University of Texas
Celebrating a Century of Physics in Texas
by John David Gavenda


Celebrating a Century of Physics in Texas

(Presented at the meeting of the Texas Sections of the American Physical Society and the American Association of Physics Teachers in Austin, Texas, on October 29, 1999)

John David Gavenda

Photos from the J. M. Kuehne and the Prints and Photographic Collections
The Center for American History
The University of Texas at Austin

As all of you know by now, the American Physical Society is celebrating the One-Hundredth Anniversary of its founding this year. The Society held its major celebration in Atlanta in March, but has encouraged the various units to commemorate this event at their meetings this year. The officers of the Texas Section asked me to prepare an appropriate presentation for this meeting.

Let me clarify at the outset that I have neither the time nor the ability to survey all of the physics that has been practiced in Texas during the past one hundred years. I plan only to discuss what I have learned about the physics being practiced one hundred years prior to this very day, give or take a year or two. Initially I thought there would not be much to report regarding physics in Texas a century ago. It is difficult to shake off the image, perpetuated in movies and television programs, of Texas as part of the Wild West. But as I delved into the records I was amazed to learn that one full century ago our physics ancestors were busy teaching and, in some instances, conducting research in a manner that we would generally find quite familiar.

Before I continue, I want to express my appreciation to the staff of the Center for American History here at the University of Texas for their help in locating and copying many of the photographs and other records used in preparing this presentation. I am also grateful to Mrs. Hildegard Everett, daughter of John M. Kuehne, and her husband Rizer, for helpful conversations about one of my subjects tonight, as well as Ms. Dorothy Waldrip, Kuehne’s granddaughter, for supplying me with copies of important documents. Professor Robert Roeder of Southwestern University provided me with information about Robert S. Hyer, the other personality in my presentation.

Since I have convenient access to the records of the University of Texas, my presentation is going to be slanted toward what was happening in Austin in 1899. I now realize that some of the older colleges and universities (and high schools) of this state were teaching physics at this time, but I have not yet uncovered any evidence of what we would call physics research elsewhere except at our neighboring institution in Georgetown: Southwestern University. If any of you has information about other physics activities in Texas in 1899, please let me know because I would like to include them in a paper I plan to prepare for publication. Contact your institution’s archivist to see if records dating to 1899 exist, and I will try to follow up.

By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the population of Texas had grown to more than three million, making it the sixth most populous state, thanks in part to a wave of immigration from central Europe following our Civil War. Thousands of miles of railroad provided rapid and convenient transportation between the cities and towns of the state plus good access to other parts of the country. The larger towns, such as Austin, even had "light rail" in the form of electric trolley systems, which turned out to have a negative impact on the physics research at UT, as we shall see.

In the fall of 1899 the University of Texas welcomed the 17th class of entering students. There were now three buildings, at right, occupying the original forty acres of the campus, located well north of what then was the town of Austin, but there was plenty of room for expansion. This photograph, taken from the southeast, shows the Main Building, later referred to as "Old Main," which housed most of the classrooms and teaching laboratories, with the Chemical Building to the west and University Hall, a dormitory for male students, to the east.












The eastern boundary of the campus, including Waller Creek where we are now gathered, was still quite rural as the next photographs shows. (Note the state capitol faintly visible in the background.) These pictures convey the isolation that newly recruited faculty from the East must have felt, but the area around Old Main was not unattractive and was reported to be covered with bluebonnets and other wildflowers in the spring.

These photographs, incidentally, and most of the others I will show, were taken by John M. Kuehne, at left, one of two students who received Bachelor of Science degrees in physics in 1899. He was the son of German immigrants who settled and taught school near Hallettsville. He attended summer normal school and began teaching in the rural schools in that same area, but at the age of 25 decided, after hearing a lecture by a visiting University professor, to become a student at UT. He went on to become a lifelong member of the faculty of the University and is one of the two individuals whose research I will describe.

But the members of the faculty of the University were quite cosmopolitan, most having received their doctorates at prestigious eastern universities such as Johns Hopkins, Harvard, Cornell, etc., plus quite a few from the University of Chicago. Strassburg and Munich contributed two to the faculty list. Faculty speeches and other reports published in the University Record reveal them to be boldly ambitious visionaries who had no doubt that Texas, in general, and the University of Texas, in particular, were destined to become centers of academic excellence.


But retaining top-flight faculty was a problem then as now. The June 1900 Record sadly reports the resignation of a mathematics professor, Dr. Leonard E. Dickson. An earlier issue of the Record presented a very impressive two-page list of publications in the field of group theory when he was appointed to the faculty. After receiving Bachelor's and Master's degrees at UT, he went to the University of Chicago for his Ph. D. and did postdoctoral work under the noted German mathematician Sophus Lie, followed by a year on the faculty of the University of California. "…but the opportunities for advancement, the wider field for work in the higher branches of mathematics offered by the University of Chicago, have proved too attractive…"

The University had two campuses in 1899: the Main Campus in Austin and the Medical Department in Galveston. (Slide 6) (The catalog uses the term "Department" where we would probably say "College" today, and "School" where we would say "Department".)

Department of Literature, Science, and Arts

School of Botany
School of Chemistry
School of English
School of Geology
School of Greek
School of History
School of Latin
School of Pure Mathematics
School of Applied Mathematics
School of Oratory
School of Pedagogy
School of Philosophy
School of Physics
School of Political Science
School of Romance Languages
School of Teutonic Languages
School of Zoology







Department of Engineering
Department of Law
Department of Medicine (Galveston)

Some 561 students, including 35 graduates, were enrolled in the Department of Literature, Science, and Arts, which was often referred to as the Academic Department, and the Department of Engineering. Another 169, including 8 graduates, were in the Department of Law. The Medical Department in Galveston had 223 students, for a grand total enrollment of 870, after repeated names are deleted.

There were 50 faculty, including 25 instructors, tutors, and fellows, in the Academic Department. The School of Physics consisted of Associate Professor Mather plus Kuehne and Lula Bailey, who had just completed their B. S. degrees and enrolled in the M. S. program, serving as Fellows. Picture at right shows a page from the Cactus yearbook of 1903, when Kuehne and Bailey had been promoted to Instructor and Tutor, respectively. An array of year-long courses leading to B. S. and M. S. degrees in Physics was offered (See below), and the introductory course served students with a wide variety of majors in the Academic Department.



1. General Physics. 2. Laboratory Practice. 3. Advanced General Physics. 4. Advanced Laboratory Physics. 5. Modern Physical Apparatus. 6. Theoretical Mechanics and Hydrodynamics. 7. Laboratory Practice.










The two photographs above show the physics lecture hall, complete with demonstration apparatus in the front.


I was surprised to see how many women were in the class, but this was no accident as you can tell from the speech of President Winston recorded in the first issue of the University Record at right. Clearly there was an affirmative action program aimed at including more women in higher education, especially in the new public universities of this country, at the end of the Nineteenth Century. Later documents point proudly to success in increasing the number of female graduates, but very few women served on the faculty and those who did had positions as instructors and tutors, presumably because they lacked a doctorate.



















Laboratory work was felt to be an important component of physics teaching, as you will discover if you read the catalog and the requests for additional funding reprinted in the University Record. The photographs (ca. 1904) above show some resemblance to today's introductory labs except for the student clothing styles. Picture below left shows what appears to be the demonstration equipment storage room.












The list of experiments in the laboratory manual written by Kuehne (above right) when he became an Instructor is longer than, but similar to, that in contemporary introductory lab courses. The constant acceleration experiment below used a vibrating tuning fork to make timing marks on an object falling past it.















Mather appeared to have been working hard to get a Physics Workshop established. He reports in December of 1898 that an appropriation plus a gift of $1000 from Regent Brackenridge had made it possible to set up a first class workshop to serve Physics and the rest of the University. In the photograph, above right, you can make out (near the center) the single electric motor driving the shaft that powered all of the machines. In the following year, Mather reports that Physics was able to institute laboratory work for first year students, thanks to the workshop and assistants Kuehne and Lula Bailey, and in spite of the failure of the Austin Electric Light Co. to supply the necessary power during the winter months. He adds the familiar lament, "It is unfortunate, but true, that the apparatus for the study of physics is far more costly than that required for any other subject." He goes on to request an additional amount of $6,460 and the appointment of an additional instructor in order to establish a program in Electrical Engineering to meet the needs of the growing electrical industry in the state. He recommends that it be placed in the Department of Engineering, to be under the charge of the School of Physics.

New, more flexible BA and BS degree programs had just been introduced which reduced the requirements in Latin and Greek (below). After describing the degree plans, the Record adds: "It is possible, indeed, for students to graduate from the University without any science whatever, but in this day of scientific enthusiasm such a thing is unlikely to occur."

Admission to the physics degree program was based on examinations or high school performance. The June 1900 Record notes that, "Any school that affords to its students sufficient training to enter the Freshman class of the University may become affiliated with the University and its graduates will be admitted to the University without entrance examinations...seventy applications have been received and twelve schools have been affiliated, some wholly, some partially." There are hints in some of the documents that the University was already developing a reputation for being arrogant and elitist, apparently because of its stringent admission requirements. Some remarks (below) in the introduction to the physics laboratory manual written by Kuehne a few years later, however, leads one to suspect that students with less than ideal prior preparation were being admitted to the University.


The nine-month academic session was divided into three terms, which I suppose we would call "quarters". In addition, there was a special Summer School in which "...the professors in charge have had especially in mind the large body of teachers who wish to improve their scholarship and enlarge their intellectual outlook. Many of the courses have been selected with a view to meeting the wants of such ambitious teachers...It is proposed to have a popular lecture each Friday evening free to all students; and on Saturday morning of each week a Round Table will be conducted for teachers who wish to discuss problems incident to the administration of schools."





Picture above, taken from the Cactus yearbook, shows most of the graduate students in the Academic Department in 1900. (Kuehne is at the right end of the second row. I think Bailey is third from the left in the same row.)

Original research was not easily conducted, but Kuehne and Lula Bailey managed to complete theses in 1901 for M. S. degrees in Physics. Bailey wrote a detailed description of the instrumentation and theory involved in the Michelson interferometer, but includes no evidence that she actually used one. Kuehne made extremely precise measurements of the earth's magnetic field in Austin, describing in his thesis the elaborate means he employed to improve the sensitivity and precision of some commercial apparatus for this purpose. (Slide 22) (Geophysicists of that day used the word "elements" to signify vector components.) He gives the motivation for the project in his thesis: "At least as early as 1887 the U. S. C. & G. S. (United States Coast and Geodetic Survey) has been attempting to establish a permanent station at Austin. The object of such stations is to obtain accurate values of the magnetic elements at intervals, say, of every 5 years, and from these data to determine the nature and extent of the secular variations of the earth's magnetic force." As you may know, the Earth's magnetic poles seem to be moving, albeit very slowly, so map makers and users must be prepared to apply corrections to compass readings.

Two problems which must be overcome in making precise magnetic measurements are (1) the naturally occurring variations that range "all the way from slight pulsations causing a scarcely noticeable tremor in a small and delicately suspended needle, to disturbances (magnetic storms) of such violence as to make all delicate measurements impossible…" and (2) "The nearness of brick buildings, especially buildings that contain a large amount of iron…" The first obstacle is dealt with by averaging measurements over time, and the second by avoiding troublesome buildings. But, "The greatest and most far reaching disturbance due to artificial means is that produced by electric railways, and of these the single trolley, ground return system is the most troublesome." He goes on to say, "In particular, the entire grounds of the University of Texas suffer magnetic disturbances, due to the street car line west of the campus, to such an extent as to make impossible magnetic work of any refinement. The magnetic station S. E. of the main building, which was occupied in 1895 by Mr. E. E. Smith, of the U. S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, could therefore not be used for determining the magnetic elements of Austin…" For these reasons, he set up a measuring station one mile east of the University, and assisted the USC&GS in finding a suitable new location "on the grounds of the State Deaf and Dumb Institute…" in South Austin.


The thesis gives the appearance of having been completed in haste; for example, there are no citations of relevant publications. A comment in the document gives a clue regarding the urgency with which it was written: "I have been unable to make the adjustments needed by my instrument, on account of the urgent need I had of the instrument as it stood. On the night of May 17-18, observation(s) were made all over the globe, with the object of determining the exact nature and extent of the influence of the total eclipse of the sun on terrestrial magnetism. The existence of such an influence was clearly shown by the investigations of Dr. L. A. Bauer (U.S.C.G.&S.) during the eclipse of May 28, 1900." Since the thesis had to be approved by June 8, Kuehne had less than three weeks to analyze and write up his data.














Kuehne was employed by the USC&GS the summer following completion of the M. S. to make similar measurements at various stations around Texas and the U. S. In his notebook, at left, a copy of which was made available to me by his granddaughter, Ms. Dorothy Waldrip, he records travels all over Texas, some parts of the Midwest, and even the East coast. (The third entry, at right, refers to “Perry, O. T.”, i.e., Perry, Oklahoma Territory.)

Picture above shows Kuehne with his surveying instrument in Greenville, Ohio.


Tables giving the position of Polaris at various latitudes are pasted into the notebook, allowing him to obtain the precise location of the stations at which he measured the earth’s magnetic field. He apparently placed marker stones at these locations for future reference.

From the notebook above we can see how he spent the government's money and get some appreciation for the extensive travel involved in carrying out the project. (On July 1 he leaves Austin and goes to Longview and on to Texarkana. On July 2 he takes a Pullman to St. Louis and Union (Kansas?). The next day he goes on to Greenville, Ohio. On the 7th he pays drayage on instruments and baggage to the depot.)

On the 29th he confesses that “too much liberty” brought on some illness, and on August 4th he has to travel from Trinity to Lovelady and Lovelady to Madisonville by wagon, taking 11 hours.

On August 8 he is buying and setting rocks, apparently to mark the exact positions of his measurements.

Note: Late this afternoon I received through the Inter-Library Service a book published in 1902 by L. A. Bauer of the USCGS titled, “United States Declination Tables and Isogonic Charts for 1902 and Principal Facts Relating to the Earth’s Magnetism.” The list of Magnetic Stations includes, for Travis County: “1895--The station is in the grounds of the State University, southeast of the main towers. It is marked with a large piece of limestone. The mark or range used was the star in the hand of the statue of Liberty on the dome of the capitol…” and “1901—the station is in the northwest part of the grounds of the State Deaf and Dumb School…The mark or range used was the middle tower on the main building of the University of Texas…” This, of course, corroborates the claim made by Kuehne that he helped select the new location of the Magnetic Station for Travis County.

You must admit that Kuehne is a good example of an early Texas physicist who was funded by a federal project with utilitarian goals (better map making), but including fundamental research (geo- and astrophysics).

Kuehne stayed on as an instructor in the School of Physics, but took some time off to go to the University of Chicago to complete a Ph. D. under the supervision of Nobel Laureate Robert A. Millikan. His excellent Master's thesis probably played an important role in obtaining such a choice graduate supervisor. His Ph. D. research project, carried out in part at UT, was an experimental confirmation of one of the hypotheses of Maxwell in the new theory of electromagnetism: that a changing magnetic field produces an electric field. Kuehne published his dissertation in the April 1910 issue of the Philosophical Magazine, at right. In it he says that he completed the experiments at UT, so it is possible that Slide 30 shows some of the apparatus that he used. He remained on the UT faculty until retirement at age 81 in 1961, and is remembered as a popular teacher of undergraduate physics courses, especially ones he developed around photography, with a keen interest in the associated laboratories.







I end my discussion of physics at UT with the intriguing report in the Record of a demonstration in the School of Chemistry on March 16th, 1901, of "…numerous and interesting experiments with liquid air… The most striking experiment was the driving of nails into a pine plank with a hammer of frozen mercury…"









An early issue of the University Record lists papers presented at a meeting of the rather recently formed Texas Academy of Science, including one on "Some Recent Measurements of Electric Waves" by R. S. Hyer of Southwestern University in Georgetown. I thank Robert Roeder of that institution for sending me excerpts from a biography written by Hyer's daughter that furnish some further insights concerning his research activities.

Hyer was 22 when he came to Southwestern in 1882 with an M. A. degree from Emory University, to begin a very successful career as a science teacher and university administrator. His biography says, "…his work at this time was later called 'the introduction of science into the Southwest.' With such equipment as he could make, beg or buy when any money was available, he began to establish the chemistry and physics laboratories." In 1898 he became Regent (apparently the chief executive) of Southwestern University, in addition to Professor of Physics. Thereafter much of his energy was devoted to the task of developing Southwestern University into a first-rate private educational institution.

Hyer, according to the biography, attended a series of lectures on the latest developments in physics at Harvard in the summer of 1891. When he returned to Southwestern he reproduced some of Hertz's pioneering experiments on the generation and detection of the electromagnetic waves predicted by Maxwell's theory. The biography does not mention his fundamental investigations in this area, but discusses his work in developing a transmitter and receiver in 1894 capable of sending messages from his laboratory to the jail in Georgetown, a distance of over a mile. This would be at about the same time that Marconi was credited with developing a system for sending "wireless" messages. Hyer also built an x-ray machine and a fluoroscope, which caused him to be in great demand by the local doctors, but the Scott and White Sanitarium at Temple installed a commercial machine in 1897 and relieved him of the medical demands on his time.



Hyer's TAS paper above describes a very careful series of quite difficult experiments aimed at testing Hertz's claim to have measured the velocity of electromagnetic waves. He describes his apparatus (a "vibrator or oscillator" which generated EM waves, and a "resonator" which detected them) as being identical to that of Hertz.

My interpretation of his figure in the paper is shown at left. The vibrator "…consisted of two squares (A and B) of sheet zinc 16 c.m. on the side, each provided with a rod (C and D), terminating in a ball (E and F). The two plates were set up in the same vertical plane, with the knobs almost in contact. To the rods were attached the terminals of a large Ruhmkorff coil." (Today we would probably call it a Tesla coil.) "The instrument used to detect the radiations from the sparks passing between the knobs was called a resonator, and consisted in nothing more than a single wire of about 2.2 meters in length, bent into a circle, and having its free ends terminating in small knobs, whose distance apart was varied by a micrometer screw. When this resonator was held near the vibrator, sparks in the former would produce a corresponding sparking in the latter, though of such diminished intensity as to be visible only in a darkened room."

Whereas Hertz looked for standing waves in front of a metallic reflecting surface, Hyer primarily investigated standing waves on wires of various lengths. Graph above shows node positions on wires of different lengths, using resonators made with different diameters of wire. Hyer systematically explored the effects of the knobs on the ends of the wire loops used as resonators and concluded that they significantly shifted the resonant frequency. He measured the spectrum of his vibrator (Fig. 3) and contrasted it with that reported by Hertz (Fig. 2)..

(He finally concluded that Hertz did not definitively prove that EM waves propagate with the velocity of light, given the lack of knowledge of their frequencies.

In my judgment, this was a fine piece of research into fundamental physics of a quality that would be published in our Physical Review of today. Although Hyer stated that he planned to follow up with further measurements, I have not yet found any record of them. Perhaps his increasing administrative responsibilities precluded further research in physics.

There are many other interesting stories buried in the old records I have been reading, but the hour is too late to tell more of them. I’ll end this presentation by asking you to join me in saluting the physicists of a century ago who laid the groundwork for physics teaching and research in the state of Texas, thus enabling us to practice our beloved profession.


Photo Credits:

Slides 3, 4, 5, 12, 13, and 30 are from the Kuehne (J. M.) Collection and Slides 2, 9, 10, 14, and 17 are from the Prints and Photograph Collection in the Center for American History, The University of Texas at Austin.