Compton, Karl Taylor

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Compton, Karl Taylor

(b. Wooster, Ohio, 14 September 1887; d. New York, N.Y., 22 June 1954),


Like his brothers, Arthur Holly Compton and Wilson Martindale Compton, Karl Taylor Compton owed much of his later achievements in American science and education to the stimulating intellectual environment of his youth. His father, Elias Compton, was an ordained Presbyterian minister and successively professor of philosophy, dean, and acting president of the College of Wooster. His mother, Otelia Augspurger Compton, was a Mennonite with strong pacifist convictions. Although the American Protestant ethic was a central element in the Compton home, Karl and Arthur were encouraged by their father’s broad intellectual outlook to pursue their early interest in science.

Endowed with good health and an excellent physique, Compton excelled in athletics during his high school and college days. Although he had read many of the scientific books in his father’s library, his serious interest in the subject was first revealed in 1908, when he was an assistant in the college science laboratory. Attracted by a new X-ray machine there, Compton used it as the basis for a paper that became his master’s thesis in 1909 and was the first paper from the College of Wooster to be published in the Physical Review (1910).

In further graduate studies at Princeton University, Compton began research on the thermal emission of electrons, under O. W. Richardson, then a leading investigator in that field. His doctoral dissertation in 1912 contributed to Richardson’s studies of the emission of photoelectrons from metals. The same year he assisted Richardson in preparing for the Physical Review a paper providing experimental evidence for the validity of Einstein’s quantum theory of the photoelectric effect. Compton published three more papers on electron physics during his three years as instructor in physics at Reed College in Portland, Oregon (1912–1915).

Compton returned to Princeton as an assistant professor of physics under William F. Magie in 1915. He expanded his earlier research into a general study of electron collisions in ionized gases. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Augustus Trowbridge recruited Compton to assist in developing sound and flash ranging devices for locating enemy artillery positions, a project organized under the National Research Council. This experience made Compton aware of the importance of scientific research in modern warfare and marked the beginning of an interest that was to dominate his later career.

After the war Compton continued his teaching and research at Princeton, first as professor and then as chairman of the physics department. From 1918 to 1930 he published almost 100 scientific papers on various aspects of electron physics, including the ionization of gas molecules by electron impacts, the chemical and spectrographic properties of excited atoms, oscillations in low-voltage arcs, and the dissociation of gases by excited atoms. All of these fields were a part of the rapid evolution of atomic physics during the 1920’s and 1930’s.

Compton’s accomplishments in building a graduate department in physics at Princeton led to his appointment as president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930. Within a decade, what was essentially an undergraduate engineering college became under his leadership one of the world’s leading centers of graduate education in the physical sciences.

With his appointment as chairman of the Science Advisory Board by President Roosevelt in 1933, Compton began to devote an ever-increasing portion of his time to the application of science and technology within the federal government. As a member of the National Defense Research Committee in 1940, he helped to mobilize the nation’s scientific resources for World War II. Within NDRC he served as director of Division 14, which developed many of the electronic devices, especially radar, that revolutionized military technology during the war.

In the postwar years Compton continued to have a strong influence on science policy within the federal government. He resigned as president of MIT in 1948 to succeed Vannevar Bush as chairman of the Research and Development Board in the National Military Establishment. From 1948 until his death he served as president of the MIT corporation, as a member of numerous government committees and advisory boards, on the boards of several corporations, and as trustee of educational and research institutions. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, he also served as president of the American Physical Society (1927–1929) and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1935–1936).


I. Original Works. Compton wrote about 400 articles, of which about half were scientific papers. The others include his writings as president of MIT and as an authority on science and public affairs. For a complete list of his writings see Eleanor R. Bartlett, “The Writings of Karl Taylor Compton,” in Technology Review, 57 (Dec. 1954), 89–92 ff. For Compton’s general interpretation of American scientific research during the 1930’s and 1940’s, see “The Electron: Its Intellectual and Social Significance,” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution—1937 (Washington, D.C., 1938), pp. 205–223; and “The State of Science,” in Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution—1949 (Washington, D.C., 1950), pp. 395–410.

II. Secondary Literature. There is as yet no biography of Compton, but the following are useful: James R. Blackwood, The House on College Avenue: The Comptons at Wooster, 1891–1913 (Cambridge, Mass., 1968); Marjorie Johnston, ed., The Cosmos of Arthur Holly Compton (New York, 1967); J. E. Pfieffer, “Top Man in Science,” in New York Times Magazine (10 Oct. 1948), 10 ff.; and Louis A. Turner, “Karl T. Compton: An Appreciation,” in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 10 (Sept. 1954), 296.

Richard G. Hewlett