Chemistry Comes to Caltech

Peter Sachs Collopy, Caltech, 2020

As we mentioned in our presentations two weeks ago, the Throop of the 1910s and the Caltech of the 1920s were deeply shaped by astrophysicist George Ellery Hale’s vision for the institution. Hale came to Pasadena to found and direct Mount Wilson Observatory, but had just as much influence as a trustee of the local college.

Hale’s own education had been at MIT, which became a model both for what Throop should be and for what it should not. Among his instructors in 1887 was the chemist Arthur Amos Noyes, who was only two years older and had just earned his BS and MS, also from MIT. The two men became friends. At the end of the year, Noyes—like many young American scientists of his time—travelled to Germany to study for his PhD. He conducted research on the solubility of salts in the laboratory of physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, and earned his PhD from the University of Leipzig in 1890, the same year Hale earned his BS.

Noyes returned to MIT and taught organic, analytical, and physical chemistry, publishing a textbook on each. “A characteristic of Chemical Principles was the use of problems so phrased as to lead the student to derive the basic equations,” wrote one of Noyes’ students’ students, Linus Pauling. His “books have been described as revolutionizing the teaching of analytical chemistry and physical chemistry in America.” Noyes also founded the Review of American Chemical Research, which became Chemical Abstracts. In 1904, he became the youngest president yet of the American Chemical Society.

Noyes’ research, meanwhile, concerned the chemical properties of rare elements and incorporating them into chemical analysis. In 1903, Noyes founded the Research Laboratory of Physical Chemistry at MIT, which trained the first MIT students to receive PhDs. Even though he had spent his entire career there, Noyes often found himself at odds with his colleagues, particularly about pedagogy. Engineers should study physics, chemistry, and mathematics, he argued, telling a group of freshmen that without science “you would be only rule-of-thumb engineers, who could imitate, but not initiate.” Noyes and Hale also agreed that engineers should study the arts and humanities.

From 1907 to 1909, Noyes served as acting president of MIT. He left the position frustrated, and Hale began wooing him to come to Throop and build a new research institute together. “If you chose,” wrote Hale, “you would be given a free hand to develop the Engineering School [or] to devote yourself entirely to chemical research, simply giving us the privilege of discussing with you the problems encountered in working out the educational scheme.”

At first, Noyes declined, but in 1913 Hale sweetened the offer. If Noyes would only visit and teach for two months, wrote Hale, Throop would provide him a new laboratory building. Noyes agreed, and all that remained for Throop was to raise funds to build the laboratory. “I don’t know where this building is coming from,” Hale confessed in a letter to his wife.

Trustee Charles Warner Gates, who had amassed his fortune in the Arkansas lumber industry before retiring to South Pasadena, pledged $25,000 toward the project. He soon recruited his brother and business partner Peter Goddard Gates to contribute as well. Arthur Fleming, who had donated more to Throop than anyone else, promised another $20,000 for equipment and salaries, but only on the condition that Noyes agree to resettle permanently in Pasadena. College president James A.B. Scherer, who until now had left negotiations to Hale, wired Noyes to urge him to accept the offer, calling it “Throop’s superlative opportunity.”

Noyes, though, made a counteroffer. He would split his time between Throop and MIT for two years as an experiment. In 1915, the parties agreed on this arrangement. Noyes, a lifelong bachelor, would travel across the country alone by train several times over the next few years. On one visit to Throop, he addressed the school’s 91 students on his belief that science was necessary for engineering: “Industrial research is not the main research opportunity of educational institutions,” he told them. “The main field for education institutions is research in pure science itself—a study of fundamental principles and phenomena, without immediate reference to practical application.… Scientific investigation is the spring that feeds the stream of technical progress, and if the spring dries up the stream is sure to disappear.” Given the option of leaving the university, Noyes became still more assertive about his opinions at MIT as well; “I have become much more warlike,” he wrote to Hale.

As we heard from Loma two weeks ago, Throop’s leaders selected Los Angeles architect Elmer Grey to design the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry. They also asked Bertram Goodhue, who they had hired to develop a campus plan for Throop, to consult, and he designed a facade in the Spanish Colonial Revival style for which he was known.

On March 10, 1916, three years after it was first proposed, construction of the two-story, reinforced-concrete building began. When completed a year later, it contained, floor-by-floor, supply rooms and dedicated laboratories for technical analysis, chemical engineering, industrial chemistry, and photochemistry in the basement. The first floor contained a lecture hall, an additional supply room, and laboratories for organic and inorganic chemistry. The second floor contained a library, a shop, and additional laboratories for physical chemistry, analytical chemistry, and research. Here are some of the laboratories. “I remember very specially the aromatic smell of the Gates Laboratory,” Caltech chemist John Roberts later recalled of touring the building as a teenager. “They used to run chemistry demonstrations in the big lab, and those were absolutely fascinating. It was a marvelous thing for a young person to be exposed to that.” Noyes’ himself sometimes preferred not to leave the laboratory, and kept a cot and food in his office.

The building’s exterior featured carved stone and wrought-iron trim. Here you can see Gates in the foreground with Pasadena Hall—soon renamed Throop Hall—beyond it, and the Old Dorm beyond that. The road to upper right is California Boulevard; the one the lower left is the part of San Pasqual since replaced by a path through campus.

Noyes began spending a few months a year at Throop, and in 1919 he left MIT and made Pasadena his fulltime home. In Boston, Noyes was an avid sailor and named his yacht Research. In Pasadena, he bought a large touring car, a Cadillac, and invited new graduate students on camping trips in the desert.

During conversations about changing Throop’s name in 1919, Noyes voiced a strong opinion: “Even more vital” than new buildings, he wrote to Scherer, “both on the financial and on the educational and research side, would be the change of its name to the California Institute of… I do not care very much what word or words are put in place of the dots. I am still inclined to think that Science and Engineering is the best. The main thing is to remove the name Throop and to get attached to the Institution the name of the great state of California.” Two months later, the trustees followed Noyes’ advice, more or less, adopting the name California Institute of Technology.

During that first visit as faculty, Noyes brought along his former student Charles Lalor Burdick from MIT. Burdick had also studied in Germany, where he had travelled in July 1914, the month World War I began, on the last regular German ship to sail from New York to Hamburg. As he completed his PhD, Burdick worked alongside “then two young, comparatively unknowns by the names of [Otto] Hahn and [Lise] Meitner,” who later discovered nuclear fission. He then conducted postdoctoral research with Fritz Haber, famous for his work on the Haber-Bosch process for nitrogen fixation in order to synthesize ammonia, which made possible the production of synthetic fertilizer and explosives. Haber would become equally famous for the poison gas he developed during World War I; Burdick seems to have worked on more basic research in physical chemistry, but was part of Haber’s lab during the same period of time. Burdick also attended lectures by physicists Max Planck and Albert Einstein.

Then, in early 1916, at the advice of Noyes, Burdick moved on London to work with William Henry Bragg. “Noyes expressed his strong belief,” wrote Burdick, “in the importance of x-ray atomic structure analysis for the future of theoretical chemistry, and his wish to get something of the kind started at MIT. It was not so simple for an impecunious, young, PhD of American neutrality without connections to get from Berlin to London during the period of the Zeppelin raids and unrestricted submarine warfare, but… it was accomplished.”

Bragg and his son Lawrence had founded the field of x-ray crystallography, determining the structures of crystals by observing how they diffract x-rays. “An interesting presentation could be made,” wrote Burdick, “of the primitiveness of the equipment then available, the old-fashioned induction coil with Leyden-jar containers and a mercury interruptor, the gas-filled x-ray tubes of unpredictable and uncertain output and ‘hardness,’ and gold-leaf electroscopes with the strangest static aberrations when it came to measuring ionization intensities.” Burdick spent six months in London, then returned to MIT, where Noyes asked him to build an improved x-ray spectrometer. A few months later, when Noyes brought Burdick to Throop, Burdick, Throop chemist James H. Ellis, and Pasadena instrument maker Fred Hensen built another spectrometer. “The things which made the original Caltech spectrometer probably the best of its day,” wrote Burdick, “were its high-power output and relative constancy of measured electrical energy to the tube. This gave possibilities for narrower spectrometer slits, precise angle measurement, sharp reflection peaks, and better measurement of relative reflection intensities of the spectral orders than had probably ever been made before.”

The US entered World War I in April 1917, redirecting research towards the war effort. Hale had recently founded the National Research Council for precisely this purpose, and Noyes served as chairman of both the Council itself and its Sub-Committee on Nitrates and Ammonia, among many other administrative appointments. Now on the other side of the war from his advisor Haber, Burdick worked on a problem Haber had tackled earlier, nitrogen fixation, for the US Ordnance Reserve.

After the war, Throop chemists returned to x-ray crystallography, which dominated chemistry research here for several years. In 1920, the newly-renamed Caltech awarded its first PhD to a student of Noyes, Roscoe Dickinson, for using x-ray crystallography to determine the structures of wulfenite, scheelite, sodium chlorate, and sodium bromate. “By the end of 1922,” wrote Linus Pauling later, “twenty papers had been published by members of the Division [of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering], of which fifteen were on the determination of the structure of crystals.”

Pauling himself arrived as a graduate student that fall, and began studying crystal structures under the direction of Noyes and Dickinson, who remained at Caltech as a professor and became his advisor. Here you can see his glass plate x-ray diffraction photograph of nickel chlorostannate hexahydrate crystal, one of several in the Caltech Archives. And the accompanying envelope with Pauling’s notes, and the publication resulting from this research. Pauling earned his PhD for x-ray crystallography work in 1925, then spent two years in Europe studying quantum physics with scientists including Neils Bohr and Erwin Schrödinger. In 1927, he returned to Caltech as a professor and began researching the quantum mechanics of the chemical bond, work for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1954.

With additional funding from Charles and Peter Gates, Caltech expanded Gates Laboratory in 1927. Bertram Goodhue had passed away in 1924, but his associates designed an annex that originally contained a new library and additional laboratories, offices, and classrooms. The Gates Annex incorporated Byzantine, Native American, Mayan, and Spanish influences.

Gates Laboratory of Chemistry remained a hub of research and teaching until the 1971 San Fernando earthquake left it so badly damaged that all activities in the building had to be relocated. After the earthquake, Gates was slated for demolition. Instead, the Institute elected to save the laboratory for future renovation. Its interior was gutted and the walls reinforced with structural steel and gunite. The building remained empty for nearly a decade, awaiting further repair.

Then, in 1980, funding from the Ralph M. Parsons and James Irvine foundations made possible the renovations necessary to convert the former laboratory into an administrative center. The building reopened in 1983. A year later, the Los Angeles Conservancy awarded the project its Preservation Award for “leadership in restoration and adaptive reuse of the Parsons-Gates Hall of Administration.”

Subjects: Caltech, chemistry, laboratories, universities
Category: presentations