Ryerson Physical Laboratory: A Brief History

This review appeared in the Winter/Spring 1973 issue of the University of Chicago Division of the Physical Sciences Reports. The Ryerson Physical Laboratory served the Department of Physics from 1894 until 1985; now the renovated building is the home of the Department of Computer Science.

The crennelated battlements surround a miniature observatory, enormous oak beams overlook physics laboratories, a spiral staircase corkscrews up the front tower, and iron filigree trims the central staircase. In the attics rest mementos beyond description.

This somewhat unlikely collection of neogothic grandeur is the Ryerson Physical Laboratory on the University campus. Site of early (and historical) work in the physical sciences, the building has sheltered several Nobel Prize winners, the Manhattan Project, and houses the continuing business of educating students at the University.

Dedicated 80 years ago [1894], the building represented the keen interest of Martin A. Ryerson, whose initial gift of $150,000 covered construction costs. The gift was presented in memory of Ryerson's father, a lumber merchant who died in 1887, three years before the University was founded.

Total cost for the laboratory was $200,371. To this, Ryerson added the building equipment and furniture. The list was impressive as President Harper described it in his speech at the dedication:

"The walls and floors are strong and heavy; the laboratories on the first floor are provided with piers of masonry in addition to the heavy slate wall-shelves which are found throughout the building. Every laboratory is provided with gas for light or fuel, electricity for light and power, water, compressed air, and vacuum pipes.

"The laboratories are also equipped with a system of heating apparatus which may be used as a direct or indirect system, and is controlled automatically by the most approved form of temperature regulators. Ducts and channels have been provided between the walls and floors, so that pipes or wires may be laid from one part of the building to the other without difficulty..."

A. A. Michelson, the distinguished physicist, was one of the first occupants of Ryerson, with an office on the first--and later the second--floor. He was one of a group of professors who left Clark University to come to The University of Chicago in 1892. Michelson was later the first American to win the Nobel Prize in science (1907) for spectroscopic and meteorological investigations.

Working with Michelson was Robert Andrews Millikan, who was appointed to an assistantship in physics in 1896. He became a full professor in 1910. Two years after leaving the University, his Nobel Prize in physics (1923) was awarded for his study, carried out in Ryerson, of the elementary electrical charge and the photoelectric effect.

A year after Millikan was appointed to his assistantship, Henry Gale was named a fellow. Together, Michelson and Gale carried out investigations of great importance: the observations of tides in the "solid" earth, and studies which led to present theories of light in moving media. The engines Michelson and later Gale built for ruling diffraction gratings--a fundamental tool for the study of spectra--remained in the Ryerson building's lower levels until the late 1940s.

"I was here earlier as a student, and had two courses with Millikan." Professor Robert S. Mulliken, in his office at the top of Ryerson, leans over a stack of old photographs and reminisces. "I inherited Michelson's office on the second floor and roll top desk. There was considerable upheaval...." The roll top desk disappeared during the war years. And the war work was not in much evidence, either. But considerable activity was underway. Says Mulliken: "It was called 'The Metallurgical Laboratory' and later 'The Plutonium Project' to conceal the fact that it was our atom bomb project...."

Robert S. Mulliken arrived--as a member of the staff--in 1928. "This was a great center for spectroscopic work....that's why I came." At that time there was a spectroscopic circle in the Ryerson basement. Now the nearest large spectroscope resides next door, in Eckhart. For his molecular orbital theory, Robert S. Mulliken received the 1966 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

A person very much concerned with the Manhattan Project was Arthur Holly Compton. He arrived at the University in 1923 as a Professor of Physics and later served as Chairman of the Department of Physics and Dean of the Division of Physical Sciences. He directed the "The Metallurgical Laboratory" from 1942 to 1945. His 1927 Nobel Prize in physics was for discovering the change in wave length of X-rays when scattered by matter.

And Ryerson was the central point of the activity. The University of Chicago, An Official Guide, published in 1928, adds a further description of the building after the annex dedication in 1913. "The basement of the main building contains twelve research rooms of great stability and uniformity of temperature. Three of the rooms have been lined on floor, walls, and ceiling with four inches of cork and provided with non-conducting doors." The building had, in fact, been constructed free from iron so there would be no magnetic disturbances. This is no longer true. But there were other activities which may have surprised the original designers.

For a time, Cloud Physics operated out of the Ryerson Annex. (Many of the Geophysical Science groups were scattered throughout the University until collected in the Henry Hinds Laboratory.) And Cloud Physics installed its wind tunnel on the Ryerson Annex roof. When the equipment was turned on, the sound bounced off nearby buildings and sensibilities, bringing enraged or terrified callers leaping to telephones in vigorous protest.

Then there were the balloons. After the University reclaimed the building from the Manhattan Project, balloons for the study of weather and of cosmic rays were launched from two platforms on the roof. As the balloons increased in size and sophistication, the launches were transferred to Stagg Field.

During most of the building's history, it served--and still serves--the purpose for which it was created: instruction. Hundreds and hundreds of students passed through Ryerson classrooms; indeed, anyone studying the physical sciences spends some time in the undergraduate instruction labs.

It is perhaps difficult to realize that most of the famous names in physics (and some who became famous later), were at home in Ryerson and later Eckhart. There were no Research Institutes, only the squash courts under Stagg Field. Potentially momentous work was going on in office cubicles, classrooms, and laboratories under the great oak beams supporting the Ryerson ceilings. It still is.

University of Chicago Division of the Physical Sciences Reports, Winter/Spring 1973

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