Millikan, Robert

Robert MillikanRobert Andrews Millikan (March 22, 1868-December 19, 1953), Nobel Prize-winning physicist and one of America’s best-known scientists in the early 20th Century, was a pioneering teacher and prolific textbook author, as well as a university administrator, science policy adviser, and fundraiser in support of scientific research. An active Unitarian, Millikan frequently wrote and spoke on the compatibility of scientific thought and religious belief.

The second of six children, Robert was born in Morrison, Illinois, to Silas Franklin and Mary Jane (Andrews) Millikan. Silas was a graduate of Oberlin College and Oberlin Theological Seminary. Mary Jane, an Oberlin graduate, had served as the dean of women at Olivet College in Michigan. When Robert was seven his father was called to preach at the Congregational church in Maquoketa, Iowa. Living on a one acre homestead, the family augmented his modest minister’s salary with homegrown vegetables and milk from two cows. In his autobiography he evoked a generous view of his youth, “I enjoyed a storybook Midwestern American boyhood, fishing, farming, fiddling, and learning next to nothing about science.”

Robert’s parents had no-nonsense views on life and religion. Their work ethic and love of learning contributed to his success. An 1886 report card from Maquoketa High School says he “gained an excellent standing for good deportment, faithful application to duty and exceptionally high grade of scholarship.” After high school, he worked at a sawmill and as a court stenographer.

In 1887 Millikan enrolled at Oberlin College where he developed a liking for problem solving and experimentation. He was influenced by Oberlin’s professor of dynamic electricity, Elisha Gray, noted for his inventions in telephony and telegraphy. When the college staff discovered that he had mastered physics on his own, they invited him to teach a junior physics course, even though he was an undergraduate. Graduating in 1891, he stayed on at Oberlin for graduate school, supporting himself by tutoring.

After receiving his master’s degree, 1893, Millikan was given a fellowship by Columbia University. His research there on the polarization of light led to a summer position with Albert A. Michelson at the University of Chicago. After he received his Ph.D., 1895, he did a year of postgraduate study in Europe. Physical science was then advancing rapidly as scientists were beginning to to delve inside the atom. In Paris Millikan attended the lectures of Henri Poincaré. While in Germany he studied with Max Planck, Walter Nernst, and Felix Klein. Working with Nernst at the University of Göttingen, Millikan learned how to combine teaching and research by integrating graduate students into the laboratory.

Returning to America, Millikan began work with Michelson at the University of Chicago. Michelson, who later won the Nobel Prize, had gained international recognition for his precise measurement of the velocity of light and for the Michelson-Morley experiment which proved that there was no medium through which light propagated. When Millikan started as Michelson’s assistant in 1896 he had little time for research. Since Michelson was not interested in supervising graduate students, that task fell to Millikan.

Millikan spent the next decade teaching. He revised the University of Chicago undergraduate physics program to emphasize laboratory work and demonstration experiments, wrote several physics textbooks, and taught a summer course for high school teachers on “The Pedagogy of Physics.” Royalties from First Course in Physics, 1906; which sold 1.6 million copies, along with returns from other textbooks and laboratory manuals, provided a comfortable income. In 1902 Millikan married Greta Blanchard, daughter of a rubber merchant. They had three sons.

Robert MillikanRealizing that he would have to do important research if he wished to make a name for himself, Millikan searched methodically for a research project that might produce fundamental results. During the previous decade scientists had postulated that the electron was a subdivision of the atom with a unit charge of constant value. In 1907 Millikan started exploring ways to measure that charge. Refining a method developed by the Scottish physicist C. T. R. Wilson, Millikan developed his “oil drop experiment.” He observed the rise and fall of small drops of oil suspended between electrically charged metal plates. When he varied the charge on individual drops and measured their speed he noted that they rose and fell at either the same rate or at integral multiples of that rate. This confirmed that all electrons were alike and that each carried the same charge. Over the next few years, he refined his oil drop apparatus, developed increasingly accurate measurement techniques, and clarified the theoretical concepts undergirding his work. Finally, in 1913, he published the value of the electronic charge. It would be 15 years before a more accurate measurement would supplant his.

Millikan continued teaching, even as his research agenda grew. Explaining recent discoveries in physics to graduate students helped him to refine his own thinking. At the same time he recruited laboratory assistants and collaborators.

In 1912 Millikan took his family to Europe for a six-month working vacation. He attended Planck’s lectures in Berlin. Planck was at odds with Albert Einstein over the photoelectric effect, the emission of electrons from the surface of certain metals when hit by light. In 1905 Einstein had published a formula to explain the effect, based on the assumption that light comes in small packets called quanta or photons. Millikan agreed with Planck that light was best treated as waves and not as photons. Although he set out to prove Einstein wrong, his sophisticated measurement apparatus confirmed the correctness of Einstein’s theory and helped to end the dispute about the existence of fundamental particles within the atom. Like many other physicists at the time, it took Millikan years to fully accept the ramifications of his own research.

In 1910 Millikan was promoted to full professor by the University of Chicago. He was awarded an honorary degree by Oberlin, 1911; was elected to the American Philosophical Society, awarded the Comstock Prize by the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and appointed as a research consultant at Western Electric, 1913; elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and elected president of the American Physical Society, 1915; and he was appointed director of research for the National Research Council (NRC), 1916. The NRC was formed to mobilize scientists during the First World War. Taking a leave of absence from the university, Millikan moved to Washington, D.C. where he chaired the NRC’s antisubmarine committee and served as a lieutenant colonel in the Science and Research Division of the Army Signal Corps.

When Millikan returned to the University of Chicago in 1919 he was a well-known and well-connected scientist with strong beliefs about the roles that government, industry, and academia should play in post-war research. He believed that scientific research would lead to moral and material progress and that private funding was preferable to public funding. Working with the directors of the NRC, Millikan persuaded the Rockefeller Foundation to underwrite postdoctoral fellowships for physics and chemistry graduates of American colleges.

Astrophysicist George E. Hale and physical chemist Arthur A. Noyes wanted Millikan to join them in Pasadena, California, where they were attempting to develop a world-class physics research facility at the Throop College of Technology. Starting in 1917 Millikan had taught there for a few weeks every year but he resisted leaving the University of Chicago. Finally, in 1921, after millions of dollars in research funds had been raised, he accepted appointment as head of the Norman Bridge Laboratory in Pasadena. When, soon after, Throop was renamed the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), he was made chair of the institute’s executive committee (equivalent to college president).

Amos Throop, the founder of Throop Polytechnic Institute, and Norman Bridge, who funded the Norman Bridge Laboratory at Caltech, were both members of the First Universalist Parish of Pasadena. Millikan joined the Neighborhood Unitarian Church of Pasadena.*

Millikan joined the Westside Congregational Church where he was elected to the board in 1922 and was instrumental in the 1924 merger with the Pasadena Unitarian Church. Called “The Neighborhood Church,” it was a Congregational Church with Unitarian ties until 1972 when the congregation voted to affiliate with the UUA. In 1930, Millikan hired an old Chicago friend, Dr. Theodore Soares, to teach philosophy and Ethics at Caltech. He also served as the minister of the Neighborhood Church.*

In Pasadena Millikan worked to realize the Hale and Noyes vision for Caltech. He recruited graduate students, hired leading scientists, built laboratory facilities, and instituted a visiting scholars program to attract the world’s best physicists. He brought a new philosophy to science and engineering education that was soon widely copied: while emphasizing basic science education, he added artists and historians to the staff. A decade later, with Caltech an acknowledged leader in physics research, he expanded Caltech’s mission to include aeronautics and biology.

At Caltech Millikan continued his own research—directing graduate students, working in the laboratory, and visiting foundations to secure funding. With graduate student Ira S. Bowen, he conducted a series of experiments using a vacuum spectrograph to measure the ultraviolet spectra of various elements. This would lead others to develop the theory of electron spin. Millikan next conducted experiments on ionization (the gain or loss of electrons by atoms). He made extensive measurements at different altitudes, in different locations, and at different depths under water in an effort to discover the radiation that caused atmospheric ionization. Deducing that it was from extraterrestrial sources, he coined the term “cosmic rays.”

In 1923 Millikan received the Nobel Prize in physics for his measurement of the charge of the electron. The prize had been delayed for years because of a conflict he had with a rival researcher, Felix Ehrenhaft, who had conducted a similar experiment. As America’s second Nobel Prize winner, Millikan used his celebrity to promote his views on national science policy and to advance his beliefs about the compatibility of science and religion.

In the 1920s there was a resurgence of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States, including opposition to the theory of evolution. When Robert E. Brown, his brother-in-law and a Congregationalist minister, called on him to organize the scientific community in support of evolution, Millikan drew up a statement, which Noyes revised, that was signed by leading scientists, intellectuals, and community leaders including the Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover.

Millikan elaborated his views on science and religion in a 1927 lecture series at Yale that was later issued in book form as Evolution in Science and Religion, 1927. That same year he was the subject of a cover story in Time magazine. According to Time, he believed that “science dominated by the spirit of religion is the key to progress and the hope of mankind.” These views were consistent with his belief in redemptive power of hard work by God-fearing Americans. Millikan lectured, was a guest on radio programs, and wrote articles for Atlantic and Colliers. The advent of home appliances and modern synthetic fabrics made the words of scientists magical to the public. In the popular 1931 book, Living Philosophies, he and 21 other “thinkers” shared their beliefs.

Millikan was an early advocate of the study of the history of science. He taught a class on the subject at Caltech and, in 1924, served on the organizing committee for the History of Science Society.

In the 1930s, when some aspects of Millikan’s work came under fire, he did not respond well. In a controversy over the charge on the electron, other researchers questioned the accuracy of his value for the viscosity of air and his treatment of data. Since his basic contribution was not being questioned, he could have made a mild response. Instead he became outraged, which only fueled more controversy. He became even more contentious after criticism of his cosmic ray work at a 1932 American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting. According to the New York Times, “Dr. Millikan particularly sprinkled his talk with remarks directly aimed at his antagonist’s scientific acumen.”

The depression years and Roosevelt’s “New Deal” were hard on Millikan, a conservative Republican and a believer in self-sufficiency. He accepted appointment to the president’s Science Advisory Board but was not in favor of federal funding for university research. He was an early supporter of military aid for the allies and encouraged military research at Caltech. He continued to lead the school during World War II and was closely engaged with the work at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retiring in 1946, he continuing to work in a campus office, often speaking in public on the relationship between science and religion, arguing against federal aid to education, and opposing the establishment of the National Science Foundation.

When the minister of the Neighborhood Church announced his retirement in 1944, Millikan was asked to chair the search committee for a new minister. Once again, it was a joint appointment shared with the Caltech philosophy and ethics department.*

The Millikans continued to live in San Marino, California after his retirement. They attended the Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church of Pasadena where Robert had served on the church board and as congregation president. Active in civic affairs, Millikan was Chairman of the Board of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery in San Marino and was on the advisory committee of the Los Angeles County Hospital. He was hospitalized in 1953 and his wife Greta died the next month. He died later that year.

Thirty years after his death, Millikan was the center of a new controversy. Journalists and academicians, applying 1980 standards of behavior to his 1930 actions, leveled charges of racism, sexism, exploitation of graduate students, and unethical manipulation of research data. Although many of the charges were refuted by David Goodstein in 2000, accusations still circulate. In the 1920s he was considered a peer of Einstein. While Einstein’s fame continues to grow, Millikan’s reputation declined after his death.

Millikan passionately believed that evolution and science were combined in a fundamental way. Near the end of his career he wrote that, “while the Great Architect had to direct the early stages of the evolutionary process, that part of him that becomes us . . . has been stepping up amazingly the pace of . . . evolution since we began to become conscious of the part we had to play. It is our sense of responsibility for playing our part to the best of our ability that makes us Godlike.”

The majority of Millikan’s letters, manuscripts, photographs and memorabilia are in the Millikan Collection in the Archives of the California Institute of Technology (available on microfilm with a guide by Judith R. Goodstein). Also useful are materials in the special collections of the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago and the archives of Oberlin College. Millikan’s major scientific work was published as The Electron, its Isolation and Measurement and the Determination of Some of its Properties (1917). Other books include Science and Life (1924), Evolution in Science and Religion (1927), Science and the New Civilization (1930), Time, Matter and Values (1932), and Cosmic Rays; Three Lectures (1939). Lee DuBridge and Paul Epstein published a bibliography of 300 scientific journal articles written by Millikan in the Bibliographical Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences (1959). Many of the textbooks that Millikan authored or co-authored were revised and reissued with different titles over time. A bibliography of his textbooks by Alfred Romer appears in the Physics Teacher (1978). Major textbooks were: A Course of College Experiments in Physics (1898); Mechanics, Molecular Physics and Heat (1902); A First Course in Physics (1906); A Laboratory Course in Physics for Secondary Schools (1906); A Short University Course in Electricity, Sound and Light (1908); Practical Lessons in Electricity (1914); and Elements of Electricity (1917).

An essential resource for Millikan is Robert H. Kargon, The Rise of Robert Millikan, Portrait of a Life in American Science (1982). Millikan’s own Autobiography of Robert A. Millikan (1950) is interesting but subjective. Other books of interest include: Millikan’s School: A History of the California Institute of Technology (1991) by Judith R. Goodstein, The Michelson Era in American Science (1988) edited by Stanley Goldberg and Roger H. Stuewer, and Remarkable Physicists: from Galileo to Yukawa (2004) by Ioan James. Also useful is Robert W. Seidel’s University of California at Berkeley dissertation, “Physics Research in California: The Rise of a Leading Sector in American Physics” (1978). Daniel Kevles, who originally catalogued Millikan’s Caltech papers has authored articles on Millikan for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography and Scientific American (1979). There also are biographical entries in the National Cyclopaedia of American Biography and American National Biography. For more on the controversy about Millikan’s ethics see Betrayers of the Truth (1982) by William Broad and Nicholas Wade and “In Defense of Robert Millikan,” by David Goodstein, in the Caltech magazine, Engineering and Science (2000).

Article by Jerry Frazee
First posted June 2007
*corrections: strike out and two paragraphs added May 2011