Webster, Arthur Gordon

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(b. Brookline, Massachusetts, 28 November 1863; d. Worcester, Massachusetts, 15 May 1923)


Webster was born into a prosperous and established New England family, the only son of William Edward Webster and Mary Shannon Davis Webster. He attended Newton High School and in 1881 went on to Harvard College, where he excelled in mathematics and physics, graduating at the head of his class in 1885. After a year as an instructor at Harvard, and with the support of a Parker Fellowship, he continued his study of physics at the University of Berlin. Webster also briefly attended the universities of Paris and Stockholm before receiving his Ph.D. from Berlin in 1890 with a dissertation written under the direction of August Kundt. While in Berlin, he met Elizabeth Munroe Townsend, the daughter of a U.S. Navy officer; they were married on 8 October 1889 in Syracuse, New York, and had two daughters and one son.

After completing his European studies, Webster began a lifelong affiliation with Clark University, the graduate institute founded a few years earlier in Worcester, Massachusetts. He spent his first two years there as a docent in physics, working under Albert A. Michelson. Following Michelson’s move in 1892 to the University of Chicago, Clark administrators promoted Webster to assistant professor and placed him in charge of the physics department and laboratory. He held the rank of full professor from 1900 until his death.

Webster displayed a prodigious range of interests and skills. Besides his primary talents in physics and mathematics, he was proficient as a linguist, public speaker, musician, artist, and popular writer. He was also active in politics, once running for Congress. His election to the National Academy of Sciences in 1903, at the relatively young age of thirty-nine, was only one of many honors bestowed on him at home and abroad by his colleagues.

Although Webster made his most important contributions to science by writing advanced textbooks on mathematical physics and by helping to establish a professional organization for physicists in the United States, he also made a creditable contribution to basic research. His research encompassed a wide scope of experimental and theoretical topics; nevertheless, essentially all of his investigations were grounded in a mechanical view of nature as formulated mathematically by such nineteenth-century physicists as James Clerk Maxwell and Hermann von Helmholtz. Webster’s two most enduring research interests were acoustics and mathematics as applied to classical physics. He spent over two decades (especially the years 1897 to 1919) refining a phonometer, an instrument for measuring the intensity of sound. Drawing on his mathematical and experimental skills, he also originated the concept of acoustic impedance in analogy to electric impedance.

Early in his career, Webster concentrated more explicitly on electricity and magnetism. His doctoral dissertation contained a new method for determining the ratio of the electromagnetic to the electrostatic unit of charge. In a subsequent experiment having implications for the ratio, he verified an important theoretical formula for the period of electrical oscillations in a discharging condenser. Recognizing the significance of this research, an international committee awarded him the Elihu Thomson Prize in 1895. Webster’s appointment to the Naval Consulting Board during World War I brought with it a final major research project, in ballistics. During the years around 1920, he published numerous experimental and theoretical studies of rifles and cannons.

Webster’s greatest strength was as an educator. Through his teaching at Clark and especially through three notable textbooks, he helped introduce a generation of advanced students to the mathematical structure of classical mechanical physics. He felt that physicists in the United States lacked adequate training in mathematics, and he designed his graduate courses at Clark to alleviate this deficiency. A skilled lecturer with a comprehensive grasp of mathematical physics, he stretched the modest facilities at Clark and successfully trained twenty-seven doctoral students. In addition, he built on knowledge acquired through preparing lectures at Clark to publish The Theory of Electricity and Magnetism (1897). This was a mathematical digest of the ideas of Maxwell, Helmholtz, Heinrich Hertz, and Oliver Heaviside. During the same year, he accepted an invitation from the prestigious Lowell Institute of Boston to present a series of public talks on electricity. In 1904, again drawing on his classroom lectures, he published his most influential textbook, The Dynamics of Particles and of Rigid, Elastic, and Fluid Bodies, This work, which went through several editions, was a mathematical compendium of the principal ideas of Lord Kelvin, Peter G. Tait, Maxwell, Helmholtz, and other masters of classical dynamics. Webster’s final textbook, Partial Differential Equations of Mathematical Physics, appeared posthumously in 1927 through the editorial efforts of Samuel J. Plimpton. Widely adopted by physicists, the book demonstrated the mathematical unity of seemingly divergent branches of classical physics.

Whereas Webster’s contemporaries knew him mainly as an expositor of the mathematical aspects of physics, subsequent generations remembered him primarily as the founder of the American Physical Society. In 1899 Webster took the lead in convening and structuring the first professional organization in the United States devoted solely to physics. He also served as the third president of the American Physical Society (1903–1904), succeeding the two foremost physicists in the country, Henry A. Rowland and Albert A. Michelson. By the time of his 1904 presidential address, Webster was able to report that the organization embraced nearly every practicing physicist in the nation. He remained an active participant in the society’s regular meetings; his frequent and spirited comments on the papers read during these meetings helped establish his reputation as a loquacious and candid polymath.

Webster’s self-confidence, wit, vitality, and good health combined to give the impression of a man pleased with his professional success. Thus it came as a shock to his colleagues and the public when, in 1923, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Actually, he had become increasingly troubled and depressed during his final years. This appears to have been partially due to personal economic pressures, Clark’s diminishing commitment to research, frustration in establishing a major ballistics program, and a sense of self-doubt about the worth of his accoustical studies.


I. Original Works. A bibliography of Webster’s published writings appears in a memorial volume that was issued following a special meeting held at Clark University in Webster’s honor; see Edith M. Baker, comp., “Bibliography,” in Louis N. Wilson, ed., Arthur Gordon Webster, November 28, 1863–May 15, 1923: In Memoriam (Worcester, Mass., 1924), 55–62. The same bibliography is appended to Joseph S. Ames, “Biographical Memoir of Arthur Gordon Webster, 1863–1923,” in Biographical Memoirs, National Academy of Sciences, 18 (1937), 342–347.

There are two main repositories of Webster’s unpublished letters and manuscripts: the Clark University Archives in Worcester, Massachusetts, and the University of lllinois Archives at Urbana-Champaign. Clark also holds a number of photographs, newspaper obituaries, biographical essays, and Webster’s published books and articles.

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest biographical sketch is A. Wilmer Duff, “Arthur Gordon Webster: Physicist, mathematician, Linguist, and Orator,” in The American Physics Teacher, 6 (1938), 181–194. See also Ames, “Biographical Memoir,” 334–341; G. S. Fletcher, “Arthur Gordon Webster, 1864 [sic[–1923,” in The Physical Review, 2nd ser., 21 (1923), 585–586; Edwin H. Hall, “Arthur Gordon Webster,” in Science, 58 (1923), 37–39, and “Arthur Gordon Webster, 1863–1923,” in Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 62 (1926–1927), 285–286; and Alexander G. McAdie, “Arthur Gordon Webster,” Class of 1885, Harvard College: Secretary’s Report, 9 (1925), 173–180; and Melba Phillips, “Arthur Gordon Webster. Founder of the APS,” in Physics Today, 40, no. 6 (1987), 48–52. For informative reminiscences by Webster’s colleagues, see also Webster: In Memoriam, 1–54.

Albert E. Moyer

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