Carnegie Mellon University

Department of Physics

Mellon College of Science

History of the Carnegie Mellon Physics Department

Carnegie Mellon University (originally known as Carnegie Technical Schools, and later as Carnegie Tech) was established in 1900 with a gift of $1,000,000 from Andrew Carnegie to the people of Pittsburgh. The initial programs were organized into a School of Applied Science, a School of Applied Design, a School of Fine and Applied Arts, and the Margaret Morrison School for Women. The first class of entering students, numbering 120, was admitted in 1906. All entering students in the School of Applied Science were required to pass entrance exams in mathematics, physics, chemistry, drawing, elements of shop practice, economics, and English. Prof. H. S. Hower served as Head of the Physics Department from 1912 until his death in 1941.

The Margaret Morrison School for Women, named for Carnegie’s mother, in the spirit of the time, offered programs such as secretarial studies, household arts and food preparation, among the few fields of study that then were deemed suitable as women’s professions.

From these humble beginnings, Carnegie Mellon University has grown and diversified to become one of the outstanding research universities in the nation, and its Physics Department has played a leading role in this development. In 1912, the institution began granting four-year degree programs and changed its name to Carnegie Institute of Technology. By this time, the total student enrollment was about 2,500, and research programs had begun to develop. Leading the way was a Division of Applied Psychology, which played a central role in the allocation and training of manpower in the armed forces during the World War I for which Carnegie Tech served as a major contributor.

Following the end of the war and the departure of the military presence in 1918, research activities among the faculty increased rapidly. The year 1924 saw the establishment of a laboratory to study applications of physics and chemistry to the production of metals. Carnegie Tech also became a pioneer in exploring the properties and uses of bituminous coal, hosting three international conferences – 1926, 1928, and 1931 – on the physics and chemistry of coal. These and many other collaborative programs anticipated the many interdisciplinary research efforts that have developed in subsequent years, firmly establishing Carnegie Tech as a prominent center for research in the physical sciences.

During the 1930s, as the Nazi regime seized power in Germany, spawning violent anti-semitism, it became nearly impossible to carry on meaningful educational and research programs in Europe. Scores of European scientists took refuge in the United States, where they were able to carry on their work. Many of them found positions in American universities; among these were Ernst Berl from the University of Darmstadt, as well as Immanuel Estermann and Otto Stern from the University of Hamburg. Carnegie Tech built new laboratories for each of these prominent physicists, and Otto Stern was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in molecular physics and applied chemistry in 1943.

During World War II, as the resources of the nation were again mobilized for the war effort, the Carnegie Tech once more became a training ground for military personnel and weapons research, including the development of shaped charges for explosive bazooka shells. Frederick Seitz, an eminent condensed-matter theorist, steered the Physics Department during the turbulent war years of 1942 to 1946. By the end of the war it became clear that Carnegie Tech needed to enter the emerging field of nuclear physics. A Nuclear Research Center was established in Saxonburg, a suburb of Pittsburgh, under the direction of Edward Creutz, who succeeded Seitz as President. This facillity, built at a cost of nearly $2,000,000, included a synchrocyclotron that accelerated protons to energies of 450 MeV, one of the two high-energy accelerators in the world at that time. Over a period of ten years, this laboratory carried out extensive basic research into the properties of nuclear particles and π mesons. More recently, research at several laboratories in the U.S. and abroad has enabled Carnegie Mellon physicists to continue and extend fundamental research into the nature and interactions of fundamental particles.

Meanwhile, opportunities for graduate study and research expanded in several directions. New initiatives continue to be developed, including surface physics, biological physics, nanophysics, and astrophysics and cosmology, as Carnegie Mellon has blossomed into an outstanding research university. Its structure today, as several successive presidents have stressed, is analogous to that of a three-legged stool, supported by undergraduate programs, graduate programs, and research. This image symbolizes the strong symbiosis that continues to guide the ongoing development of Carnegie Mellon University.