more or less new in this country. Physicists had been trained in England and in Germany. Research was just getting booming at that stage. As I said before, the tendency was to regard anybody who didn’t do research as very third rate. He might be able to teach physics, but be couldn’t do research.

Shaughnessy:

If a man devoted his time to teaching rather than research, it might even interfere with his promotion at a university?

Palmer:

Oh, very definitely. Very definitely.

Shaughnessy:

Do you know of instances where this happened?

Palmer:

No, I don’t, but that was the idea that we all had.

Shaughnessy:

Did it affect you at Haverford?

Palmer:

Yes, it did -- although the pressure was very small. I went there without my Doctor’s degree and found that practically everybody else on the faculty had Doctors’ degrees. It was understood that of course I was going to get mine when I had a chance, which I did, and that led to my being elected to Phi Beta Kappa and other things that I hadn’t been with only a Master’s degree. No, it would very definitely have interfered with my being appointed a full Professor of Physics if I hadn’t, at Haverford. I don’t think I ever would have been, without it.

Shaughnessy:

You’re talking about the PhD degree now.

Palmer:

Yes.

Shaughnessy:

You identified yourself later with that group of physicists who were interested in the teaching of physics.

Palmer:

In the teaching of physics, yes –- educational research. May I digress to tell you how Klopsteg and I got together? I had invited S.P.C. Southall, whose name you know, do you, to lecture to our physical society. He came down and gave a nice lecture, and I put him up all night at my house and we had a good talk over things. He wanted to know what I was doing. I described to him what I was doing, and he said, “I wish you would write that up for me.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “I’m one of the editors of the Optical Society, and I’d like to have an article from you on just what you’re doing, for the Optical Society Journal.” I said, “Why, they’re not interested in what I’m doing!” He said, “You write the article and I’ll see that it goes in.” I said, “I’ve never seen any articles likes that anywhere else.” “Perhaps not,” he said, “but we’re going to do that, if you write that article.” I wrote the article and he published it. The day that that came out, I had a telegram from Paul Klopsteg in Chicago, saying, “Congratulations on publishing the first article on the educational side of physics in any reputable scientific journal in this country. Want your permission to purchase a thousand reprints.” So he got those reprints, and he sent them out with his advertising material, principally for the reason, the work that I had done with the Millikan oil drop experiment, making it available to my students. That’s what he called educational research, and that was something that the American Physical Society didn’t recognize as research.

Shaughnessy:

Do you remember the year of that article?

Palmer:

It must have been around 1925 to 1928. That is, it was prior to the 1930 meeting, you see. I had considerable correspondence with Klopsteg. Indeed, he wanted apparatus from me to put into his scientific company there. He’s got it in there now, under my name.

Shaughnessy:

Was that your first contact with Klopsteg?

Palmer:

Not quite. He was one of the research men at Leeds and Northrup Company in Philadelphia, and I gave one or two lectures over at Leeds and Northrup. I think that was the original way we met. Then he disappeared from my horizon, because he left and went out to Chicago. I hadn’t heard from him for half a dozen years or so, until this telegram came. Well, you can imagine what that telegram did to me! It showed that there was somebody that was interested in how the students received their physics teaching. The title of this article, as I recall it, was, “Some Experiments with Atoms and Molecules Easily Carried Out by Students.” The point was that it was a student article and not just a research article. But it would be quite correctly called educational research.

Shaughnessy:

Were you present at the meeting it Cleveland in 1930?

Palmer:

I certainly was. Nobody was more surprised that I was elected the second president of the AAPT than I was. But the reason for it -- Dodge touched on it just a little bit, this morning, upstairs, but he didn’t get it right -- States told you this morning of his assignment, that he was to attack the Physical Society and show how much they had neglected us, you might say. W.S. Webb followed tat speech of M.N. States’s by a personal note -- somebody had snubbed Webb badly, and he was hurt and mad at the Physical Society, and he expressed it: that we should have nothing to do with the Physical Society at all, but should go on our own. Going out to the meeting at Cleveland, I took account of myself, and said: now, look here, you’re very apt to get into a meeting like this and let the other people do all the talking; don’t you do it this time; if you get a chance to talk, talk! Well, here was my chance, and as soon as Webb sat down, I got up and said: “I oppose that point of view absolutely. We are not going to succeed in this unless we keep the warmest of feeling between the Physical Society and ourselves, because probably nine-tenths of our people are going to be members of the Physical Society anyway. And it will not do to have a break at all. We’ve got to have unanimity of feeling.” Because of that speech that I made, I was ultimately elected. I won’t go into details of bow that came about, but that was the reason, because I had been active enough at that meeting to express that point of view. That was the reason that I was where I was.

Shaughnessy:

To go back a step, what was the series of events that led to your being present at this meeting in Cleveland in 1930?

Palmer:

Well, it was principally this article that I published. That is, that drew me to Klopsteg’s attention, and he put that down in the back of his mind, so that when he was going to have a meeting of this sort, I was one of the ones that would be invited to attend.

Shaughnessy:

Did he issue the invitations?

Palmer:

He issued the invitations. He is entirely responsible. Of course, he and Webb and States and Dodge had talked this over a couple of years ahead of time. There was to have been a meeting of this sort about two years before, to which I was invited and then the invitation was rescinded because the meeting didn’t come off. It wasn’t a good time to do it, for some reason or other. I’ve never known why. It was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had, to have been invited out to that luncheon, to have been invited out to that luncheon, to have things work out the way they did.

Shaughnessy:

To go back to what you said before, at this first or this second meeting, there was some general discussion around the subject of, what should our relationship, if any, be to other organizations, to the APS, for example. You expressed the view that you felt there would be a close, warm relationship.

Palmer:

Absolutely as close as possible.

Shaughnessy:

Did anybody join with Webb? Was he expressing a minority viewpoint?

Palmer:

He was expressing a minority viewpoint. He and States were the only two people who took that point of view.

Shaughnessy:

Then we come to this other question. You became the second president of the association --

Palmer:

-- but there was some finagling in between there. That’s what I’m coming to. We elected Dodge the president, first. We elected Webb the secretary-treasurer, second. I was greatly indebted to Klopsteg, and I thought he was the father of this whole meeting and he certainly ought to be an officer, so I nominated Klopsteg for the vice-presidency, which was the only thing left, and he was elected vice-president. I don’t think that’s mentioned in any of those documents. But at the next meeting, Webb and Klopsteg I think was the one who suggested that he become treasurer, because of the facilities that he had to offer to the AAPT in his Central Scientific Corporation office, filing facilities and stenographic facilities and so on. So, at the first opportunity Klopsteg was changed from vice-president to treasurer, and that left the vice-presidency open. This was at the New Orleans meeting. I was asked then to come to the council or committee meeting, whatever you call it, and take that place. So the first vice-president was Klopsteg, but he didn’t serve a year, and I served a year and a half while Dodge was president. Incidentally, I’d like to make it very definitely clear that it was a great advantage to the association to have Dodge in the presidency for two years, and to have me in the presidency for the two following years, instead of a single year of tenure only. The experience you get in the first year is very valuable to you in the second. It makes an awful lot of difference, whereas if you’re only a one year man, you don’t ever get a chance to use that experience.

Shaughnessy:

I was going to ask about the attitude of the APS toward the formation of this association. Could you describe the attitude of the APS Council?

Palmer:

Of course I don’t know what went on there at all, but Richtmyer and Compton were the ones who were helping us to find our appropriate place in connection with the APS. They didn’t get very far at first, but before the end of the first year -- I think it was only perhaps three or four months -- we were invited to become a member society, with the other four, of the American Institute of Physics, and send three representatives to the Council of the American Institute of Physics.

Shaughnessy:

Specifically what in your opinion was the contribution of the AAPT to the formation of the AIP?

Palmer:

Simply filling out a region, an area of physics, that was not touched by any of the other four societies. The actual formation of the American Institute of Physics, with the first four societies, we had nothing to do with. But when we came in, we came in covering an area that broadened out the AIP.

Shaughnessy:

Was there any reluctance on the part of any of the other four societies to allow you in to the AIP?

Palmer:

I can’t tell you that. I don’t think there was much. I think Compton and Richtmyer did that foundation work very, very successfully.

Shaughnessy:

Let’s talk about Compton and Richtmyer for a moment. They’re apparently very important people.

Palmer:

Oh, yes. Oh, yes. The AIP, of course, was Compton’s private baby. He invented the whole thing. Of course the rest of the crowd was delighted with the idea and put it through, but it was Compton’s contribution.

Shaughnessy:

How did they come to be affiliated with the AAPT -- that is, Compton and Richtmyer?

Palmer:

Well, they were members from the start. Richtmyer was number 1, as a matter of fact.

Shaughnessy:

Who interested them in the idea? It seems to me very important that they were part of it.

Palmer:

They were interested. They were the ones in the APS Council that were interested in educational physics, in teaching physics.

Shaughnessy:

Did anybody invite them to become members?

Palmer:

Not that I know of. I think they became members through the regular channels. I can’t say anything more than that. I wasn’t on the inside of the Physical Society at that point.

Shaughnessy:

It occurs to me that it was a very important step in the history of the AAPT when these two men became part of it.

Palmer:

Oh yes, we’re very much indebted to them.

Shaughnessy:

I wonder whether somebody didn’t sit down and say to someone else or to himself, “We’ve got to get somebody with prestige, position, status, to come into this organization.”

Palmer:

I don’t know that there was any pressure on them, or invitation to them. I think they just came because they naturally belonged there.

Shaughnessy:

You mentioned before the fact that it was important that the president have a term of two years. Do you recall the debate that took place on the constitution and the bylaws during the early meetings of the AAPT? Was there any discussion of this?

Palmer:

Not at all. When it came time for Dodge’s re-election, the executive committee was all for it, and put his name on the ballot in the proper way and it went right through. It was the same way with me. But after that, there was a feeling among the crowd that our method of election was not good enough. It didn’t give the outside man a good enough chance. I’ve forgotten just how the rules were changed, but they were changed so that no president has been re-elected from that time to this.

Shaughnessy:

What led up to your election as president in 1933?

Palmer:

Well, I told you that I made some remarks at that luncheon. Very definitely this was the reason for it.

Shaughnessy:

Were you nominated by a committee?

Palmer:

I was nominated by the executive committee. If we had a nominating committee apart from the executive committee, it reported to the executive committee, and the executive committee OK’d their slate. Webb went on being secretary for, I’ve forgotten how many years, not too many. T.D. Cope followed him as secretary.

Shaughnessy:

Why were you chosen by the executive committee or nominating committee to be the second president? Do you think it had anything to do with the fact that you had strong connections with Harvard, came from the northeast section of the country?

Palmer:

No, I don’t think it was anything but that speech. What happened afterwards? I probably didn’t make too many slips or show too much bad judgment. As a vice-president, very naturally I would be nominated to succeed the preceding president.

Shaughnessy:

What about the problems created by the AAPT by the fact that it was born in the midst of a national Depression? Was this a serious problem?

Palmer:

It never occurred to me before. I remember what you said about it upstairs. I don’t see it. I don’t see that there was any particular difficulty there, except that it made a dearth of physics teachers, that those of us who were responsible for filling up our staffs had great difficulty in overcoming. I remember my own difficulties in that respect. It was hard to find anybody who was available. I appointed one of my older students who was a fine student and was working with Philco in Philadelphia. Though blind I offered him the job of helping me teach physics at Haverford, and he wanted to teach physics. He much preferred it to industrial work, so he came and proved to be a great success. He’s still at Haverford in that department, and doing wonderful work for the blind as well.

Shaughnessy:

At one of the earlier meetings, there was debate over the question of whether a journal should be published. Do you remember?

Palmer:

It started off under Dodge, with the objective of publishing a journal as soon as we properly could. When I became president, it had gotten to such a point that Duane Roller had just been appointed as editor of the journal-to—be, and we had discussed certain policies and so forth of the journal. We felt that it was an integral part of our program, and that without it we would be without a skeleton to build around. We felt it was one of the most important things we could do. So we started a journal called The Physics Teacher. It was issued quarterly, then six times a year, then nine times, for many years, now twelve times a year. Roller did such a wonderful job on that that he built the journal up to the greatest thing that the AAPT has ever done.

Shaughnessy:

As I understand it, the question of financing this journal cane up, and there seemed to be some doubt as to whether the finances could be obtained.

Palmer:

Very definitely.

Shaughnessy:

You contributed a thousand dollars anonymously?

Palmer:

No. No, that’s another story. I’ll tell you that story later. It had to do with the Demonstration Experiments Book.

Shaughnessy:

Where did the finances for the journal come from?

Palmer:

They came out of the dues of the members, that’s all. Before we had the journal, the membership dues were $2. When the journal was started, it went to $3. It stayed at $3 for three years, I guess, with pressure being brought all the time to put it up to $4 but we didn’t dare put it up to $4 for fear we’d lose more than we’d gain by it. As I pointed out upstairs when we were discussing; this thing, we sent out a sheet with the dues urging anybody who felt to inclined to make a donation in addition to his dues, in order to help the journal. We got some money, not very much, but we got some money that way, and it bridged the gap between the $3 and the $4 charge. We did not suffer when we put it up to $4 officially. It was a very easy more, we found out after we’d done it. The name of the journal was changed I think in 1934, possibly ’35. I know that we had two or three meetings about the name of the journal, and finally had a meeting with representatives of the APS about it. At that meeting, which I attended as president, I think, so it must have been before the end of ‘34, Roller suggested American Journal of Physics. Well, the representatives of the American Physical Society looked very much askance at that. They thought that was much too high class a name for us. So we had a hot little debate in that meeting, as to whether they would let us give it that name, and finally it prevailed. Of course we’ve been honored by it, and have honored it, ever since.

Shaughnessy:

Apparently there was some serious debate at one of the early meetings of the AAPT as to whether or not secondary school teachers should be taken in.

Palmer:

That was an immediate problem, as to what policy we should adopt on that point. We were faced by Scylla on one side and Charybdis on the other. If we carried it too far in the direction of welcoming secondary school teachers, we were bound to become just a secondary school journal and that we did not want. We wanted a high class collegiate journal, and any secondary school teachers who had the training that was necessary to appreciate a journal of that sort. That is what we finally put into our constitution, that we welcomed as members any college teachers of physics and any secondary school teachers who had the training equivalent to that of the college teacher. That was perhaps separating the sheep from the goats a little bit too sharply. At the same time, we had to draw the line somewhere, and I think it worked out all right. Certainly the American Journal of Physics didn’t suffer by sliding downhill on that.

Shaughnessy:

What was your own position on this policy question of whether or not secondary school teachers should be admitted?

Palmer:

Well, I wouldn’t have any hesitation about admitting anybody at the present time, of course, but at that time, it was a grave danger. We had considerable doubts about any secondary school teachers. I wanted the secondary school teachers who were properly trained. I wanted them as members, very definitely. That’s the position that I took with regard to the discussion that we had on the problem.

Shaughnessy:

I think there was a joint meeting of the AAPT and the APS held -- a joint dinner -- about 1936.

Palmer:

We had one every year.

Shaughnessy:

That was the first one, in 1936?

Palmer:

No.

Shaughnessy:

You had joint dinners prior to that?

Palmer:

Oh, yes. As soon as we met at the same time and place that the Physical Society met, we joined together. Dodge was the first speaker for the AAPT at such a dinner, just after he was elected.

Shaughnessy:

So there was a close relationship between the two organizations?

Palmer:

It worked out all right because the attendance on our program proved to be considerably larger than the attendance on the APS program. It worried them, and as a result of that we got together. The societies took turns; one would meet either one day earlier or one day later than the other, so that there would be no collision of meetings. That was a difficulty which cropped up at our Boston meeting in ’33. That was the first time when our program drew more attendance than the other, and Richtmyer was rather jubilant about it, but he was also a member of the APS Council and he had to watch his p’s and q’s too. Incidentally, he wrote one of the first articles that appeared in the Journal, celled “Physics is Physics.” Have you heard about that one at all? It was awfully nice. It was very cleverly done, and it was not at all an easy thing to do. His point was perfectly good -- that at any level, physics is physics. It didn’t make any difference whether it was research level, teacher level, or high school level, physics was physics.

Shaughnessy:

What do you think happened to attitudes toward the teaching of physics, as a result of the formation of the AAPT? Did they change?

Palmer:

They began to change right away. Oh, yes.

Shaughnessy:

What signs did you see of that?

Palmer:

Well, I saw a greater interest of the APS in our programs, for instance. The American Institute of Physics started out some projects in the educational field. I was assigned to one of those at one time; I had to make a survey of what teachers were doing. I’ve forgotten what it was about, but it was a proper AAPT job that the APS wouldn’t and couldn’t have done. It was the Institute of Physics, you see, that brought it about, through us.

Shaughnessy:

Would you say that after the formation of the AAPT, college teachers of physics had a little bit more status, prestige in their colleges than before?

Palmer:

I doubt it. Of course, now, physicists are short. We’re lacking enough physicists, and we’re lacking a lot of physics teachers too. You hear about the physics teaching end of it all the time now. It’s a very different atmosphere than it was.

Shaughnessy:

Now was Webster chosen as president?

Palmer:

We had the nominating committee. His location, of course, was one of the things that made him available.

Shaughnessy:

You mean, the fact that he was in --

Palmer:

California, yes. We wanted to get representatives from all over the country.

Shaughnessy:

I wondered whether that wasn’t also a factor in your choice.

Palmer:

I don’t know.

Shaughnessy:

Who nominated Webster as president?

Palmer:

I can’t tell you that.

Shaughnessy:

Was he put up by any individual?

Palmer:

No. No, it was the nominating committee. I don’t remember who they were at all. A nominating committee of three. I don’t think I could have been on that. But Webster was a personal friend of mine. We were in the graduate school at Harvard at the same time.

Shaughnessy:

Could we go back to this question that we raised before, abut this anonymous gift of yours for $1000?

Palmer:

Let’s take up that subject of the Demonstration Experiments. As I pointed out in the first line of this note, there was a committee appointed by Dodge, in his administration, on tests and testing. C.J. Lapp of Iowa was the chairman. He was one who had had considerable experience with the testing. He’d published some of the tests and tried them out rather carefully. The others were Hermon W. Farwell of Columbia and I.

Shaughnessy:

What were you testing?

Palmer:

We were giving examinations in physics, in the form of multiple choice tests. This was nearly at the beginning of the multiple choice type of question. Lapp was one of those who was in on the ground floor of that, and had considerable experience before we met. But in connection with the Demonstration Experiments Book, this was the origin. That committee of three met in Farwell’s laboratory at Columbia, to make out a couple of examinations, based on the multiple choice type of question, and we worked hard all one morning, and then said, “Let’s take a little breather.” So we put down our tools and started just chatting, and one of us, I don’t remember which one said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if the AAPT would get out a book of laboratory work, laboratory experiments.” We said, “Yes, that would be a pretty good thing for them to take as a project, but there’s the difficulty that in all the laboratories in the country, there would be no two alike with the apparatus. They have different types of apparatus, and it would be difficult to have a book that would fit them all.” Then Lapp said, “Well, how about demonstration experiments, then? They certainly would be able to handle that in better shape, and there isn’t any such book, as far as I know. Do you fellows know of any?” No, we didn’t know of any. So we discussed that and we decided that that might be a workable proposition. I went home from that meeting, and the more I thought of it, the more I thought that would be an excellent project for the AAPT.

As president, I introduced it as a topic on the agenda, to be discussed in executive committee meeting, and much to my surprise, I found that Richtmyer and one or two others were strongly opposed to it. They said it would be impossible to get a publisher because the field would be so small. After the college had gotten one of those books, there wouldn’t be any object in getting a lot more. It wouldn’t work out, it wasn’t practical or practicable. I didn’t agree with that. I said, “Well, are you willing that I should appoint a committee to investigate the possibility of publishing such a book?” They said, “Yes, you can do that. We’ll authorize you to do that.” So after the meeting was over, I thought about it for a while and finally selected a committee of which Zeleny of Yale was the chairman. Zeleny and the other two members, whom I don’t recall, investigated whether they could get a publishing company to be interested in such a book. Of the dozen that they contacted, at least six of them jumped at it and said that they’d be delighted to have it and would offer up us 15 percent royalties. One of those was McGraw-Hill, and of course you know what the standing of McGraw-Hill was even at that point, so we chose McGraw-Hill. I communicated with my executive committee and said I was tickled to pieces to inform them that this was the result of the committee’s report and that I was going ahead with it. The next proposition was to get an editor.

I approached two people without success -– one, the author of a good textbook in physics, and the other a retired physics professor who, I thought, might possibly have time to devote to such a project. I knew that my associate at Haverford College, Professor Sutton, was interested in demonstration physics, or demonstration experiments, I should say, but I did not want to approach him on this matter, just because he was my associated and I was afraid that somebody would say, “This is nepotism.” At the same time, after failing in my first two attempts, I finally made up my mind to ask him if he would serve as editor, and he jumped at it. He was excellently well qualified to do that job, but it soon developed that we were in financial straits, because the AAPT had no money to advance for this purpose. All of their money at this point was taken up with the publication of the journal, which was all right. So, this being my particular baby, I thought I might just as well finance it myself, as long as I was able to put up a little money for it. Without letting anybody know what was being done, I just went ahead and paid the bills, to the extent of somewhere around $1500, in the four years that it was in the making. There was appointed, in addition to Sutton, an assistant editor, Joe Elder, who became very valuable, and later received an appointment at Haverford College as an instructor in the department, and that helped pay his expenses. I didn’t have to carry that any more.

He and Sutton carried this thing through practically without any financial remuneration at all. We felt at the time that this was a unique type of book, a book in which the material was supplied by authors who were unpaid, some 200 different authors, and of which the editor was unpaid and the assistant editor was paid very little. So by the time we got this book out, we felt that we had done a unique job. It turned out so much better than we had any idea it would that it was really marvelous. The royalties, the 15 percent royalties, amounted to enough so that I was paid back by means of the royalties within three years. It’s one of the best investments I ever made, I think. I’m glad to get that story straight for the record. I might call attention to the fact that there was later published another book on demonstration experiments, carrying our efforts still further, bringing it up to date –- a memorial volume to L.W. Taylor of Oberlin. I have heard, but I cannot be sure, that there is a third such volume in the making now, in the hands of an editor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, but I’m not sure about that. Do you know anything about it?

Shaughnessy:

No, I don’t. Could I leave these notes and ask you some questions about these men whose names have come up in our conversation? I’d like to get your estimate of them.

Palmer:

Just a minute. You’ve got to give me a little time to talk about the awards and about the medal.

Shaughnessy:

Oh, yes, let’s do that first.

Palmer:

Well, the first year I was president, I received an anonymous letter offering to put up enough money to pay for the expenses of making an award of some kind for excellence in teaching. I immediately appointed an award committee to determine what type of award it should be, and to select a first recipient of such an award. We discussed it in the executive committee meeting, and after we decided that the type of award should be a gold medal, the question was, what should we call it? We wanted to get an appropriate name for the two things that the medal stood for. One was excellence in teaching, and one was excellence in research, and we wished to have our recipient combine those qualities to an outstanding degree. We went to bed that night with the matter unsettled, and said we’d meet in the morning and see if anybody had any inspirations. In the middle of the night I awoke and thought: “Well, there is Oersted, the Danish physicist who discovered the existence of the magnetic field around a current-bearing wire while he was teaching a class, and demonstrated it to them at that meeting.” That, I thought, in a perfect combination of the two things in the one man at the one point -- a very fortuitous arrangement, and I suggested that the next morning to the executive committee, and they accepted it immediately. We adopted the name of Oersted for that medal. We wrote to the Danish Royal Society and told them what we would like to do, use this name in this connection, and asked their permission, which they very graciously granted and said that they were delighted that we were going to do this thing.

So we proceeded with it, and turned to the selection of an individual as first recipient. That was difficult. There again, we wanted to combine the two fields of activity, teaching and research, if we possibly could, in one individual. We felt that the type of person had to be very carefully chosen, because the standard, the level, would be of particular interest and importance, as to whether this was going on to succeed or whether it would fall flat. So we chose a man who had already died, but who had been an outstanding teacher and who had also contributed considerable in the way of research. That was William S. Franklin. He was at the time of his death at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he had been for most of his life at Lehigh University. Not having any medal, we had two bronze tablets made, with appropriate words on the back, and presented those two tablets to his wife. Rather we presented her with a certificate, and we presented the two tablets to Lehigh and MIT, to be put on the wall just outside the offices that Franklin had occupied in those two institutions. That turned out to be a great success. Everybody agreed that Franklin was an excellent choice. The second choice was A.W. Duff, who had written a lot of very successful textbooks, and the third was E.H. Hall of Harvard who was the man most responsible for the student laboratory work in connection with the teaching of physics in this country.

In the case of Hall, he received the announcement that he had been named for this reward, but when it came to giving him the award at the time of the Christmas meeting, he had died. So his daughter was at that meeting, and she received the Oersted Medal for him. The more recent recipients of the award have been, I think, very high grade. It’s been a very interesting development, to make such an award. I suspect very strongly it was Klopsteg’s idea. I don’t know whether that’s been made public or not, but I suspect that he was back of it. I wanted to get that story across to you. There was a little uncertainty as to whether Richtmyer or I had made the suggestion of Oersted’s name. That’s because it’s so many years back that people have forgotten. I think that Webster or Cope or anybody else who was on the job at that time, will remember that I was the fellow that made that contribution. I don’t mean to stress it, except to rectify the thing, because if it’s worth talking about at all, why, I’d just as soon have the credit.

Shaughnessy:

Is it your feeling that we’ve covered the other items on the sheet?

Palmer:

All except membership, which is something that we don’t need to say very much about -- except to point out, as I did a little while back, that dues went up from $2 to $3 when the journal was published and later to $4. When I became president, there were 473 members, and when I ceased to be president, when my two years was up, there were 702. I remember when there were about 500 members, saying to somebody, “Now, if we could only get 800 members we’d just be on easy street, we’d have money to spare.” Now we have 8400, and the dues are nearly double what they were then! That I think practically covers the items on this.

Shaughnessy:

I think in covering the items that you set down on this sheet, you covered most of the questions that I had prepared to ask.

Palmer:

Well, there’s one point that I might call your attention to in connection with the testing program. Lapp and Farwell and I were members of that committee, and we were using multiple choice questions. Now, the College Board was doing about the same thing at that time. They were feeling around and trying out the multiple choice type of question. The first thing that became evident was that you couldn’t trust it unless you tried it out ahead of time. It was absolutely essential that the questions you asked your students on their final examination had been asked to a group of students already, and you knew that your question was a significant one –- in other words, not one where it was perfectly obvious that everybody would choose No. 5 as the answer to the question, or it was perfectly obvious that it was impossible for the good man even to choose the right one. I tried the thing out myself, before going on this committee, and it was an utter failure. Oh, I thought those multiple choice questions were perfectly awful! Then I got converted entirely, and even went with Ben Wood (who you know, I suspect) to one of his meetings and made a speech about the thing. I would like to stress only one more though, and that is, a little more about why we chose Franklin as the first medalist. This is something that shows atmosphere, that’s all, and shows ingenuity, shows why Franklin was a good teacher. I had him down to Haverford, to talk to the Physical Society there, and again entertained him at my house afterwards and had a number of the other professors in, and we had a smoke talk and so on. He was interested in -– and interested us in, at that time –- an unusual type of physics problem. He said, “We physicists get the idea that when we have carried out a certain experiment in our laboratory, that anybody in Australia or Japan or London or anywhere in the world can repeat that experiment and get the same results. And if they can’t, our results are no good. But there’s an entire group of physical phenomena about which that isn’t true at all. They are the phenomena that happen once and never again. You can’t duplicate them.” He said, “Supporting you were coming out from Philadelphia to Haverford on the local train, and you stepped out onto the platform just before the train stopped, and a whisk of wind whistled over the top of the car and blew your hat off, and it dropped on a certain spot out here, rolled six and a half times before it came to rest on a stone at an angle of five and a half degrees. You never could do that again. Is it covered by physical laws? Oh, yes, it’s covered by physical laws, but don’t you mean then that they don’t operate next time? No, they operate next time. But the background of circumstances is so immense that you just never can duplicate it again.” He said, “Another example is, when New York was destroyed by that hurricane.” Of course we said, “What hurricane?” He said, “Why, there was a grasshopper out on the prairies of Kansas, and he jumped up into the air at a time when there was a temperature inversion of the air, when the warm air was below the cooler air. And when he jumped up into that layer of air, he disturbed the equilibrium that existed there so that more warm air came up through that hole, and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger and swept across the prairies and finally, the hurricane that it produced destroyed New York City, just because a grasshopper jumped up in the air!” Well, that was the imaginative way he went at his students, and you can see what it would do. You see, I’ve been talking to you about what happened during my two years’ administration. Those are the things I know something about. I’d much rather the other people would talk about their administrations, rather than try to throw any other light on them.