California Institute of Technology

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CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY. In 1891, Amos Gager Throop, a self-made businessman and philanthropist, founded a small coeducational college in Pasadena that became one of the world's leading scientific institutions. Initially named Throop University, the school changed its name to Throop Polytechnic Institute in 1893. Throop was the first school west of Chicago to offer manual arts, teaching students of all ages—as its mandate proclaimed—"those things that train the hand and the brain for the best work of life." In 1907, the astronomer George Ellery Hale, the first director of Mount Wilson Observatory, joined Throop's board that year and played a key role in the school's transformation. Hale, a visionary brimming with educational and civic ideas, set about rebuilding Throop. He persuaded its officers to abandon their secondary-school program and concentrate on developing the college along engineering school lines. He hired James A. B. Scherer, Throop's president from 1908 to 1920, and brought Arthur A. Noyes, former president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the nation's leading physical chemist, to the campus part-time as professor of general chemistry. In hiring Noyes (once his own chemistry professor), Hale hoped both to bring chemistry at Throop College of Technology—as it was called after 1913—up to the level of that at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and to raise Throop to national prominence.

The third member of this scientific troika was Robert A. Millikan, a renowned experimental physicist at the University of Chicago who in 1917 began spending several months a year at Throop, now an all-male school. Together in Washington, D.C., during World War I, the three recruited scientists to work on military problems, founded the National Research Council (NRC), and built an impressive network of contacts that would serve the school well. As first chairman of the NRC, Hale not only promoted the role of science in national affairs but also increased Throop's role in American science. He put Noyes in charge of the nitrate supply committee and asked Millikan to oversee the NRC's work in physics. Millikan proved an astute administrator, and his influence on American science grew in the postwar decades. Collectively ambitious for American science and determined to put Throop on the map, Hale, Millikan, and Noyes were a formidable scientific triumvirate and by Armistice Day were ready to transform the engineering school into an institution that emphasized pure science.

In 1919, Noyes resigned from MIT and accepted full-time appointment as Throop's director of chemical research. Throop changed its name to the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) the following year, and trustee Arthur Fleming turned over the bulk of his fortune—more than $4 million—to the institute in a successful bid to lure Millikan permanently to Pasadena. As director of the Norman Bridge Physics Laboratory and Caltech's administrative head, Millikan guided the school for the next twenty-five years, establishing the under-graduate requirement of two years of physics, two years of mathematics, and one of chemistry (a curriculum that remains virtually unchanged, with the signal exception of a required term of biology). He also put physics on the map in southern California. Albert Einstein's visits to the campus in 1931, 1932, and 1933 capped Millikan's campaign to make Caltech one of the physics capitals of the world.

Caltech in the early 1920s was essentially an under-graduate and graduate school in the physical sciences. Until 1925 it conferred doctorates only in physics, chemistry, and engineering. Geology joined the list of graduate studies in 1925, aeronautics in 1926, and biology and mathematics in 1928. In the 1930s, the work of Charles Richter in seismology, Theodore von Kármán in aeronautics, Linus Pauling in chemistry, and Thomas Hunt Morgan in biology spearheaded scientific research at the institute. Fiercely opposed to government funding of research, Millikan dealt directly with the heads of the Carnegie, Guggenheim, and Rockefeller Foundations and coaxed funds from a growing number of local millionaires.

In 1946, Lee A. DuBridge, head of MIT's wartime radar project, became Caltech's new president. Robert Bacher, a mainstay of the Manhattan Project, headed the physics division and later became the institute's first provost. Other distinguished scientists who joined the postwar faculty included theoretical physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann, astronomer Jesse Greenstein, psychobiologist Roger Sperry, and geochemist Clair Patterson. During DuBridge's tenure (1946–1969), Caltech's faculty doubled, the campus tripled in size, and new research fields flourished, including chemical biology, planetary science, nuclear astrophysics, and geochemistry. A 200-inch telescope was dedicated on nearby Palomar Mountain in 1948 and remained the world's most powerful optical telescope for over forty years. DuBridge, un-like Millikan, welcomed federal funding of science—and got it. Female students returned to the campus as graduate students in the 1950s, and in 1970, during the presidency of Harold Brown, as undergraduates.


Florence, Ronald. The Perfect Machine: Building the Palomar Telescope. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Goodstein, Judith R. Millikan's School: A History of the California Institute of Technology. New York: Norton, 1991.

Kevles, Daniel J. The Physicists: The History of a Scientific Community in Modern America. New York: Knopf, 1978. Re-print, with a new preface, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Judith R.Goodstein

See alsoCalifornia Higher Educational System ; Education, Higher: Colleges and Universities ; Engineering Education ; Massachusetts Institute of Technology ; Science Education .

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California Institute of Technology