Granular Sand by Julien Chopin, PhD Candidate in Physics

History of Physics at Clark

The founding of Clark University

In the 1840s Jonas Gilman Clark, a self-educated, young Worcester-area entrepreneur, began manufacturing and distributing chairs and then tinware throughout central Massachusetts. In the early 1850s he succumbed to the lure of California and sold his Massachusetts businesses. Arriving in San Francisco by sea in 1853, he began importing miner's and builder's supplies, hardware, and furniture. Then he limited his importing to furniture and began the manufacture of quality furniture using native California woods. Soon he became the largest furniture wholesaler west of the Rockies. He also purchased considerable land in the Bay-Area, and became a partner in California's first public insurance company and in the private company which supplied water to San Francisco. In this period one of his friends was another successful merchant, Leland Stanford. An outspoken abolitionist, Clark became active in Union-related causes and helped raise money to finance the Civil War.

Clark sold his West Coast enterprises in 1864 and returned to Worcester with California gold, which he converted to paper money at very favorable rates of exchange. He constructed commercial buildings, held commercial mortgages, and acquired stocks and bonds in regional railroads. Despite his wealth, however, Clark was not accepted by the old-money establishment of Worcester, most of whom were graduates of Harvard.

Clark, possibly influenced by conversations in California with his friend Stanford, decided that the best he could do with his wealth was to establish an institution of higher education. In 1887 he assembled a group of prominent citizens for advice, and Clark University was chartered the same year. They succeeded in attracting as president G. Stanley Hall, a student of William James and the first recipient of an American Ph.D. in psychology (from Harvard's philosophy department since there was no psychology department) and Professor of Psychology and Pedagogy at The Johns Hopkins University, the first American university to offer study toward graduate degrees. Hall's vision was to create a prestigious university, staffed with a first-class faculty, offering only graduate degrees, and only in those fields for which he perceived the greatest need in the United States: Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology.

Because most scholars at that time were trained in European universities, the Trustees sent Hall to Europe for eight months to visit the principal academic institutions of Europe to learn about the needs of the science disciplines, to recruit faculty, and to purchase apparatus and books. Clark and the Trustees assured Hall that there was ample money to assemble an outstanding faculty. During this period in Europe, Hall conferred with most of Europe's best known scholars in these fields. To head his departments Hall tried-unsuccessfully-to lure away established professors, especially German professors. Heinrich Hertz was one who received an offer. Among the physicists interviewed by Hall were Hertz, Boltzmann and Helmholtz in Germany, Lords Kelvin and Rayleigh and J. J. Thomson in Great Britain, Perrin in France, and Volterra in Italy.

In Germany, Hertz had recommended to Hall a young American, Albert Abraham Michelson. Between 1880 and 1882 Michelson had studied at the University of Berlin and had worked in the well-equipped optics laboratories which Helmholtz had assembled. (Michelson never earned a degree.) In fact, Hall knew Michelson from 1881 when both were studying in Berlin. It was in Berlin in 1880 that Michelson had conceived of the interferometer. There, also, using his interferometer, he had performed the first ether-drift experiment. But he was puzzled by his null result.