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>  News Releases >   2000 >   November

Wilder Lab celebrates 100 years

Posted 11/21/00

The Department of Physics and Astronomy will celebrate the centennial of Wilder Laboratory on Dec. 1.

Maurice F. Kimmitt, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the University of Essex in Colchester, U.K. and Adjunct Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Dartmouth, will deliver an address, "Ernest Fox Nichols: Physicist and President." The address will begin at 3 p.m. in 111 Wilder, followed by a public reception.

Kimmitt's address will focus on a summary of Nichols' scientific contributions and his roles as mentor and administrator.

Nichols, a member of the Dartmouth faculty from 1898 until 1903 and President of Dartmouth from 1909 to 1916, was an interesting figure. Although relatively lost in Dartmouth history, he had a distinguished career. He was born in 1869 in Leavenworth, Kan., which was still a nearly frontier town. The results of his masters research thesis, carried out at Cornell University, were described in the first paper in the first volume of the journal, "The Physical Review." At that time the journal was published at Cornell, where it was initiated. Today it continues as the lead journal of the American Physical Society. Between the time he completed his master's work and his subsequent PhD, also from Cornell, Nichols spent a brief period of time on the faculty of Colgate University and a number of years in Berlin at the laboratory of H. Rubens. While in Berlin he expanded his master's research and used the results to develop techniques for isolating the long wavelength component of the thermal spectrum. Although technical in detail, this work was of fundamental significance. Rubens, in the course of a social visit, told Max Planck about this and related work. Planck many years later in a eulogy of Rubens remarked "had Rubens not made me aware of this work, I would not have discovered the Quantum formula. Perhaps it would not have been discovered in Germany at all."

Nichols arrived at Dartmouth in 1898 at age 28 already with an international reputation as a distinguished experimentalist. While at Dartmouth he, together with G.F. Hull, made one of the two first measurements of the pressure of light. Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism was already established but verification of some of the theory's more surprising predictions were still significant matter, and the work of Nichols and Hull attracted considerable attention.

The circumstances surrounding Nichols' recall to Dartmouth as President from the faculty of Columbia University, where he had moved in 1903, are not entirely clear. Once chosen, however, his inauguration was treated as a major event in the local and eastern national press. Many distinguished guests made the journey to Hanover. When he resigned seven years later, initially to return to a life of teaching and research at Yale, everyone, including Trustees of the College expressed deep regret. Nichols did not stay at Yale very long. In 1916 he was caught up in World War I and assisted the Navy. Already a member of the National Academy of Sciences, he became a member of the National Research Council, an inner circle of science advisors for the President of the United States. Contemporary accounts of his service list him as both from Yale and representing the Naval Bureau of Ordnance. His inventiveness remained in evidence. While serving in the Navy he obtained a patent on a novel mine trigger, the rights to which were gratefully acknowledged by Franklin Roosevelt, then Secretary of the Navy.

At the close of World War I Nichols did not return to Yale, but served for a brief period as President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He stepped down because of health concerns and at the end of his career he was the director of research in the laboratory of the National Electric Light Association, later part of General Electric. He died in 1924.

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