Nichols, Ernest Fox

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(b. Leavenworth, Kansas, 1 June 1869; d. Washington, D.C., 29 April 1924)


The son of Alonzo Curtis Nichols, a photographer, and Sophronia Fox, Nichols was orphaned at an early age and raised in Manhattan, Kansas, by his aunt and uncle, General and Mrs. S. M. Fox. Having inherited some money for his education, Nichols graduated from Kansas State College of Agriculture in 1888 and did graduate work at Cornell University from 1888 to 1892. While holding an associate professorship at Colgate University from 1892 to 1898, he married Katharine W. West, the daughter of a prominent family in Hamilton, New York (1894); did further graduate work in the laboratory of Emil Warburg at Berlin (1894 to 1896); and received his D.Sc. from Cornell (1897).

A professor of physics at Dartmouth College from 1898 to 1903 and at Columbia University from 1903 to 1909, Nichols was president of Dartmouth from 1909 to 1916. While serving on the physics faculty at Yale from 1916 to 1920 he did war work for the National Research Council and the ordnance department of the U.S. Navy. The president of M.I.T. for some months in 1920, Nichols was director of research in pure science at the laboratories of the National Electric Light Association in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1921 until his death. Nichols was awarded the Rumford Medal in 1904, was coeditor of the Physical Review from 1913 to 1916, and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

As a research scientist Nichols’ reputation rested on his development and use of the Nichols radiometer. While in Berlin, with the help of Ernst Pringsheim he constructed a radiometer far more sensitive than any other then in existence. In his new model he made the moving parts as light as possible, reduced the torsional moment, employed a delicate suspension fiber, and set the gas pressure for maximum operational effectiveness. Free of the chief disturbances suffered by thermoelements and the bolometer, Nichols’ device was superior to those instruments for measurements in the infrared range. With his radiometer Nichols successfully explored the reflection and transmission of infrared rays, measured the relative heats of fixed stars, and, independently of Peter Lebedev, quantitatively confirmed the existence of the pressure of light predicted by Maxwell’s laws. Near the end of his life Nichols used a resonant form of the radiometer to close the final gap between the radiations produced by thermal and electric means. He was reporting his results at a meeting of the National Academy when, in midsentence, he collapsed and died of heart failure.


Leigh Page, “Ernest Fox Nichols,” in Dictionary of American Biography, XIII, 491–494, is an authoritative introduction to Nichols’ life and work. It may be supplemented by Edward L. Nichols, “Ernest Fox Nichols,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 12 (1929), 97–131, which contains a complete bibliography of Nichols’ scientific writings. In the archives of Colgate University are eight Nichols items: six letters from Joseph Larmor and two books of notes on Larmor’s lectures at Cambridge University, all from 1904–1905, when Nichols spent a sabbatical year in England.

Daniel J. Kevles

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Nichols, Ernest Fox

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