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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Homer Dodge by Donald Shaughnessy on 1963 January 23,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Personal background; Iowa State University, 1887-1914; state of American physics prior to 1930; Paul Klopsteg; teaching versus research; Arthur G. Webster; first American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) success, 1931; Karl Compton and Floyd K. Richtmyer support; formation of the American Institute of Physics and AAPT as a founder society. Interview conducted by the Columbia University Oral History Research Office as part of a series of interviews conducted with founding members of the American Association of Physics Teachers.
Why wasn’t the American Association of Physics Teachers formed until 1930? What steps took place prior to that event?
There were, in 1930, four organizations of American physicists. Two were organized the year before. The Optical Society was organized in 1916. The first organization was the American Physical Society, founded in 1899. It dominated physics from the standpoint of organization and national meetings. The members of that Society were concerned with the promotion of American physics up to this time. The graduate training of American physicists had been received mostly in Europe. Young men in this country who wanted to become physicists went to Europe, and when they came back, they all wanted to develop their own research and graduate work so that they might give Ph.D. degrees in this country which would be as good as those obtained in Europe. Consequently there was a tremendous and proper emphasis on research. There were many who realized that in some of the institutions this emphasis tended to exclude a proper emphasis on teaching.
One noticeable result was that graduate students in our large universities were found to come largely from the small colleges and were not developed in the universities themselves. Whatever reasons may be given for that, the principal reason was that in the small colleges the staff was devoting itself to inspiring these young people to become interested in physics and to want to go on for graduate work. Whereas in the larger institutions there was a feeling among the professors that they must throw their strength and energy exclusively into the development of research; and there was a tendency to neglect the teaching and even to regard teaching as a hackwork adjunct to research. Some of us, in particular the two that I know about, Paul Klopsteg and myself, were concerned about this. We had just come through our own graduate programs and had seen this emphasis upon research in large institutions. We felt that the whole program of physics in this country would be strengthened if there could be what I have called a balanced emphasis upon both research and teaching.
May I interrupt at that point to ask you this question? I’d like to get some information on your background in order to explain the concern that you had for the teaching of physics as compared to the research aspect of it. Where did your concern for teaching originate?
I suppose it originated from the fact that although until I graduated from college, I did not decide to be a teacher, I had been interested in that type of thing. I helped the teacher of physics at the high school I attended. I would go down nights with him and help him set up equipment. So I was really genuinely interested in the teaching side, even though I had not decided upon it as a career.
Was this a high school in Oklahoma?
No, I grew up in northern New York. It was a high school in Ogdensburg. I had a very able high school physics teacher who later became a member of the teaching force in New York City, and did very well here. In college I was exposed to a real research man, Dr. C. D. Childs, who did more research work than most men in small colleges. That was at Colgate University. He was interested both in teaching and in research. But as I went on with graduate work in a larger institution, the State University of Iowa, which was trying to find its place among the graduate schools of the country, I happened to be the first graduate student in physics from outside the institution, and I found that — well, as a matter of fact, I found that I was expected to, shall I say, neglect my teaching a bit so that I could throw more energy into the graduate work.
You had done some teaching or were doing some?
Yes. I was a half-time instructor. I wasn’t just a laboratory assistant, like the modern part-time graduate student would be. Later, as an assistant professor, I was teaching the same courses that I taught when I first went there. In fact, I learned more physics from the first two or three years of teaching than I had learned in the courses before, because I was teaching more difficult texts and using more complicated laboratory apparatus than I had been exposed to in college. It was quite an experience. Perhaps that’s an important point — that I found teaching a tremendous challenge, because I was learning more physics in my teaching than I had learned as a straight student. I learned how to study. Before, I’d been studying so that I might answer questions in the class, if I were asked. As I began to teach, I found I must prepare myself to be able to answer any question that any student might ask and be able to give a clear and complete explanation.
That is the proper way to study; but one doesn’t study that way, as a rule, as a student. So, in this situation, I was well aware of the challenge of teaching and the joys of teaching. But the department, like physics departments in so many other universities, was placing the major emphasis on research, while my instincts called for a balanced emphasis on the two. In speaking of my experience at the University of Iowa, that is not to single it out. The experience of other students — Klopsteg’s experience was similar. We just felt that physics in this country would be stronger, more graduate students would be developed, graduate work would be better, everything would be better, if we were all interested in all phases of the education of a physicist, and didn’t undervalue and neglect the undergraduate teaching.
Did you come up against this problem, during your graduate years at the University of Iowa, that there was a conflict between research and teaching? Were you urged to neglect or de-emphasize your teaching, to devote greater time to your research work?
Well, I’ll put it this way. I would say that (and perhaps this was for my own good) it was suggested that I should emphasize the research more; and I got the feeling that if I neglected my teaching I wouldn’t be blamed for it. As for myself, I didn’t feel that either should be neglected. I tried to deliver 100 percent in both places. My point is that throughout the country, teaching was not in the best of repute. If you were primarily a teacher, it was supposed to be because you couldn’t be a research man. And yet the research men, as I hope will come out later in what we say, the leading research men, with few exceptions, were themselves personally interested in teaching. But they too were under this pressure.
How do you account for this heavy emphasis upon research that existed in this country at this time? Would it be accurate to say that this was the heavy hand of German physics? Many then professors were graduates of German universities.
At the time that I was doing my graduate work, that was the beginning or just after the very start of strong graduate work in this country. At Johns Hopkins University and at Cornell University, in particular, men who had had their training in Germany and in England wanted to develop research physics in this country, and the way to do it was by developing graduate work. It happened that the head of the Department of Physics in Iowa had not gone to Europe for his training. He had, not many years before I received my Doctor’s degree at Iowa, obtained his at Cornell, which at that time produced a considerable number of the first Ph.D. physicists in this country. So I, in a sense, was one of the very first of the second generation of American physicists. It was felt that we should not have to send our American boys and girls to Europe — to England, to Germany — for graduate work. We should take care of them here. It was felt that we must make a great drive to promote research. It was not easy to do, and the American Physical Society took on that burden. But their conception of research in physics tended to be rather narrow.
The emphasis was strongly on research at the very forefront to the neglect of research in other important fields. To correct this, the Optical Society of America was organized in 1916 and, later, the Acoustical Society. Not only did the teachers have difficulty in interesting the Physical Society group in the teaching of physics, but even those interested in research in the fields of optics and acoustics found a lack of enthusiasm for work in those fields, forcing the formation of separate organizations. It wasn’t just the teaching of physics that was being neglected. The American Physical Society, in its tremendous emphasis on promoting research at the very forefront of the development of physics, missed its opportunity to develop, at the same time, research in all branches, and to develop the interest in teaching which would have encouraged the preparation of young men for graduate work, not only in the small colleges where there was an inspired interest in teaching, but also in the larger institutions. I want to add that one can never be sure that that was entirely wrong. All one can be sure of is that these other sides, the research in acoustics, in optics, the definite interest in physics teaching — they were forced to develop outside of the Physical Society. And it may be that they gained strength from that. So I don’t want to be regarded as overly critical, you see. I’m explaining, not criticizing.
To go back to this meeting in 1916 between you and Paul Klopsteg, had you known him prior to that time?
Yes. I can’t say exactly where I became acquainted with Klopsteg. I know at that time, he was at the University of Minnesota, and it’s possible that when I went up to Minneapolis in 1910 for the first meeting of the American Physical Society that I ever attended (only 21 years after its founding) that I found Klopsteg there as a graduate student. Anyway, some time along about that time, I became acquainted with him. It may have been at Thanksgiving meetings of the American Physical Society, then regularly held in Chicago. I know we had talked about this before; but in 1916, Paul Klopsteg, then at the University of Minnesota, wanted to see our new physics building at Iowa. We had a very splendid building. So, on the way to the Thanksgiving meeting in 1916, he took a swing around through Iowa City to spend the day with us.
Since I saw you the other day, I have found in my correspondence the arrangements for that meeting, or rather references to it. We spent practically the whole afternoon wondering what we could do to help improve the situation. By that time, through my connections with Professor A. G. Webster, of Clark University, for whom I’d been a research assistant in the summer of 1913 when I came here to Columbia where he was lecturing on mathematical physics, I had tried to accomplish something with the American Physical Society. He, although one of the leaders and influential members, met the same obstacles, and nothing came of it except my appointment as official representative of the Physical Society on the editorial staff of School Science and Mathematics. So I had made one very definite attempt before Paul and I had this talk. That has bearing on the fact that it was so many years before anything really happened. We realized that with my experience in trying definitely to do something, and having achieved so little response, it was discouraging. I had gained the interest and support of A. G. Webster, but even he was not able to accomplish much of anything. So we realized that whatever was done would have to be done at the right time and with an organized drive.
Did you feel that this representation that you were given for the Physical Society on this publication School Science and Mathematics was a kind of a sop to the group that was especially interested in teaching?
In a sense, yes; but I want to emphasize that this was an official action of the Society. As we proceed, I think my distinction between official Society action and the personal attitudes of the members will be clear. I felt that the leaders in the American Physical Society regarded the primary and sole function of the Society to be the fostering of research with all the support which could be mustered for that purpose. The Society’s energy should not be dissipated for other purposes, though worthy and related. For the Society to achieve its important purpose they felt the necessity of keeping it, you might say, pure and undefiled-they must hew to that one line. And I can understand that attitude, because it had been a tremendously difficult thing to develop research in this country. Here was a young fellow. They sympathized with his ideas, they wanted him to have a chance to express them, to do whatever he could do. But they didn’t see how, with their conception of the purpose of the Physical Society, much as they might approve of what he had in mind, they didn’t see how it would be appropriate to introduce it into the Physical Society program. So they wanted to give me a chance, and perhaps some thought that would be a sop and would keep me from bothering them. But let’s put it this way: they wanted to give me a chance and so they did appoint me official representative of the American Physical Society on this editorial board.
Who were the most influential names in the American Physical Society at this time?
Well, I would have to go back and look at lists to pick them out, but of course I do remember at once two who later, in 1930 — but we are now speaking of 1916 — well, I would have to look at the list.
But this was a general attitude of the leadership?
This was the official atmosphere of the organization, but we finally broke that down in the sense that from the time our association was organized there has been complete cooperation. One of the great triumphs of the American Association of Physics Teachers was that we built a bridge of mutual understanding in a rather dramatic way at the first meeting after organization which was held in Washington in April, 1931. This meeting was planned with the hope that this would happen, and we found proof of the wisdom of the principle that I’d been advocating: that physicists were more than just research men; that physicists should be defined as persons working in the field of physics, including research in all the different branches and including teaching at all levels but particularly at the college and graduate levels. It would be recognized that some physicists would be interested almost exclusively in research, others almost exclusively in teaching functions, but that the great mass of physicists would be interested, and concerned with, both, without neglecting either.
That was proven to be the case, because we were able to obtain the interest and support of Karl Compton, Richtmyer and other great leaders. Compton and Richtmyer agreed to become members of the executive committee of the AAPT at the time of organization. And, as we planned the first program meeting, they helped make sure that we were invited to meet jointly with the American Physical Society, four months after our organization, at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington. I was president at that time and took pains to have a distinguished research man talk about teaching, and to have Karl Compton lead the discussion. The speaker was Dr. A. W. Hull, Associate Director of Research of the General Electric Research Laboratory. But the real triumph came spontaneously. The members of the Physical Society who had not yet joined the new Association did not stay in the halls to chat but crowded the lecture room. Then, after Karl Compton had opened the discussion, these leading research men of the country found themselves spontaneously joining in a long and lively discussion of the teaching of physics. They were just as full of fire, perhaps more so, than when discussing a research problem. That showed that when there was a channel, outside of the American Physical Society, through which these men could express their interest in teaching, the interest was there. Now, this didn’t all happen accidentally.
There were many in the AAPT group who did not see this as I and a number of others did. They were less generous in their attitude toward the Physical Society and at the time of organization wished to cut loose from it. It might be added that there were those in the Physical Society who feared the contamination of “pedagogy” and an “educationist” atmosphere. Some of us were acutely conscious of the fact that it was essential for the accomplishment of our purposes that no cleavage between the two societies should be permitted to develop. When I was elected president of the AAPT, it became my responsibility to see that no opportunity for encouraging mutual understanding and cooperation should be missed. It was with this objective in mind that every feature of the Washington meetings held soon after our organization, was planned. So, as I said, its success was no accident. This meeting was, perhaps, the most critical event in the history of the Association in that it served to tie the Physical Society and the AAPT together from the very beginning. It also showed that physicists were interested in both research and teaching; and that we must demonstrate this by having men who were thought of as primarily research men active in our organization and participating in its programs. I might say, with a smile on my face that should be recorded, that it was almost embarrassing, when our first meetings got under way, to find that research men, particularly when demonstration apparatus was to be presented, whom one would expect would be found over in the research sessions, came to our meetings because they found them so fascinating. It was in ways like this that close cooperation and relationship between the two organizations was firmly established. We’ve had joint meetings ever since, joint programs, joint ceremonial meetings. Everything has gone along harmoniously and with even greater cooperation than one could have expected.
After this meeting between you and Klopsteg in 1916, there was a fourteen-year hiatus before the next concrete step was taken. What you say explains some of the reasons for that. What were the immediate steps leading up to the Cleveland meeting in 1930?
I am not myself aware of all the immediate steps from first-hand information. I can tell you that probably the one who will give you the broadest view of those events will be Dr. M. N. States who will be here this weekend. Klopsteg was involved, but States knew all of us. He knew Klopsteg. He knew Professor Webb, head of the Department of Physics at the University of Kentucky, and had been a member of his staff. He also knew Glenn Warner who was concerned with high school teaching and was editor of School Science and Mathematics, a journal with which I’d been connected earlier but not when he was editor. So I think States sees it from more sides or more angles than anyone else. Klopsteg can tell you his side. Now, I do know that there was talk of attempting to do something shortly before 1930, perhaps in 1927; and the facts can probably be learned from your interviews with States and Klopsteg. I had a letter from Warner this morning and I think that he’ll be here and that you should talk with him.
There’s a statement in this article by David Webster: “The first notable departure from this policy (of emphasizing research to the exclusion of teaching) of exclusion came in 1919, when Professor George B. Wendell of Columbia University prevailed upon the Council of the Society to authorize him to organize a committee for the study of general problems of physics teaching, and to call it the educational committee of the American Physical Society.” Do you recall anything about that, in 1919?
No. I thought he was involved in a project dealing with the teaching of premedical physics. Except for that, this does not jog my memory.
He goes on to say that “A. W. Duff, whom some of us remember for his great textbook on physics, was on this committee. Another member was Paul Klopsteg, of whom I shall say more later. The rest were W. J. A. Griss, E. P. Lewis, and H. M. Randall, all well known as good teachers. Together they studied the problem of the teaching of physics to students of engineering, and wrote a report which they presented to the Council in February, 1922.”
Well, that brings out the point that has already come out in our conversations, that each member sees this through his own experience. The only explanation that I have for myself and for you, as to my not recalling this, is that in 1919 I went from the State University of Iowa to the University of Oklahoma as head of the department, and I had quite a problem — a new head, no former members of the staff because of the effects of the war. I had to reorganize the department. Perhaps at that time I was not as aware of everything that was going on in the rest of the country as I might have been. A rather lame explanation, but a truthful one. The fact that I don’t know about it, too, is probably partly this — and it would apply to whatever was done back then. Hardly anybody knows anything about my having been the official representative of the American Physical Society on the School Science and Mathematics editorial board. Most of these things were sporadic efforts of individuals or small groups of individuals. There was, as I said, another study of the teaching of premedic physics, somewhere about this time. I knew about that. But I imagine most everybody has forgotten about it. There were, here and there, these sporadic expressions of concern, but there was no great enthusiasm for them in the Physical Society.
This meeting that took place on December 29, 1930, in Cleveland, you recall, was a meeting held at the Cleveland Club. I have the minutes of that meeting. It says, “Dean Dodge made a brief statement of the history of the call for this conference, to discuss the need for an organization to consider problems relating to the teaching of physics. He called for nominations for permanent officers of this conference.” You were nominated then as chairman, is that correct?
The way I recall that is this, to be very technical. I believe 26 people were invited to come to that luncheon meeting at the Cleveland Club. That letter that went out to them I think was officially or actually signed by Webb of Kentucky and Paul Klopsteg. The list, however, was prepared in Chicago by Klopsteg, States and Warner. They prepared the list, and they decided that when they called the group together, they would ask me to be chairman. I called the meeting to order. We’ll see if this agrees with the minutes. I think then, as would have been proper, I called for nominations for a chairman of the meeting and that they elected me to serve as chairman during the period of these meetings. Does that agree with the record?
Then, during the process of the meetings, some of us realized that we must organize then or never, and I became the first president. I think Klopsteg was elected the vice-president and Webb I know was elected secretary.
That’s right. Before that vote was taken, the minutes say that “the chairman” –- you –- “then suggested that the conference proceed to consider the items outlined in a tentative program for the conference in the order indicated, and raised the question of what relation, if any, the proposed organization should have to other existing organizations.” “There was considerable discussion upon this subject by Professor Lesord, Lapp, Taylor, Minor, States, Ingersoll, Spence, Klopsteg and Mr. Dietrich.” Now, I gather that this was a very important issue at the first meeting: the association’s relationship to the American Physical Society.
What were the various alternatives considered and what was your own point of view?
Well, you’re asking me to search my memory about events 32 years ago. That takes a little time. I will make a start, however. There were some of us who had had experience in attempting to do something in close relationship to the American Physical Society, by being a section of it, for example. Yet many of those 26 people in the room had not been through this sort of thinking at all. That list of 26 was made up of a core of persons who had been thinking about this problem, a relatively small core of those who knew each other and had been talking about it; and then others, some of whom were just picked out of the hat. We knew they were men who were interested in both teaching and research, and we knew they were good persons to have there. So this was a relatively new proposition for many of these people, and we had to live through a little bit of the history, so that those who thought that perhaps the Physical Society would welcome a section would realize that perhaps that had been examined into before and we didn’t need to attempt it any more. There was that sort of discussion, a kind of a sharing of viewpoints amongst ourselves — the experienced ones; and a little bit of an educational process for the others. Also those who were filled with the idea of doing something were learning what the reaction of new people would be, if we were to attempt to organize another society.
I do remember very well that there were all kinds of points of view; and I do remember that as chairman of the meeting, I was alert at all times to let there be expressions of all points of view, which we wanted. But I know that I must try, if possible, in other ways that a chairman can, to pull it together, so it would not be all in pieces — so we could come to some conclusion. Now, I think some, perhaps States for example, may remember in detail. You’ll find that he has a very good memory, and he may remember in detail some of the nature of this discussion. But I don’t think it’s important, because I think I’ve given you the fundamental idea, which was that there was all kinds of discussion. Now, about that pulling together — at one point, there was a motion to refer it to a committee for further study and report, something of that kind. It was then that I realized that it must be pulled together.
I happened to have had a similar experience when another organization was formed, a few years before, and I knew what had worked then, which was to make a little impassioned speech, with the passion really felt and the enthusiasm in my heart, to the effect that we didn’t need a committee, we didn’t need further study, we knew as much about the problem right then as ever would be known and we had the best group that could probably ever be gathered together (they didn’t mind being complimented that way, of course) and that we either ought to do it then or forever hold our peace. That seems to have been helpful in achieving the immediate formation of the Association. We proceeded at once, burning some midnight oil, to have a constitution and bylaws ready for a meeting the next morning. (I believe it was the very next morning, but it may have been one morning later.) We proceeded, very early the next morning, to the formal organization of the society, with membership blanks ready. As I remember it, 42 of the 45 present immediately applied for membership, which showed that my judgment was right, that we were ready to organize, because 42 out of the 45 people joined on the spot. Of course we know by the numbers that many of them had not been at the meeting before, having been brought in by people who were at the first meeting. 42 out of 45 joined at once. That showed a real interest.
At this first meeting in Cleveland, I notice that Dr. Richtmyer spoke. I think you said the other day that in your opinion, getting Richtmyer and Compton to be part of this new organization was a very crucial step in its history. You were the man responsible for bringing these two people in, weren’t you?
Well, yes. That’s no special credit to me. As chairman of the meeting and president, it was my business to be thinking all the time about what the most critical problems were. We had decided that we must work outside the Physical Society. That conclusion did not mean that we would withdraw from them. It meant that, working outside the Physical Society, by cooperation and close association with them we would achieve the same things that might have been accomplished from within. So we must have symbols for that. We must have something to show that there was cooperation, so that the man who had never been to these meetings would recognize that we were going to operate as if parts of the same organization, even though we were actually separate and independent. Now, the symbol for that could not be Dodge or Klopsteg or States. It could not be one who had been identified so definitely with the desire to organize an association primarily concerned with teaching. So we must have, in the first official group of leaders, not only those who were thought of as the teaching group, but men who would be thought of as primarily research men.
The presence of these men would symbolize the concern of physicists for both research and teaching. Now, Karl Compton was one of the greatest leaders American physics has seen, a great research man, a great teacher, and a great organizer, as his work in the American Institute of Physics, as President of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in World War II amply demonstrated. So to have Compton on the executive committee was not only essential but a perfectly natural thing. Richtmyer had a well-balanced interest in both research and teaching. He wrote a very fine text book dealing with modern physics. He was editor of both the Journal of the Optical Society of America and the Review of Scientific Instruments. He was very active in physics affairs at that time, and was identified with the American Physical Society rather definitely. So it was very fortunate that perhaps the two best choices that could be made were natural choices, because Richtmyer was at the first meeting and Compton was at the second. At the close of that meeting, I knew that the first thing I must do would be to get hold of these men. Now, we had decided that members of the executive committee would be selected by the officers. That was in the tentative constitution. We didn’t want a permanent constitution, we had a tentative constitution. I think their names had already been considered by the officers. Perhaps they hadn’t; but anyway I knew they should be on the committee.
So I found them in the hall, and said that we’d like to have them members of the executive committee. Both of them were busy busy men, interested in many things, trying always to meet their obligations in the things which involved them; so, naturally, they demurred. Then again I had to draw on my enthusiasm and my feeling of responsibility for achieving what had to be achieved. I talked to them in such an emphatic, imploring, and convincing way that they eventually agreed to be members of the first executive committee. This, I regard as another critical point in AAPT history. First, we got organized. Second, we got organized right, with those two men on the executive committee, advertising to all that research and teaching go right along together. And, of course, this was also of tremendous importance, because when the American Institute of Physics was being organized shortly afterward, these men were, perhaps not officially but in fact, our representatives in discussions. They were the men who actually made sure that our first meetings at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington was a joint meeting with the Physical Society on invitation of the Council. This was of tremendous importance.
This meeting gave us an opportunity to place still more emphasis on the tie-in of teaching with research. To symbolize this, Dr. A. W. Hull, Associate Director of the General Electric Research Laboratory at Schenectady, was asked to give a paper on “The Training of Physicists.” Note the choice of words, for he was given the title which had been carefully selected. It was not “The Teaching of Physics,” which would have emphasized “teaching” rather than “physics.” The desired idea could equally well have been expressed in the title, “The Making of Physicists.” Research needs “trained” physicists whether the research be in the university and tied in with graduate study (teaching) or in the industrial research laboratory where teaching also goes on. There were many in the AAPT group who did not see this as I did (and, fortunately, a number who did). They were less generous in their attitude toward the Physical Society and, at the time of organization, wanted to cut loose from it. It might be added that there were those in the Physical Society who feared the contamination of “pedagogy” and the “educationist atmosphere.” Some of us were acutely aware of the fact that it was absolutely essential for the accomplishment of our purposes that no cleavage between the two societies should be permitted to appear. I realized this even before I was elected president and knew that perhaps the most important job I had on my hands as president was to prevent any cleavage or any appearance of cleavage. This could best be accomplished by at once achieving the closest possible cooperation.
Was there any hesitancy on the part of the American Physical Society (after your group had been formed and had such men as Richtmyer and Compton on the executive committee) to be affiliated with your group?
No. I say that emphatically, for, with the AAPT organized separately there could be 100 percent cooperation without in any way weakening the position of the American Physical Society as the champion of research at the forefront of physics. This was because the AAPT now furnished a place where members of the American Physical Society could express their genuine interest in teaching. So, in a way, we made a great contribution to the Physical Society, by relieving the membership of any problem of conscience as to whether the Society might be neglecting its primary objective. A member could satisfy his interest in teaching by participation in the activities of the AAPT. So the fact that there were so many physicists with this double interest in research and teaching actually served to cement the organizations in a close cooperative relationship.
So when you proposed that meetings be held jointly with the APS, there was no reluctance on their part?
Not at all. It came about through an invitation originating in the Council of the APS, although inspired by AAPT influence. I was not a member of the Council at that time, so I don’t know the details of how it was managed. It happened, that was enough. I am sure it would never have happened if Richtmyer and Compton had not been charged with the responsibility of taking care of that sort of thing. That’s why that conversation with them was so important as well as later conversations along similar lines. Now, to tell the whole story — there was a question when the American Institute of Physics was formed, just shortly after the AAPT was formed, as to whether an organization devoted to diffusion of knowledge of physics through teaching was sufficiently a part of physics to be one of the founder groups of societies. It was that old problem: whether you ceased to be a physicist when you taught physics. Again, I let sleeping dogs lie. I knew enough about what was going on to have confidence that Compton and Richtmyer were handling the situation in the very best way. The AAPT became one of the founder societies of the American Institute of Physics.
How was it taken care of?
Well, in preliminary discussions, to which I was not a party, among those who were organizing the American Institute of Physics were Compton, Richtmyer and others active in the Physical Society, the Optical Society and the Acoustical Society. There was lots of pulling and hauling, and this was all tied in with the fact that not only had physics gotten a little bit at loose ends with respect to teaching, but whole areas of important research were being lost to the Physical Society. Optics had been squeezed out in 1916, resulting in the organization of the Optical Society. Then, rapidly, in May, 1929, came the Acoustical Society, and in December, 1929, the Society of Rheology. Then, just a year later, in December, 1930, the AAPT. American physics was falling apart. There is no doubt that the organization of the AAPT helped greatly in speeding the formation of the American Institute of Physics only a few months later. Now, one contribution that the AAPT made to this was related to the interest of men like Dean Pegram of Columbia University, a gifted administrator who contributed much to American physics. He was very much concerned along with Compton in the organization of the Institute of Physics. He came to our second meeting to find out what was going on. The Physical Society had begun to be aware of the disintegration of physics. It was just running loose in all directions, and here a society was being organized without their knowing much about it.
Right at the time they were beginning to talk about the AIP as an agency to bring things together, another society suddenly appears. So it is felt by a number of people that the AAPT was responsible for a little more haste in the organization of the AIP than there might have been otherwise, because if things were falling to pieces that fast, it was better to pull them together. Now, all this talk about the creation of a coordinating agency among persons in the various societies — much of it unofficial, a good deal of it among the officers of the societies — had gone on before the AAPT was organized, so it was natural that the question should be raised as to whether the AAPT should be asked to join the movement as one of the five founder societies of the Institute. Actually, we were well represented among the most active persons by Compton and Richtmyer, both members of the AAPT Executive Committee, so it was naturally to be expected that the AAPT would find itself one of the five founder societies. And so it turned out, for Compton and Richtmyer never failed in accomplishing what was expected of them.
When was the AIP formed?
A few months later in 1931. I couldn’t say whether it was in the spring or early fall.
After you got this committee together, you got 42 members, Compton and Richtmyer on the board and you’re the president, what were the next critical steps? Financial problems?
I immediately think of two. A financial problem, yes, although that came along with the problem of a journal. But the first that I thought of as you spoke — let’s riot forget the financial problem, which is tied in with the journal — was to make us “respectable” in another way. Now, I hope that I have always been able not to take my own relationship to situations and organizations too seriously. I fully realized that the first president was from Oklahoma — far off in the Wild West. I can say that I was never made aware that anyone was concerned about that in any way, but I knew it must worry those who thought civilization stopped at the Alleghenies. I knew that the great strength of American education is in the northeast part of this country, that California was trying to break that down and succeeding to a certain extent, but that the Southwest wasn’t thought of by Easterners as a place where you’d expect to find the first president of the AAPT.
They seemed to take it all right, but I knew very well that the second president must be an Easterner. All right, why not do a really thorough job? Get a man with all his degrees from Harvard, a man who grew up on the Harvard campus because his uncle brought him up and his uncle was one of the most distinguished professors, George Herbert Palmer, and his aunt one of the most distinguished women educators the country’s ever had, Alice Freeman Palmer, who’d been president of Wellesley — a man who had those qualifications hou1d do very nicely. It is Frederic Palmer I am speaking about, a man perhaps concerned more with teaching than research, but still a man who throughout his whole life had been doing good research and who since retirement has kept up with his creative work in research; a man who understood the problems I have been talking about — a cultured Eastern gentleman. Who better to furnish the necessary contrast with the wild Indian from Oklahoma? There was no difficulty of course in accomplishing the election of a man who possessed the desired characteristics in such generous measure.
Having the second president a man of that type was important, and following that, having the third president more of a research man was desirable. Perhaps something else could be accomplished at the same time. We wanted to show that we regarded ourselves as a truly national organization. This had come out too in the fact that we emphasized regional groups. I’ve forgotten what we called them, but we wanted regional groups all over the whole United States. We thought it would be fine to jump to California for the third president, particularly since the type of man we wanted was there — David L. Webster who was well known for his research, also for his keen interest in physics teaching, expressed in many ways but particularly in a very excellent textbook of elementary physics. I well remember the Atlantic City meeting, because election to the vice-presidency really meant subsequent selection to the presidency. I well remember spending an evening at the Atlantic City meeting talking with Webster about the Association, about its problems, about what he would find he had to do, the time he would have to give to it if he became president and many other related subjects. He accepted the vice presidency and later the presidency not as an honor but as an opportunity for doing the things that he knew would be required, which was to carry us far beyond the point that could be achieved in the terms of office of myself and Palmer.
When and how were the constitution and bylaws worked out? Was anything about them an issue?
No, there were no issues about the constitution. There were a couple of amusing things, and the most amusing thing is that we made the purpose of the AAPT identical with the purpose that is given in the constitution of the American Physical Society, which we did with humor in our hearts, for we knew some would realize that the purpose of the American Physical Society is “the advancement and diffusion of the knowledge of physics.” We had the feeling that they hadn’t been as devoted to the diffusion of the knowledge of physics as they might have been and that we could pick up the diffusion end and do a good job in that area. Well, later, when the constitution was made permanent or perhaps even later, this was expanded a little by mentioning “through teaching.” I don’t remember the exact wording. So there was a little humor there which we all enjoyed. It took our minds off some of the strain of the more serious problems.
Was there any debate over terms of office?
There was no debate over terms of office, but again, there was a little humor, because around the corridors through the years as I heard conversations and everybody else had, we learned that the internal troubles of the American Physical Society, as well as perhaps the kind of difficulty we had had with the APS, came largely from the fact that once the president of the American Physical Society was elected he remained on the governing board or Council, forever; that is, until the Lord took him to a better place. That was quite a burden, because sometimes there were more past presidents at a meeting than there were currently active people, and the past presidents had votes. So, with smiles in our minds, but realizing the importance of doing it, we limited the term of office on the executive committee of the president to, I believe, the tenure of two succeeding presidents. Whether the president was elected for two years or one, the past president would remain through the presidency of two succeeding men. For several years, in order to be consistent with the position I had taken on this point, I did not attend any meetings of the executive committee.
I would have enjoyed being there, but I wanted to be consistent. Then it became a habit to invite the past presidents to come; the current president would invite them, and then I began attending again. Well, again the humor comes in and the desirability of this, because shortly thereafter the Physical Society decided that they would keep all living past presidents on the Council until the Lord took them away, but that from that time on, as you became a past president you only stayed on — I believe they copied us exactly. Well, it’s a good thing to have a little humor come in like this once in a while. But these were important issues, nevertheless. Another thing — no controversy — but Klopsteg was aware as much as anyone of the fact that he was in industry and, if teaching was impure, industry was dreadful. So it just wouldn’t have done to have recognized Klopsteg’s interest, and all that he did, by moving him from vice-president to the presidency. I had had experience for years in the American Society for Engineering Education, at that time called SPEE, Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, and I noticed that they let their secretary stay on, which had disadvantages as well as advantages, and they also let their treasurer stay on indefinitely, which had no disadvantages and had tremendous advantages, and they had been wise enough to go out into industry, in this case publication — John Wiley and McGraw-Hill — for the treasurers, so they got expensive service, expert service, without cost, and no one could object to a treasurer’s continuing.
So, having taken care of getting rid of the presidents, we wanted continuity, and so we put in the constitution that the treasurer’s term would be indefinite, and we put in Klopsteg as the treasurer. That gave a very helpful continuity through many years. At the same time, we made the secretary’s term of office six years. I happen to have been talking about these things with three presidents last night, and we all agreed that it was all very wise — that in the case of some secretaries it was very unfortunate to have to have their term end in six years, not that we’ve had the experience, but we know of such situations having existed in other societies, and that with some secretaries you are very glad the provision is there. We think you must sacrifice the advantage of the long-time secretary for the advantage that goes with the term of six years. Now, those were not problems, in the sense of controversy, but they required consideration, and we had the benefit of seeing what other societies had done which was good, and some things that they were burdened with, because they hadn’t thought, about the problems as much as they might.
Another question that occurred to me — how was it arranged, and who arranged, for Palmer to become the second president of the society?
Well, you embarrass me, because I think that, if I can use the word “important” which I do modestly — of the mare important things that I have done in my life, I think more have been done with my trying to conceal my part in them and being very successful in concealing it. So some of these things that we’re talking about that I regarded as of tremendous importance, I tried to do through influence, saying the right word at the right place, and not by pushing and driving. I hope that you will find that several people will think that they were the ones who thought of Palmer as second president. If so, I did my part very well. If no one claims that he was the one who thought of Palmer, and if many don’t claim they were the ones that thought of Webster, I will not have done my job well, because my business was to see that these things got done, and not be out in front all the time pushing them.
How did the election of Palmer come about?
Well, I knew that he was the man, and I think others recognized it, so…
Did you speak to him directly?
In the case of Palmer, I don’t remember so definitely, but I know I must have. Probably, if I could get the memory channels working, it would come back, I’m quite sure I did, but I don’t remember any specific conversation the way I do the one with Webster, the reason being this, Palmer and I were talking about these things a great deal anyway, but with Webster there was a planned and prepared for conference.
In the case of Palmer’s election, did you speak to other people?
That was a relatively simple problem. All it needed was to recognize that he’d be a good man and make sure others would think of him if they hadn’t already done so. No, that was no problem. Webster required a little bit of doing. It was perfectly natural selection, but we had to be sure that somebody who didn’t have all of the necessary qualities was not pushed as a candidate.
You could probably find out from the records who nominated Palmer.
Yes, but that wouldn’t mean anything.
In the case of Webster, you say you spoke to him directly yourself?
I spent an evening with him. Of course, a group of had decided he would be the man, but we wanted also to be sure that11realized what the job entailed. By that I mean that when he was told that it wasn’t a decoration, but a real, demanding job, we wanted him to undertake it, knowing what the job was — and that he wasn’t deceived about it. I remember spending the whole evening with him. He didn’t have to be educated, in the sense of converted. All he had to be told was a lot of this intimate history, and to have revealed to him some of the remaining problems to which he would have to devote time, thought and energy, and things like that. Now, you mentioned other critical points. We mustn’t forget finances and the journal.
When did finances become a serious problem?
Well, of course finances were a serious problem right from the first minute. One reason they were a problem was that physics teachers, then and now, don’t have much money. The ambition of a serious physics teacher at that time had been directed toward becoming a member of the American Physical Society, and being able to afford the dues. We mustn’t make our dues too much, we mustn’t make it so a man couldn’t belong to both, and so on. So there was difficulty in having the dues very large, and if one reads the minutes, one finds that even to jump from $2 to $3 took a little bit of doing; and, when it was proposed to go from $3 to $4, this wasn’t managed for a while. Then the only way to whip the problem of finances was to have more members, but you couldn’t have more members unless you gave them more than the privilege of attending meetings. You might support a fine organization but how did they find out it was a fine organization unless they attended meetings? And so on. Well, that thought carries one at once to a journal, sorely needed also for other purposes. I don’t mean that the journal was created just to get money. It was service to the organization which would justify the money and help get the money.
So the journal was founded, with Duane Roller as the first editor. That’s Duane Roller the father. There is a son who is now working professionally in the field of history of physics. It happens that the son Duane Roller is at Oklahoma where his father was for so many years. Well, membership didn’t come easily, and at the time I was hoping not to have to carry any more real burdens of the Association, President Palmer asked me to be chairman of the membership committee. He had stood by me — we’d been very close through these years — and I couldn’t turn him down. Fortunately for AAPT, at that time the Government was trying to spend money supporting students through a plan with an alphabetical name I have forgotten. The students worked in various capacities, some as secretaries. So I put a bright girl at Oklahoma on our membership drive. She was so good that I had to give only slight attention to it. Proportionately we increased the membership considerably — sufficiently to help carry this financial burden and make the journal a success. The AAPT fortunately has never had serious financial problems, because we haven’t followed the present policy of the U. S. government in running up deficits. We believed you should have the money, or have it immediately in sight, before you spent it.
In reading over this article by Webster, he says in part: “But one thing was still lacking, a journal. Early in the next year, therefore, Dodge, who was serving a second term as president, appointed Duane Roller to formulate a plan for a journal.” He said that the only serious question at the second meeting was whether the journal could be financed. “We had to or the Association would have eventually faded out of existence. So thanks again to Dodge’s talent for leadership, the plan was adopted. The first issue of the journal, then called The American Physics Teacher, now The American Journal of Physics, appeared in February, 1933, essentially as Roller had planned it, with him as editor.” How did you go about raising the money for the publication of this journal? Even then it was an expensive item.
Yes. Well, as I’ve indicated, the increase of membership helped. Here we get beyond the years when I was intimately familiar with the details. I do know from the records, which I’ve glanced at recently, that later on, perhaps while Richtmyer was president — I believe Richtmyer followed Webster directly — Richtmyer, from some source, got about $7,500. My impression is that that was critically important with respect to the journal.
Was that some of the funds that were used for the establishment of the Oersted Medal?
The anonymous donor in that case was Klopsteg?
Klopsteg was the anonymous donor for the Oersted Medal. I don’t recall in detail but I’m practically certain that Klopsteg was not the place where the$7,500 was found. I think it was some connection Richtmyer had with a foundation or the equivalent of a foundation.
So, with the establishment of the journal, and the growing membership, were there any other critical problems in these formative years? Would you say by 1937 the Association was well established?
Yes, except that I’ve never seen anything so well established and under way that you can go to bed feeling “Now my problems are over,” for the next morning you find some new, fascinating, interesting, challenging problems. If it weren’t for that, a person’s life wouldn’t be worthwhile and an organization’s life wouldn’t be worthwhile. So it delights me, as I have followed the Association, to be conscious of its always having found new problems that needed solving. It’s been pretty successful at going ahead and solving its problems. Also, since this is an intimate interview and one should say the things that he feels are important, and leave it to the objective historian to pass judgment on his statements, I should say that it is my considered opinion, and no one to whom I’ve expressed this has ever disagreed, that the kind of thinking that has characterized the AAPT group through the years, and which has been expressed often in the governing board of the American Institute of Physics, has been highly constructive in furthering the broad progress of physics through the last thirty years — all phases of physics. I think the representatives of the AAPT have contributed enormously to that broad, comprehensive constructive thinking about how physics can not only make progress as a science but also promote the welfare of the country in many ways and at all times, especially in time of war. So it’s natural the AAPT should always be finding problems to be solved, because the Association has stood for that.
I’d like to go back to these points: (1) the role of the AAPT in the formation of the American Institute of Physics; (2) the problem of the formation of a journal. These are related. You told me that four organizations were the founders of the AIP, that the AAPT was not among the original founders, one of the reasons being that you didn’t have a journal. Is that correct?
Well, now, the way you’ve expressed it, I certainly have to answer that, because I hope I didn’t say it quite that way. In the process of founding anything — we’ve seen it with the AAPT and I’ll try to explain it now in terms of the AIP — there are preliminary days which in a sense are most important, while interested people are talking with each other and paving the way for the actual birth. That is, it’s almost like a baby. The nine months are important, although the birthday is the day when the job is finished. So it’s that early period that’s important as well as what happens after birth. Now, the natural organizations to be involved in the preparation for the actual birth of the Institute of Physics were the ones you’ve mentioned. But what you want to know is whether at the time of birth the AAPT was one of the founder societies. Yes: the AAPT was there at the time of birth, but not prominent before, for a very good reason. In other words, I say firmly that the AAPT was a founding society in the technical sense, because at the day of birth at the AIP we were one of the five founding societies. But before that day, as things led up to that day, we were not so prominent in the preparation for the event.
The reason, I will try to explain. In the first place, we didn’t exist until December, 1930, and there had been talk about the formation of the AIP I don’t know how long before that, but certainly for weeks and months before that. Who were the ones who were involved in that? Well, those were as officers and as members interested in the Physical Society, the Optical Society, the Acoustical Society, and the Society of Rheology. So these men — and the persons that I think of as particularly the leaders are Karl Compton, George Pegram, and F. K. Richtmyer — were talking about the need for something that would tie physics together. Now, I’m sorry to have to say that I think they were thinking of it on the rather low plane of saving money, efficient office organization, and things of that kind, rather than on the plane of having physics realize all its possibilities not only as a science but also in its service for the good of the nation — all that sort of thing. Specifically, there were at least three journals and thoughts about others. There were problems of collecting dues and subscriptions, of keeping mailing lists up-to-date and other such matters, and it’s my feeling, and I have reason for it, that mundane problems of that sort were strongly in the minds of those who were working towards the American Institute of Physics.
I also know that at the time the American Association of Physics Teachers was organized, it was very noticeable that the division of physics into four organizations was being followed by a division into a fifth organization, with a new type of activity. There’s no question but that that hastened the organization of the AIP, for American physics was falling apart and something to pull it together was sorely needed. Now, unfortunately for the AAPT, which did not have a journal — it hadn’t been going long enough — it was just building its membership, it didn’t have any problems of taking care of money because it didn’t have much money, it didn’t have a problem of maintaining membership lists because it didn’t have many members, it didn’t have a journal at all. So the sort of problems that the men who were planning toward the AIP had in mind didn’t as yet exist to any great extent with respect to AAPT. So it was perfectly natural that we were not involved even after our formation, in these discussions, very heavily. But it was fortunate, of course, that among this group were particularly Compton and Richtmyer, who were members of our executive committee. So through them, we were in a very real sense represented. To cut the story short, by the time that these considerations — with regard to publications and one thing and another — had reached the point of the actual, formal, incorporation of the AIP, then it had been decided, by the group who were working on this, that we should come in as a founder society, right along with these which had been laying the plans. I hope I have now made that clear. We didn’t have to be physically represented by appointed representatives, because to all intents and purposes, through Richtmyer and Compton, that was taken care of.
I think another thing I asked you to do was to characterize some of the men who were very important in the formation of the AAPT, for example Dr. Richtmyer, Karl Compton, and others who were important.
I’d particularly like to start with Compton and Richtmyer, because they can no longer speak for themselves, and, as you know from what I’ve said earlier, I regard them as having made contributions to the Association of tremendous importance. Compton I regard as one of the great leaders of American physics. Compton was a research physicist. At Princeton he was perfectly happy to be directing research, and to have about him a group of able graduate students. Now, I seize this opportunity to get into the record something that may not be shown. This was told to me by Compton himself in his penthouse home at MIT. I asked him how it happened that he became President of MIT, why he gave up research and his graduate students. Whatever the wording of the question I asked, this is what I learned: That Mr. Sloane, one of the trustees and powers in MIT, was one of the men that realized that even MIT, the great engineering college, was not keeping up as it should with the great progress in science, particularly physical science; that there was too much of the traditional American engineering, to do things without knowing exactly all of the science that you should know and the mathematics that you should know, in order to do them best.
In other words, that the engineering at MIT was not getting its information, its inspiration, its material, out of the sciences, to be made a part of engineering, as rapidly, as quickly as it should So Mr. Sloane had the idea of going to Karl Compton, (how he got to Karl I’m not sure) and asking Karl to advise them with respect to the kind of man that they should have as president of MIT, to accomplish these purposes which in his way Mr. Sloane saw, the sort of thing I’ve just spoken about. Well, Karl Compton wrote a report, and following out these suggestions of Mr. Sloane, wrote the kind of a report which Karl Compton could write. Mr. Sloane liked the report, and he thought the man that could write the report — now, Karl was a little more modest but I’m stating it the way it was — he thought that the man who could write such a report was the man to have as president of MIT. That’s the way Karl became president of MIT. Another distinguished man, one of the great leaders of American industry, told me one day that he wished that Karl Compton could be President of the United States. Now, those qualities in Compton which made Sloane select him as president of MIT made others think of him as material for the Presidency of the United States — those qualities were helpful, along with his genius as a research man and his broad interests in making him one of the great leaders of American physics. So the AAPT was very fortunate in having a man of that type willing to add to his many obligations the additional — I wouldn’t say burden, that isn’t right — no, the additional responsibility for doing this.
How did Richtmyer differ from Compton?
With Richtmyer, things were a little more tied to his own personality. Perhaps I can reverse it and say that my feeling was that Compton had a personality which went out and reached everywhere. Richtmyer reached a long way, way beyond the ordinary physicist of his time, but he channeled his interest into a narrower range of activities. As I remember it, he edited at least two journals at that time, edited them very well. He had broad interests. He dipped into things here and there, and the more I think of Richtmyer, the more I think that perhaps I shouldn’t have put any restrictions, because he had very broad interests, but his influence was not as wide as that of Compton. It was very intense, very effective, and excellent in the range where he worked. So it was perhaps a little more natural for Richtmyer, than for Compton, to find this a new area in which he could accept the responsibility of office. At the appropriate time he moved into the presidency of the Association. No one has ever thought it would be appropriate to ask Compton to be president. You couldn’t have had a better candidate, but Compton was already committed with many, very great responsibilities. He did for the AAPT all that was ever asked of him — and these things were all of critical importance to the Association.