MTU Physics Department History | 1935-1966

Growing to become a University

During the 1950’s there was considerable growth on campus and an effort to formalize the graduate programs. Over a dozen new MS programs appeared across campus during this time including one in Engineering Physics and one in Physics. The latter was intended to rely heavily on a joint agreement with Argonne National Labs for research opportunities. The MS in Engineering Physics disappeared after 1960 and at the same time the Engineering Physics BS was renamed “Applied Physics.”1 A total of only about a half dozen students graduated with an Engineering Physics MS. The College’s graduate programs had been under a Director up until 1960 when the graduate school was formed and Physics Professor Don Yerg became the first Graduate School Dean.

At the Sault campus, Professor of Physics Harry Crawford was hired and named director in 1954. Shortly after that a number of the physics faculty from the Houghton campus moved to the Sault campus. Crawford was instrumental in building and developing the Sault campus until his retirement in 1965, preparing the Sault campus to formally break away to become Lake Superior State University.

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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.

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MTU Physics Department History | 1917-1924

The Engineering Education Years

When the School started, of course, the Physics Department was only to provide a fundamental background in physical science considered essential for mining engineers. Over the first few decades of the School’s existence this would also include specialists in chemical and metallurgical engineering. From about 1900 until 1930 the Physics courses centered on the five introductory physics courses, B1 to B5, and the two engineering mechanics courses, C1 and C2.

Physics lab ca. 1911 Photo

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MTU Physics Department History | 1901-1916

The Tamarack Mine Experiments

Man Car PhotoThe mine shafts which existed in the vicinity of the College provided a unique opportunity for physics research. This was particularly so for the Tamarack Mine shafts which were vertical and almost a mile deep. In 1901 the Physics faculty (McNairFisher, Osborne, and Grant) along with John B. Watson, chief engineer, and George Slock, assistant engineer, of the Tamarack mining company,1 began experiments using long pendulums (pendula) as plumb bobs in the #2, #4, and #5 shafts of the Tamarack Mine. The goal of these measurements was to transfer a reference line from the surface to aid future horizontal drilling operations. Being physicists, one of the first results which shows up in the lab notebook is the period of the pendulum, a result which is largely irrelevant for use as a plumb bob.

The first pendulums were made with #24 steel piano wire and 50 pound cast iron weights and were hung 4,250 feet down shaft #5. The period of these pendulums was 70 seconds. The weight actually stretched the wire about 15 feet. For some measurements the weights were placed in oil or water to help damp the motion though this was insufficient to completely stop the motion.2 They typically used multiple measurements of the oscillating pendulums “as in the method of determining the zero point of a balance by observing the oscillations of its pointer,” rather than waiting for the motion to stop.

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MTU Physics Department History | 1885-1900

The Earliest Years

Firehall PhotoMichigan Tech had its beginnings in 1885 as the Michigan Mining School (MMS) offering a two-year mining program. The first classes were held in the Fall of 1886 in the Continental Fire Hall, which still stands next to the old Portage Lake District Library on Montezuma Avenue in downtown Houghton, MI. Course offerings in Physics, to be taught by the Physics Department, were listed starting in 1887 however there was not yet a Physics Department faculty to teach them. Those first Physics course offerings were to be “temporarily performed by the present members of the Faculty.”

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The Changing MTU Campus

The Changing MTU Campus

Firehall in 2004

The first classes were held using leased space in the Continental Fire Hall in downtown Houghton. This building still stands and is currently being used for storage. It can be seen on Montezuma avenue, right next to the old Portage Lake District Library. This photo is from the summer of 2004.
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MTU Physics Department History | Scholarships/Awards

MTU Endowed Scholarships/Awards with a Physics Connection

Scholarships/Awards Named for Former Faculty

Potnis Endowed Fellowship
Kusum Potnis established the Vasant R. Potnis Endowed Fellowship fund in memory of her late husband and physics professor emeritus. Dr. Potnis was a faculty member from 1968 until his retirement in 1996; he passed away in 2012. The Fellowship will provide financial support for graduate students pursuing a Master’s or PhD in physics.

Lloyal O. Bacon Endowed Award
Bacon was a Physics Department Faculty member, specializing in Geophysics, from 1950 to 1974 when the geophysics major was moved to the Geology department. He earned the Distinguished Research Award in 1960.

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MTU Physics Department History | Hubbell Hall

Hubbell Hall was completed in 1890 and housed the entire Michigan Mining School for several years. It was located at the intersection of Hubbell St. and College Ave, where the R. L. Smith (MEEM) building now stands. Hubbell Hall was the home for Physics and Math from the time it was built until 1964, when those departments moved to Fisher Hall. Hubbell Hall was demolished in 1968 having been condemned by the fire marshall as unsuitable for human occupation (even by Physicists).

Ted Ellis Hubbell Hall Photo
Hubbell Hall just before its demolition
photo by MTU alum Ted Ellis, reproduced with permission.