Physics

Granular Sand by Julien Chopin, PhD Candidate in Physics

History of Physics at Clark

The Michelson era (1889 - 1892)

Michelson left Berlin in 1882 with an honorary Ph.D., having accepted an appointment as the first professor of physics at the newly founded Case School of Applied Science (now Case Western Reserve University). In 1885 Michelson repeated the ether-drift experiment at Case in collaboration with his chemist colleague, Edward W. Morley, again finding a null result. By then Michelson was becoming discouraged at Case, feeling that he was receiving insufficient support and that, in the West, he was isolated from the mainstream of physics. When he received Hall's offer to be Professor of Physics and Director of the Physical Laboratories at Clark, Michelson seized the opportunity to move East. Indicative of Hall's high regard for Michelson, he received the highest salary of any of the new faculty, $3,500 (Hall's salary was $6,000.) with a budget of $11,265.85 for equipment to start-up his new department. (Michelson's teaching obligation was one lecture each week.)

When Michelson arrived at Clark in time for its opening in 1889 there were nineteen Clark faculty and thirty-five graduate students. (Fifteen of these had either taught at or studied at The Johns Hopkins University.) He was given a house next door to the President's and across the street from his laboratory.

At Clark, Michelson immediately set about building an interferometer suitable for measuring the standard meter. At Case, Michelson and Morley had already performed preliminary tests of the method and had begun to publish on the idea. Michelson also hired Frank L. O. Wadsworth as Fellow in Physics and employed him as his assistant in building the necessary apparatus. The interferometer, capable of measuring only a decimeter, was an improved version of one built in 1888 by the Warner and Swasey Co. of Cleveland, Ohio for use at Case by Michelson and Morley. It was built using Clark money by the famed optical engineer, J. A. Brashear of Allegheny, Pennsylvania. (This decimeter interferometer resides in the Clark University Archives.) The design and tests of this decimeter interferometer proved successful.

In 1891 the Comité international des Poids et Mesures in Paris, learning of Michelson's efforts, invited him to Paris to address the Bureau international des Poids et Mesures. Impressed by Michelson's ideas, the Bureau granted Michelson funds for the construction of an interferometer suitable for measuring the standard meter. Under Wadsworth's supervision, the meter interferometer was constructed in Waltham, Massachusetts by the American Watch and Clock Company.

The Comité wrote President Hall requesting that Michelson be granted leave to come to Paris to perform the measurements on the meter. Clark's trustees quickly approved Michelson's leave for this purpose with full pay and support for himself and Wadsworth.

In 1892, just as Michelson and Wadsworth were about to depart for France, Michelson and twelve of his other distinguished Clark colleagues abruptly resigned. President Hall had hired faculty and provided fellowships in amounts which exceeded the income from the University's substantial - but unknown - endowment. Based on his suppositions regarding the University endowment, Hall had made numerous promises to his faculty but had subsequently defaulted on these. The faculty had grown antagonistic, but Hall was loath to hear their concerns. Coincidently, the University of Chicago had been founded with Rockefeller money and its new president, William Rainey Harper, learning of the discord, came to Worcester to interview Clark's faculty. He returned to Chicago with faculty appointments for seven of Clark's most prestigious faculty members.

Michelson and Wadsworth did go to Paris, taking with them the apparatus which Michelson had constructed and tested while at Clark. Michelson successfully completed his measurements in 1893. In 1907 Michelson was awarded the Nobel Prize for his measurement of the standard meter, the first American to be so honored. (Although Clark had enthusiastically supported Michelson, he never acknowledged the support of the University.)