History of Excellence
We invite you to explore the history of our department and its contributions to physics research and education. In the timeline below, explore our history of critical research breakthroughs, innovations in teaching and learning, and events that shaped the culture of physics at Illinois. You'll become acquainted with the physicists who defined the "Urbana spirit" while making seminal discoveries that changed the world.
For questions about this timeline, contact Celia Elliott (217.244.7725), the unofficial Physics archivist. A limited number of Professor Lazarus's excellent monograph, The Loomis Legacy, and Dedication of the Loomis Laboratory of Physics, which contains much of Professor Almy's Century of Physics, are available; write to Celia if you would like a copy.
Physics at Illinois Timeline
Professor Peter Abbamonte and graduate students Anshul Kogar and Mindy Rak discover excitonium, achieving the first-ever measurement of excitonium collective modes and the first observation of soft plasmon in any material using a novel technique called momentum-resolved electron energy-loss spectroscopy (M-EELS). Read the full story.2017
Associate Head for Undergraduate Programs and Professor Mats Selen is named the 2016 U.S. Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). Read the full story.2015
The Higgs! On July 4, 2012, physicists around the world celebrate the announcement of the discovery of the Higgs boson—the quantum excitation of the Higgs field that is the linchpin of the standard model of particle physics. Mark Neubauer and his research group contributed to this discovery through a detailed analysis of W boson pairs produced at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland. Professors Steven Errede, Deborah Errede, Tony Liss, and Mark Neubauer, eight graduate students, and six undergraduates contributed to the design, construction, commissioning, and data taking of the ATLAS experiment, one of the two international collaborations that discovered the Higgs boson. The ATLAS results are published in Phys. Lett. B 716 1-29 (2012). View the public lecture by Mark Neubauer.2012
Illinois Physics Professors Robert G. Leigh and Philip Phillips along with postdoctoral fellow Mohammad Edalati and graduate student Ka Wai Lo show how charged black holes can be used to model the behavior of interacting electrons in unconventional superconductors, using string theory. Their results were published online in Physical Review Letters on March 1, 2011, and in Physical Review D on February 25, 2011. Read the full story.2011
Nigel Goldenfeld, with colleagues Gustavo Gioia and Pinaki Chakraborty of the University of Illinois and Walter Goldburg of the University of Pittsburgh, make a breakthrough in predicting turbulent flow in two-dimensional fluids.2010
The Center for the Physics of Living Cells is established by the National Science Foundation at the University of Illinois. The goals of the Center, one of only two national Physics Frontiers Centers in biological physics, are to catalyze new collaborative research in biological physics that exploits major technological advances and promote the teaching of biological physics.2008
The old Physics Building is designated a "site of historic significance to physics" by the American Physical Society to recognize the pioneering work of University of Illinois researchers in understanding the mechanism of superconductivity during BCS@50, an international conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Theory of Superconductivity."
The Department of Physics, College of Engineering, and Office of the Provost launch the Institute for Condensed Matter Theory at the University of Illinois to establish a highly interactive research environment that stimulates members to take on the most challenging, long-term research problems in condensed matter theory.2007
Paul G Kwiat's group, using an optical-based quantum computer, demonstrate "counterfactual computation," determining the answer to an algorithm—without ever running the algorithm. (O. Hosten at al., Nature 439, 949 ).2006
Paul Selvin and his student Ahmet Yildiz, in collaboration with colleagues from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and the University of California, San Francisco, show conclusively that kinesin, one of the most important molecular motors for moving cargo within the cell, moves with the hand-over-hand motion of a mountain climber, rather than an inchworm-like motion.2004
Professor of Physics Anthony J. Leggett shares the Nobel Prize in Physics with Alexei Abrikosov and Vitaly Ginzburg "for pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids," a day after former Slichter postdoc Sir Peter Mansfield shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with UI Professor Paul C. Lauterbur.2003
Space is assigned to Physics in the six-floor "Engineering Sciences Building" to relieve some of the overcrowding in Loomis. After extensive remodeling, the condensed matter theorists and the upper-level teaching laboratories make the long trek north. The theorists are consoled in their northern exile by a state-of-the-art espresso machine.2002
Paul G. Kwiat is appointed the second John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics. A team led by Kwiat receives a $4.6-million grant from the NSF to investigate the foundations of solid-state quantum information processing.
The department initiates a novel "Senior Thesis" program for undergraduate researchers, which comprises three semesters of integrated research and instruction.2001
A Physics Advisory Board is created to provide advice and counsel on strategic issues facing the department.
Frederick Lamb is invested as the first holder of the Brand and Monica Fortner Endowed Chair in Theoretical Astrophysics, the department's first chair solely endowed for Physics and a gift of alumnus Brand Fortner (BS, '77; MS, '82; PhD, '93).
The Physics Van is invited to participate in the University of Wisconsin's Engineering Expo — and wins third prize!1996
A new building linking the MRL and the CSL is completed to house the Science and Technology Center for Superconductivity and to provide new offices for the MRL.
A core group of high-energy and nuclear physics faculty, led by Gary Gladding, initiate a massive revision of the introductory physics sequence for engineers; Physics 106 is taught for the last time at Illinois.
Tony Liss is a "co-convener" of the international group of physicists working at the Tevatron particle accelerator at Fermilab that discovers the top quark—the last of the six quarks predicted by the standard model to be experimentally observed. The discovery is credited to two separate research collaborations at Fermilab, the Top Quark Physics Group of the CDF Experiment (of which Liss is a member) and the DZero Experiment. The results are published in , Phys. Rev. Lett. 74, 2626 (1995).
Assistant Professor of Physics Mats A. Selen starts the Physics Van outreach program, using undergraduate students to bring the wonder and discovery of science to elementary school children throughout central Illinois. In the next 12 years, more than 200 undergraduates will delight more than 80,000 children in more than 500 "Van Shows."
Physics establishes, with NSF funding, a summer "research experiences for undergraduates" (REU) site program in complex systems.1994
Nick Holonyak, Jr. is appointed the first John Bardeen Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering and Physics.
Laura H. Greene is recruited from Bell Labs as a full professor, only the second woman in the department to attain this rank.1993
David K. Campbell, a condensed matter theorist who was a postdoc in Urbana in the early 1970s, moves from Los Alamos National Laboratory to become the eighth head of Physics. Campbell will increase the diversity of the faculty (four women and one African-American hire during his tenure), catalyze a renaissance in undergraduate teaching, emphasize outreach and public service, and greatly expand the biological physics program.1992
The Science and Technology Center for Superconductivity is established in Urbana (funded by the National Science Foundation) to study the materials, the phenomenon, and possible applications of high temperature superconductivity. Center physicists, chemists, materials scientists, and engineers, including theorists and experimentalists, collaborate to design and carry forward an integrated research and education program under the leadership of Miles V. Klein (Physics).1991
The Department of Physics celebrates a century of leadership in research, education, and public service.1990
Sony Corporation gives its largest-ever gift to an American university, $3 million, to establish the John Bardeen Endowed Chair in the Departments of Physics and Electrical and Computer Engineering.1989
The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, also known as "Star Wars") raises scientific and political controversy. The American Physical Society releases it report, " The Science and Technology of Directed Energy Weapons," which concludes that the technology of laser and particle beams is immature and will require more than a decade of research before any meaningful decision about deployment can made. Professor of Physics Jeremiah Sullivan, who served on the study panel, has full access to the classified programs. Following release of the APS report, the thrust of the programs of the SDI shifts to more conventional rockets and interceptors.1987
Ralph Simmons decides to return to teaching and research full-time, and Ansel C. Anderson, another Illinois alumnus, takes over as head.1986
Professor Lorella Jones pioneers the use of computerized quizzes for a large elementary physics course at Illinois, one of the earliest developments of its kind, nationwide.
The National Center for Supercomputing Applications opens in Urbana, one of the five original NSF supercomputer centers. Larry Smarr (Physics) is named its director.1985
An arson fire set by a deranged man nearly destroys Loomis Laboratory of Physics, causing extensive smoke and fire damage on three floors and structural damage on the second and third floors. Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of Physics faculty and staff, the department is open for classes and business-as-usual 36 hours later.8404556 to the National Science Foundation to establish a supercomputer center at the University of Illinois.
"It still amazes me that I—an assistant professor at the time—had the nerve to author an unsolicited proposal for $55 million to the NSF," Smarr said in 2006. He sought the guidance of Head Ralph Simmons on how best to deliver the document.
"Ralph suggested that we put it in an envelope marked 'Director, NSF,' hop on a plane, and deliver it the NSF's Math and Physical Sciences assistant director Marcel Bardon, whom Ralph knew well. That someone of Ralph's stature was willing to support a junior professor like me in such a substantial way speaks volumes about his leadership."1984
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation establishes an endowed chair at the University of Illinois. After a campus-wide competition among 14 departments for the chair, Anthony J. Leggett is named the MacArthur Professor of Physics.
Associate Professor of Physics Laura B. Eisenstein argues before a national APS meeting that more women should be encouraged to study physics and that women who have already chosen careers in physics must be assured of equal opportunities for advancement.
Head Ralph O. Simmons chairs a joint APS/American Astronomical Society to examine the status of academic positions for women in physics and astronomy.1982
The Physics Building is renamed the Loomis Laboratory of Physics.1980
The department puts new emphasis on problems of society, upon communicating with nonscientists, and upon broadening the professional training offered to its students. Professor David Lazarus creates a new course, "Physics and the Modern World" for nonscience majors in an attempt to bridge the "two-culture gap" by covering basic philosophical concepts in physics that pervade all human disciplines—model-making, dynamics, ensemble behavior, and symmetry.1973
John Bardeen, former Illinois postdoc Leon Cooper, and former Illinois graduate student J. Robert Schrieffer [PhD, 1957]) win the Nobel Prize in Physics for the BCS theory of superconductivity. The prize is an unprecedented second Nobel for Bardeen.
Icko Iben, who earned his PhD in physics at Illinois in 1958, arrives as head of the Department of Astronomy, and a program in theoretical astrophysics is begun jointly with Physics. Theorists Gordon Baym, Frederick Lamb, Vijay Pandharipande, Christopher Pethick, David Pines, and D. Geoffrey Ravenhall will make important contributions to astrophysics as a result of the fertile collaborative environment between Astronomy and Physics.1972
Ralph O. Simmons, a former Rhodes scholar and one of the only two Illinois Physics PhDs on the faculty, becomes head on Gerry Almy's retirement. Assistant Professor Lorella M. Jones, who arrived at Illinois as an assistant professor in 1968, is promoted to associate professor, the first woman to receive tenure in the department.1970
The big betatron and the cyclotron are decommissioned and disassembled, with the spare parts and copper wire sold for scrap to offset the cost of the shutdowns. The nuclear physics group, bankrolled by a new $500,000 NSF grant, begins construction of MUSL-1, the world's first superconducting linac accelerator.
The Atmospheric Research Laboratory is formed as part of CSL, with physicist Yoshi Ogura as its director. (Until the Department of Atmospheric Sciences is formally established in 1981, Physics Head Ralph Simmons will represent the Laboratory for the College of Engineering in matters of curricula and administration.)1969
Head Gerry Almy writes "National interest and student interest are shifting to problems that do not require for solution new fundamental advances in science and engineering as much as application of present knowledge to situations complicated by human and political factors."
The CSL completes the CSX-1 computer for the HEPG and moves it to the Physics Building. Designed by CSL Professor Richard Brown, who will later join Physics along with his computer, the CSX-1 is the first computer to be partially designed by another computer, in this case the ILLIAC II.
The nuclear physics program is stunned by the joint Office of Naval Research and NSF announcement that funding for the 300-MeV betatron will be withdrawn as part of a general federal cutback in university research.1967
The High Energy Physics Group (HEPG), the largest single user of University mainframe computers, discusses the possibility of purchasing a dedicated computer for the sole use of the group. Buying a new computer is found to be impractical, and so negotiations begin with CSL to provide computer services.1966
A young research assistant professor, Brian Josephson, comes to Illinois to work with John Bardeen. He will go on to share the 1973 Nobel Prize in Physics for his theoretical predictions of the properties of a supercurrent through a tunnel barrier.
The escalation of the Vietnam war and the "war on poverty" remove a large fraction of federal funds available for graduate education, as well as force the sciences to re-examine their role in society.1965
The west wing of the new Physics Building, which contains lecture halls and a commons area, is completed.
The first PLATO terminal classroom is established in Room 204 of the Physics Building.
With a grant of $70,000 from the NSF, Physics faculty establish an experimental, "real-world" laboratory course for advanced undergraduates. Students in Physics 303 and 304 are given problems that have no clear solutions — or perhaps no solutions at all—and are encouraged to devise their own methods and build their own equipment to find the answers.
Frederick Seitz relinquishes his duties as head to become vice president of research and dean of the Graduate College, but is immediately appointed president of the National Academy of Sciences and leaves Urbana. Gerald M. Almy is named head of Physics.1963
In The Loomis Legacy, Professor David Lazarus wrote:
Besides the off-hours parties for which the department was justly famous, specific departmental social functions were also taken as an important part of the department's responsibilities. We had weekly faculty luncheon meetings, simply to eat and talk together informally, not for any "official" purposes. There was always an annual student-staff party which was highlighted by outrageous skits written and performed by both the graduate students (dwelling on the foibles of the faculty) and the faculty (vice versa).
Each spring heralded the glorious annual departmental picnic where everyone associated with the department always came with spouses and children of all ages. There would be an annual softball game at which the graduate students would usually force the faculty to an inglorious defeat. There were always balloons for the children, filled, on the spot, with "surplus" helium from the low-temperature labs, and each weighted, via a careful design of Charlie Slichter's, with a heavy steel washer so that it could not float up and away from a small, weeping child.
There was a well-equipped playground for small children, complete with a hired supervisor, so that parents could indulge in more "adult" activities (like playing softball).1962
The Atomic Energy Commission and ARPA jointly establish the Materials Research Laboratory at Illinois as an interdepartmental and interdisciplinary laboratory of the College of Engineering. Professor of Physics Robert Maurer is its first director, George Russell of Physics is its associate director, and Ralph Flora, Physics' first business manager, is also named the business manager for the MRL. In the early 1970s, the administration of the MRL will be more clearly divided from Physics' bailiwick, and the MRL director will report directly to the dean of the College of Engineering, instead of to the Physics head. However, MRL will continue to draw heavily on Physics for its faculty and administrators.
Using the ILLIAC as a computational engine, Illinois faculty introduce PLATO, the nation's first computer-assisted program of instruction. Conceived by Physics professor Chalmers Sherwin and developed under the direction of Professor Don Bitzer (Electrical Engineering), co-inventor of the plasma display panel, PLATO is the world's first time-shared computer-based education system and the home of the world's first on-line community.1961
The major part of the new physics building is completed and Physics moves from the old Physics Laboratory (renamed the Metallurgy and Mining Building in 1963 and now home to the Department of Materials Science and Engineering).
Physics Head Frederick Seitz, in cooperation with Robert Sproul (Cornell), Harvey Brooks (Harvard), Charles Yost (Office of Naval Research), and Donald Stevens (Atomic Energy Commission), works to establish national materials research laboratories at several U.S. universities. (The first materials research laboratories will be established at three universities in 1960 by the Advanced Research Projects Administration. Illinois is not among them because of a political dispute between the congressional delegations of Michigan and Illinois.)
Daniel Alpert begins a project in CSL for computer-assisted instruction, which will come to be known as PLATO.
Della Mae Rogers McKeown retires as the departmental secretary after 47 years of service (and innumerable battles royal with Physics heads).1959
Felix T. Adler comes to Illinois with a joint appointment to Physics and "Nuclear Engineering" (although a separate Department of Nuclear Engineering will not be created until 1976). Adler will make the University into a national center for reactor science and engineering.
Daniel Alpert comes from Westinghouse, with joint appointments in Physics and CSL, and transforms the military-research-based laboratory into the Coordinated Science Laboratory for conducting totally unclassified basic research in physics and engineering. Future projects will include plasma and surface physics, atmospheric physics, and semiconductors.
Work is started on the new physics building. Wheeler Loomis deliberately builds the office and research wing first, knowing that the Illinois legislature has appropriated only half the money needed to complete the entire building, and also knowing that they will be hardpressed to turn down an additional funding request to build the classrooms.1958
Wheeler Loomis retires as head of Physics (although he will stay on as director of the CSL until 1959). Frederick Seitz, another individual of remarkable leadership skills and national connections, takes over as head of Physics.
The Digital Computer Laboratory, which has been offering classes to students since 1954, becomes a full department with Professor of Physics Ralph Meagher as its head. (A subsequent head, James N. Snyder, will also come from Physics.) The Department adds a computer programming requirement to its engineering physics curriculum.
John Bardeen, his postdoc Leon Cooper, and his graduate student Bob Schrieffer solve a 45-year-old puzzle by showing how superconductors can produce a lossless electrical current through the formation of pairs of electrons. The pairing concept that the trio elucidated (the BCS theory) will be used to explain puzzling properties of atomic nuclei, certain massively dense stars (neutron stars), and the superfluid phase of a rare isotope of helium (3He). The BCS theory will come to be considered the most significant contribution to 20th-century theoretical physics after the theory of quantum mechanics.
Loomis organizes a group of the Physics faculty to take an active role in the Physical Science Steering Committee project (with Francis Friedman and Jerrold Zacharias at MIT) to develop new curricula and materials for the teaching of physics in secondary schools after the Soviet launch of Sputnik shocks the American scientific establishment.
The Physics tradition of scientific outreach begins in a departmental effort to respond to increased public interest in the advances in physics with a series of open lectures, aimed at nonscientists. The first two lectures, "Left- and Right-Handedness in Physics" (given by Professor Hans Frauenfelder) and "Transient Visitors in the Physical World " (given by Professor J.D. Jackson), are highly successful, with more than 250 people in attendance at each.1957
John Bardeen (with William Shockley and Walter Brattain) wins the Nobel Prize in Physics for "researches on semiconductors and ... discovery of the transistor effect." (Wheeler Loomis had nominated Bardeen and Shockley for the prize.) The Physics faculty makes a candlelight procession to Bardeen's house with two cases of champagne to celebrate the announcement.
G. Kenneth Green (PhD, 1937), one of Kruger's former students, leads the design, construction, and operation of the 30-billion-volt Alternating Gradient Synchrotron proton accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory.
After 20 years of lobbying and wrangling with the Board of Trustees, the University Building Committee, and even the State of Illinois General Assembly, Wheeler Loomis gets plans approved for a new physics building, to be located on the northeast corner of Goodwin and Green streets.1956
Thirty-eight faculty members sign an open letter to the Atomic Energy Commission in support of beleaguered physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and warn that "scientists of ability and integrity" will hesitate to accept advisory positions in the government if they are to be punished for voicing unpopular views.1954
Professor Harry Drickamer, Chemical Engineering, initiates collaborations with the solid-state physicists "to learn something about high-pressure techniques." (Drickamer will turn into one of the world's greatest innovators in superpressure science, developing numerous novel techniques for basic research in physics, chemistry, and biology.)
Illiac I goes online on September 22.1952
Wheeler Loomis recruits John Bardeen, a solid-state theorist at AT&T Bell Labs, to bolster the nascent Illinois solid-state experimental program. He receives a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical Engineering, further strengthening the ties between Physics and EE.Control Systems Laboratory (CSL) in Urbana to keep some of Illinois' best physicists at home while simultaneously drawing attention to the University's science and engineering contributions.
Temporary quarters are set up on the fourth floor of the Physics Laboratory and Fred Seitz is named director; he is joined by Professors of Physics Arnold Nordsieck, Chalmers Sherwin, Gerald Kruger, Ralph Meagher, Ernest Lyman, Robert Hulsizer, Henry Quastler, and Leo Lavatelli. Eventually, nearly one-third of the Physics faculty will be transferred temporarily to CSL, and the CSL directors from 1951-1970 will all be Physics professors—Fred Seitz, Wheeler Loomis, Daniel Alpert, and W. Dale Compton (PhD '50).
Funded by grants from all three branches of the Armed Services, the CSL focuses on radar and on possible uses of the new digital computers. Major achievements will be the invention of the electrostatically supported gyroscope and coherent Doppler radar.
Murray Gell-Mann, an instructor at the University of Chicago, is attracted to the University of Illinois because Wheeler Loomis can use CSL money to pay summer salaries—about the only source of summer money for theorists at the time. He spends two productive summers in the fourth-floor Physics "penthouse," working with Francis Low on what will come to be known as the Gell-Mann-Low equations of particle theory—the beginnings of renormalization group methods. He reports that it is so hot in the penthouse that they have to write everything in ink, because pencil notations get too smudged from the sweat. Gell-Mann will win the 1969 Nobel Prize in Physics.1951
Maurice and Gertrude Goldhaber leave Illinois for Brookhaven National Laboratory, primarily because the University will not provide suitable employment for Gertrude Goldhaber.
Arnold T. Nordsieck finishes building his "differential analyzer"—an analog computer capable of solving complex equations and drawing curves—out of $700-worth of war surplus materials. Clones will subsequently become the first computers at the California Radiation Laboratory (later Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and at Purdue University.
Wheeler Loomis and Frederick Seitz, along with other members of the department, sign an open letter to President Truman, protesting the zeal with which hydrogen bomb research is being undertaken and urging caution in its development and use.
The 300-MeV betatron (more powerful than that called for in the original design) goes online.
The outbreak of the Korean War sends Wheeler Loomis back to Massachusetts as director of Project Charles, the development of air defenses for the United States against Soviet attack. "Project Charles" will lead to the establishment of the Lincoln Laboratory at MIT, of which Loomis will be the first director. Gerald M. Almy becomes acting head, as University president George Stoddard grumbles, "Of course, the trouble is, there are not enough Wheeler Loomises to go around."1950
The Digital Computer Laboratory (DCL) is organized and tasked with building the University's first computer system. Professor of Physics Ralph Meagher is named Chief Engineer. (Professors of Physics will be involved in the design and construction of Illiacs I, II, and III.)
Wheeler Loomis inaugurates a full program in solid state physics, one of the first in the nation, and recruits Frederick Seitz, head of the Physics Department at Carnegie Institute of Technology, to head it. It is to be an interdisciplinary program, run by a committee of representatives from Physics, Chemistry, and several College of Engineering departments. Seitz immediately hires Robert Maurer, David Lazarus, Charles Slichter, and Dillon Mapother.
Graduate student Erwin Hahn discovers spin echoes and free precession in condensed matter, introducing new techniques in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) that will totally dominate physical, chemical, and biological applications of NMR.1949
The Board of Trustees approves the purchase of a large digital computer for $150,000 from the Reeves Instrument Company. When it becomes clear that the company cannot deliver the machine, the University's Research Board, headed by physicist Louis Ridenour, proposes that it design a computer itself. (On January 13, 1949, the Trustees authorize the Research Board to proceed.)
The newly completed 20-MeV betatron is used to treat an actual cancer patient, under the supervision of local physician Henry Quastler. Quastler will later join the university full-time and establish a major program in medical radiology.1948
Still an unpaid Physics non-person, Gertrude Goldhaber confirms the identity of beta rays with atomic electrons by showing that the Pauli exclusion principle operates in states of a constituent beta ray particle and an atomic electron.Louis Ridenour, who became acquainted with Wheeler Loomis at the Rad Lab, becomes Dean of the Graduate College at Illinois at his urging, which will have profound implications for Physics. 1947
Wheeler Loomis returns from the Rad Lab and begins to rebuild the department, as many faculty members, displaced by war research, accept positions at other universities and the national labs, including John Manley, John R. Richardson, Gerhart K. Groetzinger, Lyle W. Phillips, H. William Koch, Gerald F. Tape, Robert Serber, Norman Ramsey, and Herbert A. Nye.
Loomis is vigorous in establishing strong interactions in research programs between Physics and other units in the University, particularly with the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, Electrical Engineering (now Electrical and Computer Engineering), and Metallurgy (now Materials Science and Engineering). Joint appointments are frequently arranged whereby physicists are recruited as full- or part-time faculty members of other campus departments. (These interactions will lead to major new programs in physical metallurgy in the Department of Metallurgy and in semiconductor science in the Department of Electrical Engineering, as well as to the full development of the Department of Computer Science.) Loomis initiates a strong physics-chemistry-biology program, eventually attracting such scholars as Robert Emerson, Salvador Luria, and Hans Frauenfelder.1946
To Physics' astonishment, the Illinois General Assembly allocates $1.5 million to build the 250-MeV betatron and a structure to house it at the University. A 75-MeV betatron is designed and built as a prototype for the larger machine.
With the end of the war and the lifting of security restrictions, Gerald Kruger announces the part played by the Department in the war effort. The betatron had been used by the Manhattan Project to determine basic properties of thorium, uranium, and plutonium. Professor Maurice Goldhaber and Gertrude Goldhaber proved the usefulness of beryllium in a uranium pile. Professors John H. Manley and Robert Serber helped write the feasibility reports for the atom bomb. In all, 19 members of the Physics Department worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and another 32 worked on the development of radar at MIT.1945
Plans are laid to construct a 250-MeV betatron on the Illinois campus for "pure research." "By building a big machine and vigorously supporting the program of research with it," writes Kerst, "the University can acquire and maintain a position of leadership and great distinction in physics."
Graduate student H. William Koch uses the smaller betatron in great secrecy for the first photofission experiments on uranium and plutonium.1944
Physics is caught between two opposing trends--more and more faculty members are leaving for Los Alamos and the Rad Lab at MIT, while enrollments in physics classes are skyrocketing, reaching a peak enrollment of 2600. Most of the new arrivals are military students in the Naval Training School, the Navy V-12 program, and the Army Specialized Training, Assignment, and Reclassification (STAR) Center. Illinois faculty from music, architecture, agriculture, and biology, as well as many faculty wives, brush up on their physics to handle the load.
Professor Donald Kerst is awarded the Comstock Prize in Physics by the National Academy of Sciences for his invention of the electron accelerator (betatron) although the award will not be announced until November 1945 for security reasons.1943
In furtherance of the war effort, the betatron is modified to create an x-ray lithography device for detecting flaws in metals or other materials. In collaboration with the Illinois group, the Allis-Chalmers Company engineers and builds a commercial push-button 25-MeV betatron—these machines are used at Los Alamos, the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, and the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey throughout the war to test carriages for heavy guns, cast armor, shell casings, rudder posts, hull castings, steam valves, turret faces, and ingots.Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber, working as an unpaid assistant in the basement of the Physics Laboratory with her husband, discovers that neutrons are emitted in spontaneous fission. [This paper was received for publication on May 18, 1942, but was voluntarily withheld from publication until the end of the war. ed.]
A Department Salvage Committee is appointed and cleans out the same Physics basement, donating some two or three tons of old scrap iron and brass to the government for the war effort.1942
Wheeler Loomis leaves Urbana to take over administrative leadership of the MIT Rad Lab, leaving the department in the capable hands of Gerald Kruger until after the war. On May 19, 1941, there is about $300 left in the departmental budget to run the department until July 1.1941
Professor Donald Kerst completes the world's first magnetic induction accelerator, aided by a special grant of $400 from the Dean of the College of Engineering "who needed a lot of persuasion [from Wheeler Loomis] before agreeing to fund such a 'long shot'." Unfortunately, the project runs some $2000 over budget, "due to huge charges by the University's Physical Plant Service Department."
After the new machine is referred to variously as a "rheotron," an "inductron," a "Super-X-Ray Machine," and a "cosmic ray machine" in early press releases, a departmental contest is held to name it (one entry is ausserordentlichhochgeschwindigkeitelektronenentwickelndenschwerarbeitsbeigollitron), and Kerst settles on "betatron."
A general exodus of Physics faculty to the MIT Radiation Laboratory and to a super secret government installation near Los Alamos, New Mexico, begins. Eventually 52 Physics staff will take leaves of absence to work in war research. One of the diaspora is a new PhD from Harvard, Norman Ramsey, who arrives in September 1940 and leaves for the Rad Lab in November — the shortest "permanent" appointment in departmental history. Ramsey will share the 1989 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Wheeler Loomis begins a Physics newsletter as a way of keeping in touch with absent faculty members.1940
Professor Maurice Goldhaber marries Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber, and she joins him at Illinois. They are not allowed to join war-related research because of their foreign birth, but they initiate a fruitful program in nuclear physics using radioactive sources and simple equipment.1939
As the economy gradually improves, Wheeler Loomis begins to rebuild his department. His strategy—upon realizing that Illinois lacks the ambience, money, and prestige to attract senior scientists—is to hire promising youngsters and nurture them assiduously. The tradition of "Loomis tenure" begins.
Between 1937 and 1941, Loomis hires twelve new physicists, including Maurice Goldhaber, John Henry Manley, Leland J. Haworth, Ernest M. Lyman, Donald Kerst, and Robert Serber. Loomis's enthusiastic spending inspired the following verse, written by a colleague for the 1941 Physics newsletter: "There was a young fellow named Wheeler/Who for more men put out a feeler/Many men did he hire/And none did he fire/But spent cash like a drunken New Dealer."1937
Professor P. Gerald Kruger and his students G. Kenneth Green (BS, 1933; MS, 1935; PhD, 1937) and Frederick W. Stallmann (PhD, 1940) build the world's third cyclotron—the first to be built outside of Berkeley and the first to have an external beam.
Wheeler Loomis begins a vigorous campaign for a new Physics building, a battle that will last for nearly two decades.1936
The Great Depression—Wheeler Loomis notes in his annual report to the Dean, "The department, whose operating expenses have been reduced to a starvation point for over three years, suffered a financial crisis this winter and pretty nearly had to close up. It was rescued, temporarily, by the allotment of $2200 from general engineering funds."1935
Professor Floyd Watson wins the department's first externally funded research grant when the U.S. Gypsum Company gives him $1000 to study the effects of sound waves on materials.1932
Wheeler Loomis complains bitterly about a vibration problem that causes the Physics Laboratory to shake so badly that spectrograph measurements are disrupted. "Our vibration problems would be reduced considerably if a concrete pavement could be put on Green Street [which was still cobblestoned—ed.]. We can feel the whole building shake every time a buss [sic] or a big coal truck goes over one of the many big bumps in front of our building." Loomis complained about this problem annually until 1941, when Green Street was evidently paved.1931
F. Wheeler Loomis is appointed head of the Department of Physics; he will turn it from a backwater, pre-quantum mechanics faculty to the world-class center of physics research and teaching that Albert Carman dreamed of. Initially dismayed by the quality of the faculty and suffering from an Easterner's disdain of the rural Midwest, Loomis nevertheless sees the potential of Illinois. According to Loomis, "I came here knowing ... that the department was obsolete and the only way to get it over being obsolete was to get some new people." Loomis is also impressed by the national reputations of the chemistry and mathematics departments and is attracted by the personal qualities and evident support of the Dean of Engineering, Milo S. Ketchum. A new era of important research in atomic and molecular spectroscopy and in nuclear physics is launched.1929
Professor Charles T. Knipp invents a simplified apparatus that makes alpha-ray tracks visible in water vapor. Although C.T.R. Wilson, working at Cambridge, England, was the first to show the alpha ray by means of a highly complicated, expensive machine, Knipp's device not only shows the tracks more distinctly but also can be constructed for one-tenth the cost of Wilson's. (Wilson would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927 for his invention; Knipp wouldn't.)1926
The first engineering physics bachelor's degree is awarded to Wallace Waterfall, who will serve as the secretary of the American Institute of Physics from 1945 until his death in 1974. Head Albert Carman secures approval, over considerable College and University opposition, to appoint graduate teaching assistants on a half-time basis to give them more time for research. The tradition of Thursday Physics colloquia begins.1923
Professor Joseph Tykociner (Electrical Engineering) collaborates with Jakob Kunz to use Kunz's photoelectric cell to photograph sound and reproduce it electronically, enabling the first sound-on-film motion picture recordings.
Tykociner has occasionally been called "the man that history forgot"; Jakob Kunz was the physicist that everybody forgot, including Tykociner's fans.1922
Head Albert Carman notes in his annual report that the year's national production of physics PhDs was 21.1921
Beryl Love becomes the first woman to earn a bachelor's degree in physics at the University of Illinois.
Two Physics staff members, Assistant Carl Eli Pike and Mechanician Harold C. Buchanan, die in the influenza pandemic.1918
A bachelor's degree program in engineering physics (distinct from the standard physics curriculum) is established, although no one enrolls. Professor Carman remains optimistic, however, believing that "the war [World War I, ed.] will demonstrate the value of trained physicists to government, industry, and scholarship."1917
Nellie Nancy Hornor becomes the first woman to earn a master of arts degree in physics at the University of Illinois. (Twenty years later, Sister Mary Hubert McCarthy will be the first woman to earn a master of science degree in physics .)1913
Physicists William F. Schulz and Jakob Kunz make their first astronomical observations using a sensitive alkali hydride photoelectric cell instead of selenium cells. They observed the star Capella.
Della Mae Rogers assumes the post of department secretary and librarian, a post she will hold for nearly 50 years.1912
Head Albert Carman argues the then highly controversial notion that Physics faculty must be allowed to pursue research, in addition to their teaching responsibilities, in order to attract young, ambitious scholars and to make the University a "center of physics."
"Our instructors have not and will not be idle, and a certain amount of time to work in physics will help in instruction, as well as yield results to science."1911
The Physics Laboratory is completed at the corner of Green and Mathews Streets, and the Department moves from Engineering Hall to its "dignified and beautiful"—not to mention fireproof—new quarters, complete with a motorized screen in the lecture hall.1909
Head Albert Carman notes in his annual report to the College of Engineering that "the department has cooperated with the Engineering Experiment Station (which had been established in 1903), and a number of valuable researches are being carried on ... This active and close cooperation of the Physics Department with engineering for investigational work is not usual in American universities but promises much for both sides."
Professor Floyd Watson begins his groundbreaking work in architectural acoustics after the Physics Department is asked to propose solutions for the horrible acoustics of the new University (now Foellinger) Auditorium.1908
The Department of Physics holds its first annual open house, becoming the precedent and inspiration for the present-day EOH. Classes in mathematical physics, optical physics, and the teaching of physics are offered for the first time.1906
Charles Tobias Knipp, in collaboration with Professor H.A. Brown of Electrical Engineering, invents a radio tube "which reduces the 'B' battery necessary from 21.5 volts to about 7 volts by the introduction of a potassium-sodium alloy into the tube." The tube, patented by Knipp and Brown, was manufactured by the General Electric Company.1904
A graduate degree program in physics is established. (Annual national production of physics PhDs is about 15.)1901
Carman pioneered a graduate degree program in physics, established an engineering physics degree, and fought with the University administration and the Illinois legislature to establish the conduct of independent research projects as a legitimate use of faculty members' time.1896
The Department of Physics gratefully moves out of University Hall (which also houses the nation's first concrete-testing laboratory, where Professor Ira Baker of Civil Engineering and his students enthusiastically smash concrete blocks and cemented joints) and into Engineering Hall.
The University Catalogue of 1894/95 describes laboratory courses in Physics, still something of a novelty in physics education: "The instruction is given by means of lectures and by practice in the laboratory. The work in the laboratory consists almost entirely of quantitative measurements made under the personal supervision of the instructors, with instruments of precision. An effort is made to have each student determine for himself the relation existing between the facts which he has observed, in order to stimulate him to the formation of habits of sound thinking."1894
Samuel Stratton establishes a full-scale electrical engineering curriculum within Physics, where it will remain until it is given separate departmental status in 1898.1890
A separate Department of Physics is created as part of the College of Engineering, and Theodore B. Comstock, Professor of Mining Engineering and Physics, is appointed head. When Comstock inexplicably fails to return to campus after summer vacation, Regent Peabody appoints Physics Assistant Samuel W. Stratton as head. 1889
Selim H. Peabody, a professor of mechanical engineering and physics, served as regent from 1881 to 1890. He succeeded in changing the name of the institution from Illinois Industrial University to the University of Illinois in 1885.1884
Laboratory practice is introduced into the physics curriculum at Illinois. At this time, only two other U.S. universities offer laboratory work in physics—Stevens Institute of Technology  and Massachusetts Institute of Technology .1875
From the 1872/73 University Catalogue—"This subject [physics, ed.] has been amply provided for in the New Building (University Hall) by the appointment of a Physical Laboratory and Lecture Room, to which the apparatus will be removed this summer, and where the expected additional instruments necessary to fully illustrate the subject can be accommodated. In connection with the lectures, Silliman's Physics is used as a textbook; as many of the topics are more thoroughly discussed in other classes, special attention is paid to the portions remaining. The following are the main heads: Matter, Force, Motion. Properties and Laws of Solids, Fluids, and Liquids. Acoustics and Optics, with mathematical discussion of the undulations and instruments, solar and stellar spectra, etc. Magnetism. Electricity. Chemical Physics is given in a special course of lectures."1872
Information sources presented in the timeline
- A History of the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, 1868-1945 (Ira O. Baker and Everett E. King, Urbana, Illinois)
- Vignettes from a Century of Service, 1890-1990 (Lisa Warne, Urbana, Illinois, 1991)
- A Century of Physics at the University of Illinois (Gerald Almy, Urbana, Illinois, 1967)
- Men and Ideas in Engineering: Twelve Histories from Illinois (R.A. Kingery, R.D. Berg, E.H. Schillinger, University of Illinois Press, 1967)
- Dedication of the Loomis Laboratory of Physics (Urbana, Illinois, 1980, with a foreword by Charles P. Slichter)
- The Loomis Legacy (David Lazarus, Urbana, Illinois, 1987)
- A treasure trove of annual head's reports to the dean of the College of Engineering and departmental correspondence.