Department of Physics

MTU Physics Department History | 1925-1934

The Geophysics Research Emphasis

In 1927 the State Legislature approved a broadening of the charge of the College and a new name, the Michigan College of Mining and Technology, or MCMT for short. The case was made that “the successful mining engineer and metallurgical engineer require broad knowledge of all phases of engineering, and as such are really entitled to recognition as general engineers, equipped to undertake work in almost any branch of the engineering profession.” Hence, the broadened scope was put forward as a recognition of the existing facts. At the time of the change the total College enrollment was near 300 students. Shortly after this time, in 1933, a Bachelor of Science degree in General Science first appears, which one could claim is the first non-engineering degree to be offered by the College.

Jerry Service PhotoIt appears that in the late 1920′s and very early 1930′s there was a significant push, backed up with some State funding, to further develop geophysics research within the department and an MS program in Geophysics was created. In the early 1930′s, the early Depression years, Irwin Roman and Jerry Service were brought on board. Irwin Roman was the second faculty member in the department to have an earned PhD and the first to have earned it prior to being hired. Like Grant’s PhD, Roman’s was from the Math department at the University of Chicago and was in the area we now call mathematical physics. Roman was quite the prolific “researcher” publishing several papers per year. Roman left after just 3 years, first temporarily to do research in Nevada, and then permanently to work for the US Bureau of Mines and Geologic Survey. Roman educated others in the department on the interpretation of ground resistivity measurements and this had a significant influence on the research in the department even after he left.

Jerry Service was hired shortly after Roman and also came with an earned PhD, in his case from Ohio State and the first in our department to be a PhD “in Physics.” Since few faculty hires from this time until the 1960′s came with a PhD, one is led to think that the Depression economy might have had something to do with the availability of Roman and Service. Service also had a large number of publications though he preferred short technical books and similar publications rather than articles in the scientific journals.

During the 1930′s the department produced about a dozen scientific publications, all in some area of geophysics. Any extra state funding dried up rather quickly during the depression years resulting in faculty pay cuts and virtually no new hires during the late 1930′s. At the same time the research effort tapered off to pre-1930′s levels and the emphasis returned to the engineering education role of the department. Scientific publications by the Physics faculty were few and far between starting in the late 1930′s and for at least the next 30 years. While the department continued to include a strong geophysics presence in the curriculum, it considered itself foremost a “teaching department.” The curriculum in physics was gradually filled out to include the basic courses needed for a physics major, which first appeared in 1941 as an option under the BS in General Science.

Group Photo at Fisher House

James Fisher PhotoIn 1944 Fisher, having passed 70 years of age, faced mandatory retirement from academic duties. In fact, Fisher was the first “victim” of the recently adopted mandatory retirement age. Fisher remained active taking on several new non-teaching obligations, most notably an even more active role with the alumni association. Fisher remarked that now that he was retiring, he could enjoy “working only 12 hours a day instead of his usual 10.” Almost immediately after Fisher’s retirement, the math and physics faculty formally went their separate ways.

Partlo and Harrington, who had had parallel careers up to that point—both graduating from MCM, both receiving a Ph.M. degree from the University of Wisconsin, both hired as instructors at MCM in 1923 with every promotion entirely in sync.—served as the two separate department heads. Fisher’s retirement also left the Dean position open, which was also filled by Partlo. Harrington remained Head of Mathematics into the 1960′s.

Fay Partlo Photo

Partlo, as did Fisher, served simultaneously as Department Head and Dean for the first few years. Partlo then gave up the Department Head position, to be taken up first by Jerry Service and then Tom Sermon. In doing so, it appears that Partlo became our first Dean who had no other administrative appointment (e.g. department head). Thus, quite literally, it ultimately took three new administrators to replace Fisher. While one should not diminish Fisher’s contributions, when interpreting this statement it must also be remembered, however, that MCMT had grown significantly. Also at this time one was not generally promoted to professor without an administrative appointment and there were several 20-year faculty who had been waiting in the wings for their chance.

The separation between being Professor and holding an administrative position is seen across the campus in the late 1940′s and demonstrated in Physics for the first time in 1949 with the promotion of Longacre and the return of Service from the Headship to faculty status. While there were at least two professors throughout most of the history of the department, one of them would have a significant administrative position outside of the department (i.e. McNair as President, Duggan as Registrar, Partlo as Dean of the College). Now it became acceptable to have additional professors in the department who did not also have an outside administrative position.

During the post World War II years the College’s total enrollment increased dramatically. The Sault Ste Marie campus of MCMT was opened in 1946, initially to provide the first two year’s worth of courses. Also in 1946, BS degrees offered by the department in Physics, Engineering Physics, and Geophysical Engineering first appear, with a curriculum expanded to match. By 1948 the total College enrollment had topped 2000. With this growth also came a flurry of new faculty hires.

Group Photo at Sermon Camp

Immediately after Math and Physics split, Physics was left with four faculty members: Partlo, Longacre, Sermon and Service, though Capt. Service was still on leave having been in the Navy Reserve when World War II started.1 By 1950 there were fourteen Physics faculty. In contrast to the hires of the 1920′s, of the ten new hires, only half had their BS degree from MCMT, seven of the ten had at least one degree from another institution, seven of them had a Master’s degree when hired (the majority of those were from the University of Michigan) and one more received it shortly thereafter. The only degree beyond the Master’s was Donald H. Baker’s Ed.D. from Michigan State. D. O. “Doc” Wyble, hired by this time, later earned his PhD (in 1957) after an absence from campus to serve in the Navy and pursue his studies.

     1. By this time instructors were not routinely listed as faculty.

This entry was posted by Webmaster on Saturday, January 1st, 2000 at 1:03 am and is filed under History.

Department of Physics

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Houghton, MI 49931

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Fax: 906-487-2933

Michigan Technological University

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Houghton, Michigan 49931-1295

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