MIT Institute Archives & Special Collections

The Rogers Laboratory of Physics


The First Rogers Laboratory of Physics

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Three years after the official incorporation of the Institute in April 1861, William Barton Rogers, its founder and first president, presented detailed plans for the courses to be offered and teaching methods to be used in the new School of Industrial Science. One of the main projects he described in the “Scope and Plan of the School of Industrial Science” was the establishment of four laboratories—physics and Mechanics, General Chemical Analysis and Manipulation, Metallurgy and Mining, and Industrial Chemistry. Among those four, the physics laboratory was to play an important role as one of the early hands-on teaching laboratories in the country, serving as a model for other schools.

Edward Charles Pickering

Edward Charles Pickering

In 1866, Rogers appointed Edward Charles Pickering as an “Assistant Instructor in Physics,” to help him in his teaching duties. Pickering, twenty years old, summa cum laude graduate of the Lawrence Scientific School, soon replaced Rogers as the Thayer Professor of Physics and became the main force behind the organization of the laboratory. He set to work on the “Plan of the Physical Laboratory,” which was approved by the Institute’s Government in May 1869. Several months later, in the fall of the same year, the first thirty students were able to conduct their own experiments, acquiring a practical, first-hand experience of physical laws they were taught in class.

The first laboratory, located in the newly constructed building on Boylston Street in Boston and named after Rogers, contained a variety of instruments arranged with different experiments set up at individual tables, so the students could conduct the measurements by proceeding from one experimental station to another. An early drawing of the Rogers Laboratory, shown here, depicts some of the apparatus used at that time. The big glass disk on the right is an electrostatic plate machine, a device originally invented in the 18th century and widely used for teaching instruction throughout the 19th century. A battery bank sits on the floor in front of it. In the middle of the room is a phonautograph, an early sound recording machine used for the visual study of sound waves. A column to the left appears to be a setup for measurements in hydrostatics.

Information about the plans and the development of the Rogers Laboratory of Physics can be found in the papers of William Barton Rogers (MC 1) and Edward Charles Pickering (MC 457), and in the records of the Society of Arts (AC 11) and those of the Department of Physics (AC 68 and AC 74), which are available for use in the MIT Institute Archives and Special Collections, 14N-118. Researchers interested in the further career of Edward Pickering, who in 1877 became the director of the Harvard College Observatory, a position he held for the next forty years, are advised to consult the Harvard University Archives. An exhibit of early electrical machines can be seen in the Burndy Library of the Dibner Institute through June 2006.

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