Robert A. Millikan

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Best known as an experimental physicist, Robert Andrews Millikan (1868-1953) was born in Morrison, Illinois, grew up in Iowa, earned his BA degree from Oberlin College in 1891 and his PhD in physics from Columbia University in 1895, and began his academic career at the University of Chicago. During World War I, he was commissioned in the Army Signal Corps as a lieutenant colonel and served as chairman of the National Research Council’s committees on physics, optical glass, and submarine investigations. From 1921 to 1945, Millikan led the California Institute of Technology as director of the Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics and chairman of Caltech’s Executive Council, essentially the Institute’s president, though he declined to use that title.

For his oil drop method, which established in 1910 the value of the elementary unit of electrical charge, and for his pioneering research into the photoelectric effect that gave important support to the quantum theory of light, Millikan was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1923. Later, Millikan’s research focused on “cosmic rays,” a term he coined.

The son of a Congregationalist minister, Millikan spoke and published on the relationship between science and religion and espoused theistic evolutionism. Politically, Millikan was conservative even for his time and place, opposing federal funding of education and research except for military ends, serving as a trustee of the
Human Betterment Foundation which promoted eugenic sterilization and suggesting in private letters that people of color could not govern themselves and that women not be hired as physics professors. Millikan was also widely known as the author, with Henry Gordon Gale, of a series of textbooks that were the mainstay of physics courses in the first half of the twentieth century.

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