Physics

Granular Sand by Julien Chopin, PhD Candidate in Physics

History of Physics at Clark

The Webster Era (1890 - 1923)

In 1890 Arthur Gordon Webster joined the department. Webster's father was a Harvard classmate of Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Worcester who was on Clark's Board of Trustees. It was Webster's father who suggested his son's availability to the senator, the senator in turn bringing Webster's name to President Hall. Of course Webster and Michelson would have been acquainted during their time together in Berlin. Webster received an appointment as docent, an appointment with no faculty status but with some responsibilities in lecturing and the supervision of graduate students.

Webster had graduated from Harvard College in 1885 at the top of his class and had stayed for a year as instructor in mathematics and physics. At the end of this year he went to the University of Berlin where he studied for four years with Hermann von Helmholtz, receiving his Ph. D. in 1890. Helmholtz is said to have considered Webster his favorite American student. During this period Webster also studied in Paris and Stockholm. He was unusually proficient in literature and was fluent in Latin, Greek, German, French, and Swedish, with a good knowledge of Italian and Spanish and competency in Russian and modern Greek.

In 1892, when Michelson left Clark for Chicago, President Hall appointed Webster assistant professor and head of the Physical Laboratories. He was promoted to full professor in 1900.

Webster was unusual for his time in that he was both a proficient mathematician as well as a competent experimentalist. In his teaching, in keeping with Clark's early mission to train only graduate students, he developed a systematic series of lectures on mathematical physics. These brilliant lectures, delivered at blinding speeds, were more detailed and comprehensive than available anywhere at the time. Out of these lectures came three classic textbooks in theoretical physics: The Theory of Electricity and Magnetism (1897), The Dynamics of Particles and of Rigid, Elastic and Fluid Bodies (1904), and, posthumously, The Partial Differential Equations of Mathematical Physics (1927). The first two were important to advancing physics education in America for they were the first treatises available on those fundamental topics. Even today they are so highly regarded that they remain in print. Webster was in demand as an invited lecturer at numerous other universities. He kept himself informed on all the new discoveries in physics, regularly lecturing on topics such as the electron, x-rays, and radioactivity.

Webster's 1893 paper, "An experimental determination of the period of electrical oscillations," won him the internationally prestigious Elihu Thomson Prize. He conducted experiments and wrote extensively on the theory of the gyroscope. For his pioneering researches on the theory of sound he developed the first instrument capable of measuring the absolute intensity of sound (the phonometer). (These instruments, which were regularly borrowed by the National Bureau of Standards for calibration of their sound equipment, are in the Clark University Archives.)

Because of Webster's high regard as a physicist and the renown of his lectures, the physics department acquired considerable prestige. Good students came to study under Webster. (One was Vannevar Bush who entered with a substantial stipend, but soon left when he found that the only field in which he could do research was acoustics.) During his 33 years as the only physicist on the faculty at Clark, Webster trained 27 doctoral students. Clark was one of the leaders in producing Ph. D.'s in physics in the first quarter of the twentieth century . (Knapp/Goodrich survey on undergraduate origins of American physicists. American Journal of Physics.)

Although himself primarily a theoretical physicist, one of Webster's hallmarks as a teacher/researcher was his insistence that theory must be confirmed experimentally. Webster was noted for the quality of his teaching and for his encouragement of young physicists; his students went on to become leaders in physics. Other universities and government laboratories turned to Webster for recommendations to fill their openings in physics.

Convocation of physicists assembled in 1909 to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the founding of Clark University. Michelson is third from the left in the front row and Vito Volterra is to his right. Webster is third from the left in the second row and Ernest Rutherford is to Webster's left. Goddard is immediately behind Webster.

In the last decade of the nineteenth century many young, European-trained physicists were returning to the United States. Soon it became apparent that there was a need for a professional society to sponsor meetings where American physicists could gather to present and discuss their research. One physicist was the most active in doing something about it: Webster invited the nation's major physicists to a meeting at Columbia University on 20 May 1899. At that meeting, attended by twenty physicists, the American Physical Society was founded. In advance of the meeting Webster had obtained permission from Henry A. Rowland of The Johns Hopkins University and Michelson (neither of whom was present) to be nominated to two-year terms as president and vice president, respectively. Webster was third in succession as president. Physicists of that generation generally agreed that Webster was "the father of the American Physical Society."

Lyman J. Briggs, Director of the National Bureau of Standards, wrote in 1949 to Karl K. Darrow, long-time secretary of the American Physical Society: "The two most colorful physicists in the early days of the Society were Prof. A. G. Webster and Prof. W. S. Franklin. They seldom missed a meeting and they almost invariably had something to say about each paper. Webster had a brilliant mind and his keen analysis of a paper in his booming voice was something to remember."

Indeed, physicists always enjoyed meeting Webster on his arrivals at railroad stations for Webster liked to play practical jokes of a scientific nature. Webster, with his expertise on the gyroscope, had constructed a portable, battery-powered gyroscope housed in a suitcase. As his train would come into the station he would start the gyroscope. Once the gyroscope was up to speed he would hand this suitcase to a porter with instructions to take good care of it. Webster would then walk briskly down the station platform, making abrupt turns as he went. The suitcase, however, would not follow these turns, shooting off into space with an alarmed porter hanging on desperately and with the assembled greeters responding with hilarity.

Webster was concerned about the need for the standardization of physical units in the United States. He is thought to have brought the matter before a meeting on 24 February 1890 of the Council of the American Physical Society. He was made chairman of a committee to draw up a resolution to present to Congress to establish a "Bureau of Weights and Measures." One year later Congress, acting on resolutions from several scientific societies, voted to establish the National Bureau of Standards in Washington D.C. where it remained for the first three quarters of the twentieth century.

Sadly, this brilliant classical scientist and leader in the American physics community became apprehensive about his future. He was unable to accept the revolutionary ideas that were rapidly emerging in physics. He was especially distressed about the growing acceptance of relativity and quantum theories. Further contributing to Webster's concerns, G. Stanley Hall retired as president in 1920 and was succeeded by Wallace W. Atwood, a Harvard geographer whose first act was to establish "The Graduate School of Geography." Atwood soon forced two full professors of mathematics into retirement and abolished that graduate department. Atwood then filled the two faculty vacancies with geographers. It was rumored that physics would be the next to go; indeed, Atwood offered Webster only a one-year renewal of his faculty appointment. Webster, who had consistently rejected numerous offers from other universities, became fearful for his professional future. On 13 May 1923 he killed himself with a pistol.

The legacy to Clark physics left by Webster was the fall of the University from the forefront of physics; while others were building, Clark was eclipsed. With the death of Webster came the end of the prestigious doctoral program in physics at Clark.