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UAV 691

Harvard University. Department of Physics. Records of the Harvard University Department of Physics : an inventory

Harvard University Archives


Harvard University

© President and Fellows of Harvard College

Descriptive Summary

Call No.: UAV 691
Repository: Harvard University Archives
Creator: Harvard University. Department of Physics.
Title: Records of the Harvard University Department of Physics, 1879-1983 (textual records) and 2007-2013 (web archive)
Date(s): 1879-1983 (textual records)
Date(s): and 2007-2013 (web archive)
Quantity: 52 cubic feet (157 document boxes, 1 portfolio folder, and archived web content)
Language of materials: English
Abstract: Physics has been a part of the college curriculum since 1642. These records document the efforts of the Harvard University Department of Physics to remain at the forefront of original experimental research through the development of curriculum, interaction with other sciences, construction of facilities and collaborative research.

Acquisition Information:

  • Accession number 07996, Physics Laboratories, 1976 October 15
  • Accession number 08551, Dept. of Physics, 1978 December 12
  • Accession number 10092, Dr. Katherine Sopka, 1984 May 23
  • Accession number 10746, Dept. of Physics, 1986 June 9
  • Accession number 11278, Dept. of Physics, 1987 November 16
  • 2007 February 26 - and later accruals Captures of Dept. of Physics web site through WAX, Harvard's web archiving service
  • Custodial Information:

    The records of the Department of Physics came to the Archives in several accessions, including unnumbered accessions starting in the 1930's. Accruals of both paper holdings and web content are expected in the future.

    Processing Information:

    Textual records processed by Andrea Goldstein April-June 1999. Web archival content first described by Kate Bowers April 2010.
    Processing staff in the Harvard University Archives re-arranged the Records of the Department of Physics in 1999. Re-arrangement included consolidation of series, creation of subseries, re-numbering of boxes, elimination of separate call numbers, creation of this finding aid, and archival re-containering of fragile material. Processing staff discarded duplicate records and records that did not meet the collection policy of the Harvard University Archives as expressed in the General Records Schedule.

    Conditions on Use and Access:

    Access to unpublished archival records is restricted for 50 years from the date of creation of the record(s). Access to student and personnel records is restricted for 80 years. See reference staff for details. No restrictions on access apply to published records or archived web content.
    The Records of the Dept. of Physics are stored in an off-site facility. Researchers are advised to contact Reference Staff for more information concerning retrieval of material.

    Allied Material in the Harvard University Archives

    University Records


    History of the Department of Physics

    The study of physics has been part of the Harvard College curriculum since 1642, when the text was by Aristotle and physics was found in a branch of the humanities called natural philosophy. However, development came quickly, and the 17th century saw Harvard's curriculum embrace the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Bacon, and Descartes through the selection of a new text, Charles Morton's Compendium Physicae and through the gift to Harvard of its first piece of physics apparatus, a telescope.
    During the 18th century, the study of natural philosophy became a more prominent feature of the curriculum. Notable are that the first professorship at Harvard in the field was established, the collection of apparatus grew, the space occupied for physical studies was enlarged, and two expeditions for astronomical observation were carried out. Also during the 18th century, Harvard began creating its own texts for use in the curriculum; publication in physics by Harvard expanded throughout the century.
    The 19th century began with an expansion of the Harvard curriculum to include applied science as well as pure science, and the "Department of Physics" was established as an entity separate from mathematics. The name reflected the updated vocabulary of science. Harvard's interest in applied science also took shape in the Lawrence Scientific School, a professional school offering systematic instruction in the practical sciences. Laboratory experimentation in physics by students and research by faculty were encouraged and a departmental library was established. This curricular expansion contributed to the fact that the department twice outgrew its space. Eventually the Jefferson Physical Laboratory was constructed to meet the demand for classroom, laboratory and office space. The first evidence of concern over the difficulty in finding qualified students surfaced in the late 19th century, when Harvard established curriculum guidelines and publications for instruction of secondary school physics.
    In the first third of the twentieth century, after some administrative upheaval, the study of Physics at Harvard for both graduate and undergraduate students coalesced administratively under the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. The space occupied for study and experimentation grew with the construction of two new laboratories, one of which included a research library. The First World War initiated the Department of Physics' role in defense. Its members taught military personnel, served in the military, and performed defense research. The 1930s saw increased interest and investigation into the fields of nuclear science and computer science. In order to meet the research needs of its faculty, the Department oversaw construction of both a high-energy particle accelerator and an automatic calculating machine. Peacetime research was again interrupted for defense purposes during the Second World War. One of the most visible effects was the removal of the Harvard Cyclotron to Los Alamos, New Mexico, in 1943. Again, Harvard personnel served in the military, instructed military personnel, or were members of defense research teams.
    Following the War, a new cyclotron and nuclear laboratory were built, with funding for construction and research coming primarily from defense contracts. The strengths of the Department included experimental and high energy physics which led to the construction in the early 1960's of a number of specialized research facilities such as the Cambridge Electron Accelerator (CEA). The Department continued its commitment to secondary school physics education with the program "Harvard Project Physics." As faculty interest in the CEA grew, use of the cyclotron fell; by 1967 it was used primarily for medical purposes.
    n the last third of the 20th century, the opening of the Science Center led indirectly to the Department revamping its curriculum, developing closer research and instructional relationships with the faculties of the other sciences, and moving its instructional library. The CEA was decommissioned in 1973 and its facilities became the Department's High Energy Physics Laboratory. In the 1980s the Department concentrated efforts to increase the number of minority students in its graduate program and to strengthen selected areas of research. In January of 1999, the University announced plans to spend $200 million on new science programs, including a new research center to investigate the region between quantum and classical physics.

    Selected Bibliography of History of the Harvard University Department of Physics

    Organization of the Records

    Scope and Content of the Collection

    These records document the development and organization of the Department of Physics, its laboratories and libraries, as well as the academic, research and social life of the Department. Most of the records document the history of the Department from 1910 to 1983. The web content dates from 2007 and later.
    The paper records consist of materials created and received by Physics faculty, staff and students in the course of the daily management of the Department. The records cover such topics as curriculum development, defense research, history of the Department, the relationship between pure physics and applied science, faculty affairs, student life, social life, experimental and theoretical physics, library collection development, facilities and apparatus planning, construction, and maintenance. The majority of the Department's records are in chronological files located in the General Office Files subseries of the Administrative Records series. Researchers are encouraged to examine this series. Of particular interest are both the Laboratory and Historical Records series, which contain material relating to the Department's defense research and training programs during WWI and WWII, as well as design and construction files for both Harvard Cyclotrons.


    This document last updated 2013 April 5.

    Obsolete Call Numbers

    The following list provides a map to old call numbers that were eradicated by Archives staff during re-processing. All of the records of the Department of Physics now fall under the single call number of UAV 691.

    Container List