Day, Arthur Louis

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(b. Brookfield, Massachusetts, 30 October 1869;

d. Bethesda, Maryland, 2 March 1960), geophysics, geochemistry, petrology, seismology, volcanology, glass and ceramic research.

Day was one of the leading figures of physically and chemically based Earth sciences in the first half of the twentieth century. As the longstanding director of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, he set the standards of modern experimental petrology. Also owing largely to Day is the setup of the optical glass industries in America and the organization of America’s first comprehensive seismological survey.

From Yale to Berlin . Arthur was the son of Daniel Putnam Day from Brookfield, Massachusetts, and his wife Fannie Maria Hobbs Day. Encouraged by a young high school teacher, he entered the Sheffield Scientific School of Yale University, graduating with a BA in 1892. Although his true interest at this time was mechanical engineering, not a scientific career, he remained at Yale because of an appointment as Sloane Fellow in physics, and in June 1894 he earned his PhD. Shortly before, in 1893—following the retired Edward S. Dana—Day became an instructor in physics at Sheffield Scientific School. After four years, despite an offer to become an assistant professor in physics, Day resigned his instructor-ship. From 1897 on, he never taught again at a university.

Vacation trips during this time had more lasting effects on Day’s career. In the summer of 1893, he visited the World’s Fair in Chicago where he was deeply impressed by the immense collection of electrical apparatus. In the summer of next year he set off for Europe. He spent two months at Braunschweig (Brunswick, Germany), and in 1895 he toured through Norway and Sweden. Looking for an appropriate opportunity to do research work in physics, Day returned to Braunschweig in the summer of 1897 where he was recommended—by an American who had just finished his studies in physics—not to go to a German university but, rather, to the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt in Berlin (the German Bureau of Standards), one of the best-equipped physics laboratories of the time.

The result was that Day was soon made the first foreign member of the Reichsanstalt’s regular staff. And his connections to German physics became still closer. On 20 August 1900 he married Helene (Helen) Kohlrausch, the daughter of the then-president of the Reichsanstalt, Friedrich Kohlrausch. They had three daughters (Margaret, Dorothy, and Helen), and one son, Dr. Ralph Kohlrausch Day (b. 1904), who followed his father in becoming a physicist engaged in glass industries. Day’s second marriage, on 27 March 1933, was to his secretary Ruth Sarah Easling of Corning, New York, with whom he had no children.

High-Temperature Physics—Petrology . Because of his experience in high-temperature research at the Reichsanstalt—and persuaded by the geologist Carl Barus, a former student of Friedrich Kohlrausch—Day was called as a physical geologist to the newly established physical laboratory of the U.S. Geological Survey in 1900. Its formal leader was George Ferdinand Becker, with whom Day carried out initial experiments on the effects of crystallization pressure (crystallization force). From 1904 to 1906 he received early funds from the newly established Carnegie Institution of Washington. And on 1 January 1907, he was appointed the first director of the institution’s new Geophysical Laboratory, a position that he held until his retirement in 1936.

At the new laboratory Day first continued the lines of scientific investigations he had set up at the Geological Survey laboratory. This focused in particular on his experiments concerning the extension of the standard thermometer scale, which he started at the Physikalisch-Technische Reichsanstalt, mainly in collaboration with the German physicist Ludwig Holborn, an expert in the field of precise measurements of high and low temperatures. After more than ten years of work, Day succeeded in the extension of the standard gas thermometer scale from 1,200 to 1,600 degrees Celsius in a series of experiments that he completed in 1911. His practical temperature scale defined in terms of closely spaced melting points of pure substances became essential in studying the thermal behavior of common minerals that melt at very high temperatures.

A second major concern—together with Eugene T. Allen and Joseph P. Iddings—was to determine the thermal stability of the major feldspars of the plagioclas series (albite-anorthite), using the cooling-curve method. And by a third series of experiments Day studied the physico-chemical behavior of phases in systems of important oxides and sulfides in Earth’s crust; the first one was the so-called portland cement system, that is, the calcium oxide-silica system, including alumina. These experiments provided a source of information not only to geology but also to the steel, cement, and glass industries.

Volcanology—Glass Works . In 1911, Day turned his attention to volcanology. Between 1912 and 1916 he visited the volcanic areas of Hawaii, Italy, and Lassen Peak in California. His initial question was of the water content of volcanic gases, a controversial topic in contemporary volcanological discussion. Together with Ernest S. Shepherd he collected gas samples directly from the liquid lava of Hawaii’s Kilauea in 1912. They successfully proved that water vapor was the most abundant component of volcanic gases, that is, that these gases were not, as widely assumed, anhydrous. The crucial point was that water is often chemically fixed to other substances within the hot gases so that it became detectable first in the course of cooling.

Day resumed his volcanological studies in 1920, shifting his attention also to hot springs. He studied volcanic activity of the geysers region in California and, in collaboration with Allen, the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park. Annual visits to Yellowstone Park over the years furnished material for Day’s last, comprehensive study, the monumental volume on Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Park (1935). Day’s very last paper of 1939 was also dedicated to the hot-spring problem. He continued this work for some years. After an unfortunate physical breakdown in 1946, however, Day was forced to give up his research.

A central concern of Day’s work throughout his life— probably the most important one for himself—was the application of his scientific results to industrial goals, that is, of his experiences on the melting behavior of silicates to glass manufacturing. An early paper, written with Shepherd in 1906, was on quartz glass. And beginning in 1905 he served as a research consultant of Corning Glass Works (Corning, New York). This work became immediately important for Day and the Geophysical Laboratory when the United States entered World War I in April 1917. High quality optical glass was in urgent demand for equipment such as gun sights, periscopes, and field glasses. In 1917, the Geophysical Laboratory joined forces with Bausch and Lomb Optical Company at Rochester, New York, and by the end of the year, they produced up to 40,000 pounds of government-accepted glass per month. According to Day, about 97 percent of all optical glass used by the American forces in World War I was made under the direction of the Geophysical Laboratory. Finally, for fifteen months, Day took a leave of absence from the Geophysical Laboratory to become vice president of Corning’s manufacturing department in the spring of 1919.

Organizing Science . Upon returning to the Geophysical Laboratory in 1920, Day took the institution in a new direction. From 1921—when the Carnegie Institution founded its Seismological Laboratory in Pasadena, California—to 1936, Day served as the chairman of Carnegie’s Advisory Committee in Seismology. He organized what was then the largest cooperative effort in the history of American science. Among the cooperating institutions were the Seismological Society of America, the California Institute of Technology, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Stanford University, and the Mount Wilson Observatory. Several comprehensive reports on seismological problems in the western United States were the result of the enterprise. Finally in 1925 Day paved the way for the Geophysical Laboratory to enter radioactive research. Charles Snowden Piggot developed a coring gun that was able to obtain sediment samples from the ocean bottom to test for radioactivity.

Arthur Day’s ability to initiate new lines of research and to organize cooperation in science made him a central figure in early twentieth-century American science. In 1911 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, serving as its home secretary from 1913 to 1918 and vice president from 1933 to 1941. He also presided over the Philosophical Society of Washington (1911), the Washington Academy of Sciences (1924), and the Geological Society of America (1938). Among his memberships in foreign scientific societies were the London Geological Society and the Academies of Science of Sweden, Norway, and the USSR. Day received honorary degrees from Groningen University (1914), Columbia University (1915), Princeton University (1918), and the University of Pennsylvania (1938), and his numerous awards included the Wollaston Medal of the Geological Society of London, the Penrose Medal of the Geological Society of America, and the Bakhuis Roozeboom Medal of the Royal Academy of Amsterdam. In 1948 Day established a fund for an Arthur L. Day Medal to be awarded annually by the Geological Society of America.


Day’s papers are mostly at the Archives of the Carnegie Institution. Some are also at the Ceramic Society. Anautobiography of Day is held by the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics.


With Ludwig Holborn. “Ueber das Luftthermometer bei hohen Temperaturen.” Wiedemann’s Annalen der Physik und Chemie, n.s., 68 (1899): 817–852. English translation, “On the Gas Thermometer at High Temperatures.” American Journal of Science 4, no. 8 (1899): 165–193.

With Eugene T. Allen and Joseph P. Iddings. The Isomorphism and Thermal Properties of the Feldspars. Part 1, Thermal Study; Part 2, Optical Study. With an introduction by George F. Becker. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication no. 31. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1905.

With George F. Becker. “The Linear Force of Growing Crystals.” Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences 7 (1905): 283–288.

With Ernest S. Shepherd. “The Phase-Rule and Conceptions of Igneous Magma.” Economic Geology 1 (1905): 286–289.

———. “The Lime-Silicia Series of Minerals.” With optical study by F. E. Wright. American Journal of Science 4, no. 22 (1906): 265–302.

———. “Quartz Glass.” Science 23 (1906): 670–672.

“Some Mineral Relations from the Laboratory Viewpoint.” Bulletin of the Geological Society of America21 (1910): 141–178.

“Die Untersuchung von Silikaten.” Zeitschrift für Elektrochemie 17 (1911): 609–617.

With Robert B. Sosman and Eugene T. Allen. High Temperature Gas Thermometry. With an Investigation of the Metals. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication no. 157. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1911.

With Ernest S. Shepherd. “Water and the Magmatic Gases.” Journal of the Washington Academy of Sciences3 (1913): 457–463.

“Optical Glass and Its Future as an American Industry.” Journal of the Franklin Institute 190 (1920): 453–472.

With Eugene T. Allen. Hot Springs of the Yellowstone National Park. Microscopic Examinations by Herbert Eugene Merwin. Carnegie Institution of Washington, Publication no. 466. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1935.

[“Day-volume”]. American Journal of Science. Fifth series, Vol. 35a (= 235a), 1938. A special issue of the journal dedicated to Day, its longstanding associate editor, in 1938; also referred to as Publications of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution, no. 100. The volume contains twenty-three papers on geophysics, geochemistry, and volcanology.

“The Hot-Spring Problem.” Bulletin of the Geological Society of America 50 (1939): 317–336.


Abelson, Philip H. “Arthur Louis Day.” In Biographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 47 (1975): 27–47. With a mostly complete bibliography.

“Arthur L. Day.” In J. C. Poggendorff. Biographisch-Literarisches Handwörterbuch der exakten Naturwissenschaften, edited by Hans Wußing. vol. 8, pt. 1. Berlin: Wiley-VCH, 1999. Contains some bibliographical additions.

Sosman, Robert B. “Memorial to Arthur Louis Day.” Proceedings of the Geological Society of America 75 (1964): 147–155. With a mostly complete bibliography.

Sullivan, Eugene C. “American Contemporaries: Arthur Louis Day. ” Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, News Edition, 14 (1936): 341.

Yoder, Hatten S., Jr. “Arthur Louis Day.” In Dictionary of American Biography, Supplement 6, edited by John A. Garraty, 152–154. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980.

———. “Development and Promotion of the Initial Scientific Program for the Geophysical Laboratory.” In The Earth, the Heavens and the Carnegie Institution of Washington. History of Geophysics, vol. 5, edited by Gregory A. Good, 21–28. Washington, DC, 1994.

Bernhard Fritscher

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