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Talk of the Archives


The making of Caltech's first Nobel: Robert Millikan's road to Stockholm

Robert A. Millikan Nobel medal

Throughout its history, Caltech has accumulated an exceptional record of prestigious awards, conferred to its outstanding scientists for their groundbreaking research and discoveries.

The Nobel Prize, awarded by the Swedish Academy of Science, holds a cherished place among international recognitions. Caltech is privileged to count 34 Nobelists (and 35 prizes) among its faculty and alumni.

Among them, physicist Robert A. Millikan is doubly special: as the first Caltech recipient, and as a founding father of the Institute. Millikan's command of physics and extraordinary experimental skills were on par with his charisma and administrative acumen. He was a masterful teacher, and the author of countless textbooks; his research spanned fields as diverse as electromagnetism, optics, molecular physics, and cosmic rays.

For his intuition, dedication, creativity, and curiosity, Millikan is a paragon of 20th century physics, and an enduring inspiration for generations of Techers.

On the occasion of the 2016 Nobel Prize announcements, the Caltech Archives is pleased to present an illustrated account of Millikan's road to Stockholm. -EP
Visit the online collection here.

Posted 9-30-2016



For the first time the Caltech Archives is making available online an entire multi-media collection.

A Caltech alumnus (MS physics, 1948; PhD aeronautics, 1952), Paul MacCready was a visionary, an inventor and an entrepreneur who pioneered alternative energy solutions through his company, AeroVironment. In the 1970s he began work on the celebrated human-powered Gossamer aircraft series, beginning with the Gossamer Condor. He continued to work on the problems of solar-powered flight and unmanned aircraft, but his interest in environmentally friendly technology also led him to innovative electric and hybrid automotive vehicles, micro-air vehicles and the high altitude, long endurance Helios solar aircraft for telecommunications, imaging and scientific research.

The collection includes a diverse array of documents, media, and objects—manuscripts and printed material; awards; videos and film; photographs and slides, diaries and notebooks; memorabilia, biographical material and ephemera—all created over a span of over 70 years (ca. 1930-2002). It is very fitting with Paul MacCready's innovative and entrepreneurial personality that his collection is the first one to be accessible on the internet in its entirety. 

The project was made possible by a generous gift from the MacCready family. -MS
Visit the online collection here. Posted 8-15-2016


Time to celebrate: Caltech Commencement three decades ago

The students marching toward Beckman Mall

It's 1986. Many know it as the year when Halley's comet painted the sky, the Mets beat the Red Sox in the World Series, and the Bangles "walked like Egyptians".

But for the students who marched through Beckman Mall in cap and gown, surrounded by cheering friends and family, 1986 will always be remembered as the year of their graduation.

Eyeglasses may have been larger and hairdos fluffier, but the 2016 graduating class feels the same pride for their achievements, and holds the same hopes for brilliant futures in invention, exploration, and discovery—lives as true Techers.

To celebrate Caltech's 122nd Commencement and congratulate a new generation of distinguished graduates, the Caltech Archives is pleased to present a photographic gallery from thirty years ago, when President Marvin Goldberger led the Commencement exercises, and Caltech alumnus Arnold Beckman, inventor and entrepreneur, delivered the address. EP
Visit the photographic gallery here. Posted 6-9-2016


April Fool, the Caltech way

The 2001 Olive Walk chair prank

At Caltech, pranks are an integral part of student life. Over the years students pranked their comrades, student Houses pranked other Houses, and their witty machinations often spread outside campus.

The pranks were varied, involving furniture, vehicles, and even architecture, but all share the trademark Caltech ingenuity, and the sheer pleasure of working together to solve difficult problems. This light side of Caltech life, on par with scientific achievement, remains a highlight among the memories of many alumni.

For this year's April Fools Day, the Caltech Archives pay a photographic tribute to all the Caltech students who, over the decades, have used their creativity, imagination and hard work to explore not only the boundaries of science, but also those of humor and merriment. - EP
Visit the photographic gallery here
. Posted 3-31-2016




The 1991 Caltech's Centennial float

On January 1, 1991, Caltech kicked off its centennial celebrations with a magnificent and elaborate Rose Parade float entitled "For every action... a reaction."

Befitting Caltech's spirit of daring cleverness, the float featured a Rube-Goldberg device of unmatched complexity, culminating in the proverbial apple being dropped on Isaac Newton's head. The float was circled by nine giant beavers, who energized the crowd and thrilled children.

Many Caltech students helped decorate the float with flowers, while mechanical-engineering majors built and carefully tested the complex computer-controlled machinery. Nevertheless, the computer malfunctioned at show time, leaving the float operators to heroically match actions to reactions by hand.

The 1991 float wowed crowds and impressed commenters, and it is remembered fondly by the alumni, students, faculty, staff, and family members who contributed their inspiration and perspiration to build it.- EP
Visit the online exhibit here. Posted 12-20-2015


There's something about Harry

Harry Burkus Gray

As Caltech prepares to celebrate Harry Burkus Gray's 80th birthday and the 25th anniversary of the Beckman Institute, the Archives wishes to send our best to Dr. Gray. We would also like to briefly acquaint everyone with this unique and generous individual.
As a scientist, Dr. Gray has played an important role in the development of the school of inorganic chemistry and in linking that field to biochemistry. Among his many awards—too numerous to list here—is his receiving 1986 National Medal of Science in 1986 "for his pioneering research in bioinorganic chemistry and inorganic photochemistry." And Dr. Gray's seminal work on long-range electron transfer reactions in proteins has been a unifying theme for much of his and his group's research. In 1989, Dr. Gray was honored by becoming the first Director of the then newly established Beckman Institute at Caltech.
Though a well-respected scientist, Dr. Gray has always had a passion for teaching, mixing science with some creativity and a little fun—thereby becoming a beloved teacher in the truest sense of the word, and living by his motto, "You've got to keep people excited." [Dr. Gray's interview in the December 1991 issue of Caltech News, page 3]
And finally, as Founding Director of the Beckman Institute, where the Archives resides, over many years we have found Dr. Gray to have been a supportive "landlord"—respectful of, and interested in, our mission. Here then, is the Archives tribute to Dr. Gray, and the "ManySides of Harry!" -LK
Visit the online exhibit here. Posted 11-11-2015


The media frenzy at JPL, July 14, 1965

On July 14 and 15, 1965, the world's attention centered on Mariner 4 when it began transmitting a series of 22 grainy black & white pictures of the Martian surface as it made its closest approach to Mars.

Launched on November 28, 1964, the spacecraft performed the first successful flyby of Mars and gave us the first images ever taken from deep space of another planet—revealing a cold, cratered, moon-like surface, rather than an Earth-like planet as originally assumed would be the case. Learn more LK

Posted 7-13-2015



1965 Commencement
Speaker Frank Stanton addressing the 1965 graduating class. Photo credit: James McClanahan

The pomp and cheerful animation of commencement ceremonies mark an important milestone for students and their families, who savor the culmination of years of hard work, and the beginning of a new phase of life. To celebrate this year's Commencement, the Caltech Archives are pleased to present a photographic gallery of the 1965 Commencement exercises, performed during the tenure of President Lee A. DuBridge. The speaker that year was Frank Stanton, president of CBS at the time.
Although many things have changed in the last 50 years, we believe that the class of 2015 will recognize themselves in the youthful enthusiasm of their 1965 predecessors and we congratulate this and all generations of outstanding Caltech graduates. EP
[We would appreciate your help in identifying any of the people seen in this online exhibit; please free to contact us]. Visit the online exhibit here. Posted 6-8-2015


Einstein lecturing at the offices of the Mt. Wilson Observatory (Carnegie Institution, Pasadena).
Photo ID 1.8-2

In collaboration with the Einstein Papers Project, the Caltech Archives has mounted an exhibit honoring the centenary of Einstein's publication of the theory of general relativity in 1915. The exhibit may be viewed on the second floor of Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration. The display focuses on Einstein's visits to Caltech in the early 1930s during which he discussed the implications growing out of the theory of relativity with scientists in Pasadena, both at Caltech and at the Mount Wilson Observatory. The California public and press, while understanding little of the science, were lavish in their attention to the world's most famous scientist. Visit the online exhibit here. Posted 3-27-2015 and 5-29-2015



The 1961 Rose Bowl will be long remembered for the stunning prank pulled off by Caltech undergrads during the scheduled half-time card stunt.

Unwitting Washington fans displayed "Caltech" instead of a picture of Washington's mascot, a smiling Husky dog, thanks to supremely clever maneuvering by diabolical Techers. After a long hunt by one alumnus, the only known original color photograph of the redirected stunt, taken inside the Rose Bowl, has been located and donated to the Caltech Archives.

For the full story of the photograph click here. Posted 12-22-2014

Beckman Museum to open first Friday afternoons

Arnold Beckman portrait
Arnold Beckman portrait.
Photo ID AOB7.5-8
The Beckman Room on the ground floor of the Beckman Institute (room 131) is a small museum devoted to the history of chemistry and to the scientific and philanthropic work of Arnold O. Beckman. Starting on October 3, the museum will be open to walk-in visitors from 1 to 4 PM on the first Friday of each month. The museum is also open by appointment to individuals and groups.

Please contact the for appointment information. More information about the room and its displays may be found here. Posted 9-28-2014


Welcome to Kristin Antelman, Caltech’s new University Librarian

With a strong background in digital library management, Kristin Antelman brings Antelman phototo Caltech an understanding of the profound changes that have affected library services in the last decade. For the Caltech Archives, an informed application of new technologies to support digital collections will be fundamental to maintaining the historical record of the Institute.

We look forward to working with Kristin as we develop our 21st-century archival management know-how. Further information: Interview with Kristin Antelman.

Posted 8-28-2014

On Display now: Archimedes and the Recovery of Greek Mathematics

Visit the online exhibit here

Early printed editions of classical Greek mathematics from the Caltech Archives’ collection are on exhibit from April 7 through July 31, 2014. Beginning with the first edition of the complete known works of Archimedes in both Greek and Latin published in Basel in 1544, the display includes 16th-century Italian editions of Euclid and Archimedes that were used by Galileo in his mathematical studies.

Portrait of Archimedes from the 1792 Oxford edition of his works in Greek and Latin.  Caltech Archives Rare Book Collection.

The first English translation of Euclid’s Elements from 1570 and editions of Archimedes and Apollonius of Perga published in the 18th century by the Oxford press are shown, as well as the 17th-century French edition of Diophantus of Alexandria’s Arithmetica—the work that inspired Pierre de Fermat’s last conjecture. The exhibit is located on the second floor of Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration and may be viewed during weekdays, 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM. The Caltech exhibit complements the Huntington Library’s “Lost & Found: The Secrets of Archimedes” (March 15-June 22, 2014). Posted 4-16-2014


New Photo Search launched

Archives' patrons may now use our new online photo collection, the Caltech Image Archive. The new digital collection uses the Islandora open source framework for the management of digital assets. Images may be browsed or searched. The Image Archive is the first of several digital collections planned for presentation by the Archives.

The Archives' legacy digital image search, PhotoNet, has been decommissioned. Its original data forms the backbone of the new digital collection, which will be augmented with new graphic material on a regular basis.  The collection includes over 10,000 historic and contemporary photographs of people and places, reproductions of historic scientific artifacts and art, and illustrations drawn from Caltech's exceptional rare book collection in the history of science. Posted 12-16-2013

New Archives Request System!

As of June 20, 2013, all patrons are required to create an account in order to make an appointment in the Caltech Archives or to order reproductions of archival materials for study or for publication. Please follow the link provided to proceed to registration. Once you have registered, your account will be valid for 12 months.

The page of the Archives' new request system.

An automatic request to update your account will be issued after 12 months. Please note that our former online Contact Form has been disabled. For those patrons who simply have questions or want additional information, you are welcome to e-mail or phone us per instructions on our Contact page. For more information, see our detailed Access Policy. Posted 06-20-2013

New Archives Request System coming soon!

Beginning in late June, the Caltech Archives will launch an online patron registration and request system. We will use Aeon, a product of Atlas Systems, Inc. All Archives' users will be required to create an individual account, and active Caltech-affiliated patrons will be able to use access.caltech credentials for quick authentication.
The new request system will allow patrons to manage and review their own requests, download materials electronically, and schedule appointments for on-site visits. Additionally, patrons will be able to send requests for materials directly from our collection guides at the Online Archive of California (OAC) web site. The Archives will continue to welcome contact by e-mail or phone. Posted 06-17-2013

Looking Back: Alumni mini-interviews now online

Prof. Daugherty chatting with other attendees at Seminar Day, 1977. Photo ID RLD9.3-2

On Caltech's Alumni Seminar Day in May 2012, the Archives recorded short interviews with eight alumni volunteers. Several of these interviews may now be read in transcript form at our oral history web site. The interviews are grouped for easy retrieval under Alumni Seminar Day as subject. Alums related entertaining stories from their student years, replete with pranks and social antics. They also spoke about the seriousness of their days on campus, the hard work, and the high value of a Caltech education in later life.
This year on Seminar Day, May 18, the Caltech Archives will again host alumni for 10 to 15-minute recording sessions between 12 noon and 2 PM at the Sherman Fairchild Library. Interested alums are warmly invited to drop in. Read more about the Alumni Reunion weekend 2013. Posted 4-5-2013


Art Center Exhibit "PAGES" extended until January 27

Public enthusiasm for the Art Center College of Design's PAGES has resulted in an extension of the exhibit for an additional two weeks, until January 27. An evening of literary readings organized by LitFest Pasadena will take place in the gallery on Sunday, January 6. Posted 12-14-2012

Art Center Exhibit "PAGES" to Include Caltech Treasures

The exhibit PAGES flyer

On the evening of October 12, coinciding with Pasadena's Art Night, the Art Center College of Design will open its new exhibit titled "Pages". The exhibit explores the role of the page in its many manifestations in forming and preserving collective memory. Entry to the exhibit is free to the public beginning at 6 PM.
Three artifacts will be on loan to the exhibit from the Caltech Archives: two rare books and one sheet of mathematical calculations on a placemat. The books are a volume from the historic atlas of cities of the world, Civitates orbis terrarum, printed in Cologne around 1600, and an account of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755 printed in Germany. The page of calculations is by Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner in Physics (1965), late Caltech faculty member, and sometime diner at Gianonni's bar in Altadena.
Materials from the Albert Einstein papers will also be shown, courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives of Jerusalem and the Einstein Papers Project at Caltech.
"Pages" is curated by Stephen Nowlin and John David O'Brien and will be mounted in the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at the Art Center Hillside Campus, 1700 Lida Street, Pasadena. Posted 10-01-2012

Alumni stories from Seminar Day 2012

Photo ID CaltechY 3.6-4

The Caltech Archives and Library captured nine sessions of alumni reminiscences on Seminar Day, May 19, for inclusion in the Oral History Project. Degree years ranged from 1943 to 1997, and engineering grads led the way, followed by math and physics. Recounting of pranks and social life was a popular theme, but some alums also took a moment to reflect positively on the value of a Caltech education. Recordings will be transcribed and released (with permission) for inclusion in the Archives' collection and for online publication in the Library's digital repository. For more details, contact us. Posted 5-22-2012

Bring your stories to Seminar Day 2012

The Caltech Archives and Library will be running a session for alumni to record a 10-minute story for inclusion in the Oral History Project. "Caltech Oral Histories in the Making" will take place from 12:30 to 2:30 PM on Saturday, May 19, in the Sherman Fairchild Library. On a first-come, first-served basis, alums may capture on audio tape a favorite professor story, a worst/best day of student life, or any good story about their Caltech years. Recordings will be transcribed and released (with permission) for inclusion in the Archives' collection and for online publication in the Library's digital repository. For more details, contact us. Posted 5-11-2012


Historic footage of the Palomar Observatory now online

200-inch mirror in the astrophysics optical shop on the Caltech campus.
Photo ID 10.16-16

Palomar Observatory stars in the first archival video posted to the web by the Caltech Archives. Original footage of the Observatory’s construction, along with images of the preparation of the 200-inch mirror in the astrophysics optical shop on the Caltech campus, may be viewed at the Internet Archive. Dating from the period 1936-1940, two of three extant reels of historical footage have been digitized as part of California Light and Sound, a series of moving images of California history. The project is managed and funded by the California Audiovisual Preservation Project, funded and operated by the California Digital library. The third reel is scheduled to be digitized and made accessible in the coming year. Posted 9-8-2011

A Display of Medals and Awards

National Medal
of Science, first awarded to Theodore von Kármán in 1962.

Caltech's scientists and engineers have won a magnificent array of prizes. The bar was set high by Robert A. Millikan, George Ellery Hale and Arthur Amos Noyes—the triumvirate of Caltech's founding fathers. Millikan won Caltech's first Nobel Prize in 1923. Today the Institute claims 31 Nobel laureates from the ranks of its faculty and alumni. But there are other stellar awards, decorations and citations to be celebrated, many of them embodied in visually striking form or presented under deeply memorable circumstances. The current display, located on the second floor of Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration, provides a close-up view of some of these grand marks of distinction, drawn from collections in the Caltech Archives. For full information on the exhibit, click here. Posted 4-5-2011


ON THE MAP Exhibit


Detail of map of southern Russia, published by
Abraham Ortelius in the first atlas, 1570.

A selection of rare maps and related books from the Archives is currently on view for the Caltech community on the second floor of Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration. Beginning with one of the earliest prints of Ptolemy's map of the world, the exhibit covers the themes of mapping the earth, mapping the skies, and the mapping of longitude. Highlights include a beautifully bound edition of the Braun and Hogenberg atlas, Towns of the World, dating from 1572, which contains hand-colored copperplate engravings that will charm today's armchair traveler. Several celestial and star maps are not only works of art but incorporate important observational data. Finally, the quest for accurate measurement of time and its relation to the determination of longitude is portrayed in part by Cassini's famous meridian in Bologna and by Huygens's invention of the pendulum clock. Posted 10-5-2010

The Campus turns 100

Throop Hall,
Caltech's first building, dedicated June 8, 1910. Photo ID 40.4-70

Caltech celebrated the centennial of its founding in 1991, but the current campus is having its own 100th birthday in 2010. The complex of six schools that formed Throop Polytechnic Institute, Caltech’s predecessor, broke apart in 1910. The first building on the current campus, Throop Hall, was dedicated June 8, 1910, and was paid for by the citizens of Pasadena—and was originally named Pasadena Hall. The campus occupied the 28 acres bounded by Wilson and Hill Avenues on east and west and by San Pasqual Street and California Boulevard on north and south—only about 20 percent of the present grounds. The newly reformed Throop was to be collegiate only and devoted to the education of top-level engineers and scientists. The former lower division became the independent Polytechnic School, located just across California Boulevard from the new college.
Until it was irretrievably damaged by the 1971 San Fernando earthquake, Throop Hall stood at the center of the new campus.  The original campus plan dates from 1908.  It was later superseded by the work of renowned architect Bertram Goodhue. Posted 5-3-2010


A Feynman Fiftieth

Feynman in 1959
Photo ID 1.10-48

"What I want to talk about is the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale." So Richard Feynman stated the topic of his talk at the American Physical Society meeting on the Caltech campus, December 29, 1959: "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom." Fifty years later, much has been written about Feynman's role in launching the nanotechnology revolution. The historic importance of the talk is undisputed, and we celebrate its half-century mark in the Caltech Archives with some photos and documents related to the original occasion. See both our homepage PHOTO GALLERY and IN THE NEWS. The Archives is home to the Richard Feynman Papers. Posted 12-1-2009

Changing of the guard

Judy Goodstein in a 1974 photo

On October 1, 2009, Judith R. Goodstein retired after 41 years as Caltech's first university archivist. After receiving her PhD in the history of science from the University of Washington, Goodstein came to Caltech in 1968 to create an institutional archive formed around the papers of Caltech's faculty and administrators, beginning with George Ellery Hale, Robert Millikan, and Theodore von Kármán.

Shelley Erwin

Among many other scholarly achievements, Goodstein wrote a history of Caltech, Millikan's School (1991). Goodstein is succeeded in the Archives by long-time associate archivist Shelley Erwin.
Posted 10-1-2009


Volterra's chronicle continues

First published in English in 2007, University Archivist Judith Goodstein's biography of Vito Volterra is now out in an Italian edition, Vito Volterra: Biografia di un matematico straordinario.
This book describes the life and times of one of Europe's most important scientists and mathematicians, whose contributions continue to influence fields as diverse as economics, physics, and ecology. Volterra (1860-1940) was an eminent scientist and Jewish intellectual, a passionate Italian patriot and a devoted family man. His life's story encompasses the rebirth of science in the new Italian state, the rise of Italian Jewry, and its travails under Mussolini's Fascist state. Posted 07-17-2009

Commencements past and present.

Photo ID 20.7-8

Caltech's Commencement archive runs from 1920, the year the school became the California Institute of Technology, to the present. In 1920 the Commencement speaker was Dr. George Ellery Hale, Director of the Mt. Wilson Observatory and Institute trustee, who spoke on "Scientific Research as the Foundation of Engineering Education and Industrial Development." Caltech awarded its very first PhD —to Roscoe Gilkey Dickinson in chemistry. The ceremony was held in front of Gates Laboratory (now Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration). The Institute awarded 31 bachelors and 3 masters degrees, in addition to the first doctorate. Posted 06-12-2009

Highlights from the Seymour Benzer papers: The correspondence with Francis Crick (1955-2004).

Photo ID 10.24-187

Seymour Benzer learned about the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA from Francis Crick's collaborator, James Watson, at a lecture at Cold Spring Harbor in 1953. His correspondence with Crick starts two years later, in 1955, when Crick expressed interest in Benzer's work on the fine structure of the gene. Benzer worked with Crick at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge in 1957-58, and the correspondence over the next few years points to a close collaboration between the two men. The letters of 1960-1962 are especially noteworthy with discussion of each other's findings, honest comments on drafts of each other's papers, and also, some indications that the relationship was not always so smooth. Benzer's practical mapping techniques and his success in showing the physical nature of the gene helped Crick's more theoretical orientation and contributed to his fundamental work in understanding the genetic code in the 1960's. In addition, Benzer's papers provide detailed information on the formation of the Salk Institute, in which both men were involved. Posted 05-07-2009

Seymour Benzer's papers donated to the Caltech Archives.

Photo ID 10.24-12

Seymour Benzer (1921-2007), the father of neurogenetics, was one of the leading biologists of his time. His papers, presented to Caltech by his family in 2008, are now being arranged for future access by researchers. Benzer's scientific interests covered three distinct fields: physics (semiconductors), molecular biology (bacteriophage genetics) and neurobiology (the relationship between genes and behavior, working with mutants of the fruit fly Drosophila). These three fields are highlighted in the wealth of material: research notebooks, correspondence and reprints. The notebooks demonstrate his meticulous work over close to 70 years of scientific creativity and innovation. The correspondence reflects his cooperation and lifelong relationships with some of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, including numerous Nobel Prize winners. His correspondents include Francis Crick, James Watson, Francois Jacob, Salvador Luria, Max Delbruck, Eric Kandel, Sydney Brenner and Renato Dulbecco. The material also reveals his role as mentor and advisor to generations of students. Posted 04-09-2009

Robert A. Millikan's oil drop experiment is known to every student of physics.

Photo ID 1.22-8

Now his actual notebooks, in which he meticulously recorded his painstaking measurements, may be viewed online. Millikan began his attempt to measure the charge on the electron in 1907. The only two lab notebooks which he kept until the end of this life, and which are now in the Caltech Archives, record his conclusive work on this problem during the period from October 1911 through April 1912. Millikan won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1923. The notebooks are presented in digital facsimile in the Archives' new repository titled Lab Notes Online within the Caltech Libraries' Digital Collections (CODA). Additional lab notes and data by others will be added to this repository over time. Posted 03-2009

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