Iterating Infrastructure from High Volts to X-Rays to Nuclear Physics: Early Caltech Science in the Archives

📺 Peter Sachs Collopy, Caltech Physics Colloquium, January 13, 2022

In the 1920s and 1930s, Caltech iteratively developed infrastructure for research on high-voltage electricity, x-rays, and nuclear physics. In 1923, the Institute built the High Voltage Research Laboratory, now the Ronald and Maxine Lind Hall of Mathematics and Physics, with funding from Southern California Edison, which used the unique million-volt high-bay research facility to test high-voltage transmission equipment. Among Caltech’s faculty, electrical engineer Royal Sorensen invented the cascade transformer for the facility, and physicist Robert Millikan planned to use its power to dismantle the atom and achieve the alchemists’ dream of transmutation of matter. Instead, though, Millikan’s student Charles Lauritsen made High Volts a key site for high-voltage x-ray research, including on the uses of radiation therapy for cancer, bringing medical physics to Caltech in the early 1930s. Lauritsen and his students in turn modified their x-ray tubes to conduct research in nuclear physics, realizing Millikan’s vision of deconstructing the atom. These three research programs built on each other, repurposing apparatus and thus ultimately the resources of the electricity industry to develop experimental physics in new directions. In this talk, I will use this early history of Caltech physics to think about both how research programs are shaped by the material resources of earlier projects and what we can learn from the collections of the Caltech Archives.

Subjects: Caltech, engineering, laboratories, physics, science, technology, universities
Category: presentations