«NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOLUME XV—'EIGHTH MEMOIR BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIR OF ARTHUR WILLIAMS ...»
NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES
OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
VOLUME XV—'EIGHTH MEMOIR
ARTHUR WILLIAMS WRIGHT
EDWARD S. DANA
PRESENTED TO THE ACADEMY AT THE ANNUAL MEETING, 1932
ARTHUR WILLIAMS WRIGHT1836-1915 BY EDWARD S. DANA The quiet life of a student of science often presents few incidents of striking prominence. As a college professor his first work is that of teaching—in a word, presenting to his students the essential principles of his subject and awakening their interest in them. Further, in order to keep in touch with the progress being made in his department, he must, in his free time, make a close study of the growing literature of his subject. This will also suggest to him the directions in which his own investigations can best be extended.
The many years that Professor Wright spent at Yale were lived essentially along these lines. He was a man of modest deportment, but cordial and pleasing approach. He was faithful to his students in the class and lecture-room, presenting his subject with the clear directness of a well-trained scientist. Of the scientific literature, which more and more crowded the library, he was ever a constant reader. Thus his mind became stored with the facts of his subject. Also, he was keen to note any signal steps of progress and to direct his experiments in that direction. His early study of Rontgen rays, noted later, illustrates this point.
He was also the first in New Haven to set up a private telephone line between his home and the laboratory.* While it cannot be claimed that Professor Wright opened up and developed any striking line of progress in physics, it is true that his many experimental investigations were important and all on a high level. Also, independent of this, it is interesting to note that his coming to Yale resulted in two important steps of progress for the University and for science as well. For this Wright should be long remembered. It seems well to explain these points in detail before considering the events of his life and the results of his work in the laboratory.
*The first commercial telephone exchange in the world was established in New Haven on January 28, 1878.
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. XVIn the first place, it may be fairly said that Yale owes to Professor Wright the possession of a well-planned and fully equipped physical laboratory. It is probably true, also, that the Sloane Physics Laboratory, completed in 1883, was the first building in this country which was exclusively devoted to the work of modern physics. Further, this early laboratory led directly, as will be shownlater, to the University Sloane Laboratory, opened in 1912, which in size, equipment, and endowment is all that a university laboratory should be. For this result, Yale certainly owes a large debt of gratitude to Professor Wright.
This will be made clear by the explanation which follows.
The fact that the donors of the Physics Laboratory of 1883, Mr. Henry T. Sloane (Yale 1863) and his brother, Mr. Thomas C. Sloane (Yale 1868), were led to make this generous gift, is explained by the fact that they were close personal friends of Professor Wright. Also, it was due to the careful study given by Wright to the maturing of the plans that this laboratory, in arrangement and equipment, was fully up to the requirements of the time. In this building there were carried on for many years the instruction, study, and experiments of Professor Wright and his younger associates ; also of Professor J. Willard Gibbs, who was appointed to the chair of mathematical physics in 1871. It is interesting to add that Mr. Thomas C. Sloane, who died in 1890, left as a bequest to the Sloane Laboratory the sum of $75,000, the income of which was to be used for research.
Much later, about 1908 or a little earlier, the subject of a new, much larger, and thoroughly modern, laboratory of physics, was raised by Mr. Henry T. Sloane. It was his wish, as it was that of the members of the faculty with whom he conferred (conspicuously Professor Bumstead) that in this new building the physics of all the departments of the university should be brought together. This plan was carried through and thus the first step, and that a vital one, was taken in uniting the work of the college with that of the Sheffield Scientific School and graduate school. The new Sloane Laboratory, it should be added, was the first of the group of university buildings erected on what is now known as the Pierson-Sage Square.
ARTHUR WIIXIAMS WRIGHT DANAThe funds needed for the construction and endowment of this new Sloane Laboratory were given by Mr. Henry T. Sloane and his elder brother, Mr. William D. Sloane. The cost of the building was $385,000, and an additional sum of $125,000 was given for endowment. The work of developing the plans was largely in the hands of the late Professor Henry A. Bumstead, who was also made the Director of the new laboratory in 1909. Professor Bumstead, it should be added, was a man of rare ability and attainments. His early death (December 31, 1929) was a great loss to his department and to Yale.
In another direction Wright's appointment as professor of physics marked an important step forward in the position of this subject. Until then, at Yale and at most other institutions in the country, the subject now known by the simple name of physics was included under the general head of natural philosophy. With this was commonly linked, in the title of the professor, either astronomy, mathematics, or chemistry, or two of these.
Thus Denison Olmsted (Yale 1813) was professor of mathematics and natural philosophy (also later of astronomy) from 1825 to 1859. His successor, Elias Loomis (Yale 1830), the astronomer and meteorologist, was professor of natural philosophy and astronomy from i860 until 1889. Wright himself was tutor of natural philosophy in 1866-68, and in 1875 he was made professor of chemistry and molecular physics. Later, however, it was decided that in general one subject was all that a given professor should be asked to be responsible for, and in accordance with this, Wright ceased to teach chemistry in 1879. This was an important step in the handling of the sciences. More noteworthy than this is the fact that Wright's chair was the first in which the subject, hitherto vaguely defined as natural philosophy, was definitely called physics. In a word, Wright was the first professor of physics at Yale.
It may be added, however, that natural philosophy long held a place in the Yale Catalogue. It was altogether right that the chair of Professor Loomis should retain its original name of Munson professor of natural philosophy and astronomy from
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. XVi860 to 1889. But it was, however, strange that in 1879, several years after Wright was made professor of physics, an assistant professor of "natural philosophy" should have been appointed.
It is also interesting that, from the early days through 1872, the text book used was Olmsted's "Natural Philosophy." Even in 1872-73, when Ganot's "Physics" was named as the text book, the subject was still called natural philosophy in the Yale Catalogue. It was not until 1883 that physics fully took its place.
This change is dwelt upon at some length because so intimately connected with the career of Arthur Wright.
A digression may be pardoned here, to make clear the place occupied by Wright in the wide development of science at Yale.
The starting point is properly taken as 1802, when President Timothy Dwight appointed Benjamin Silliman (Yale 1796) professor of chemistry and natural history. Silliman was then a young man of twenty-three, planning for himself the career of a lawyer, which plan, however, he gave up when he decided to join the Yale faculty.
This step taken by President Dwight was especially noteworthy, because so far-reaching in its results and taken at so early a date. It is also interesting that it was made by a president who, although a Congregational clergyman (as were all the leaders of Yale from 1701 to 1899), had none of the feeling, which later developed here and there, that the teachings of science and those of religion were essentially more or less antagonistic.
The appointment of Silliman had a marked effect in increasing the prominence of science at Yale and also over the whole country. In the latter direction, the influence of the man himself was felt especially through his frequent lecture courses in many prominent cities. Having gained his scientific training chiefly abroad, the new professor assumed his duties at Yale.
His laboratory was the Old Commons Hall of 1782, refitted for its new use in 1819. Silliman worked actively in chemistry until his retirement in 1853. His son, Benjamin Silliman, Jr., became his assistant in 1837 and later his successor, and carried on for a number of years the lectures in chemistry. In 1850, James D.
Dana (Silliman's son-in-law) became professor of natural hisARTHUR W I U J A M S WRIGHT DANA tory and in 1864 professor of geology and mineralogy. Thus science developed at Yale.
In the meantime, the field of physical science, which opened with the work of Denison Olmsted and his successor, Elias Loomis, was firmly established by Wright, the department being named physics as has been already explained. Wright also gave at first, as had Silliman, Jr., lectures in chemistry. Silliman, Jr., and Norton, however, as early as 1847, gave instruction to students in applied chemistry with laboratory work. For this, at the outset, the early president's house of 1797-99 was used;
the site of this building was that now occupied by Farnam Hall.
This date of 1847 m a Y be taken as that which marks the first of the successive steps which led up to the beginning of the Yale Scientific School. This school, founded by the intensive work of Brush, Norton, Brewer, and others, developed into an independent department of Yale, most important at home and in its influence on broad scientific instruction in the country. It became the Sheffield Scientific School in 1863, then named after its chief donor, Mr. Joseph E. Sheffield.
In the college, chemistry held but a small place from Silliman's time until the Kent Laboratory was built in 1887. This building was given up to other departments much later when the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory on the Pierson-Sage Square was completed. Here the work in chemistry of Sheffield Scientific School, the college, and the graduate school are united, as had been that in physics much earlier in the adjacent Sloane Physics Laboratory of 1912. With this second decisive step, the university development of Yale in science was fully established.
It is not amiss to state that Yale might have claimed to be a university very early, when the three departments of medicine, theology, and law were established in 181 o, 1822, and 1824, respectively. The name, however, was not used until 1887, though the graduate school was established in 1847.
The life of Arthur Wright began at Lebanon, Connecticut, on September 8, 1836. His early ancestors on both sides were of good English stock, coming to New England in the very early years of the new Colony of Massachusetts. His father, Jesse
NATIONAL ACADEMY BIOGRAPHICAL MEMOIRS VOL. XVWright, was a man of prominence in the state as a member of the Connecticut House of Representatives in 1839. Also in his native town of Lebanon he was Justice of the Peace and later (1840-42), Selectman. On this side the Wright family goes back through eight generations to Samuel Wright, who settled in Springfield in 1639. Arthur Wright's mother was Harriet Williams, the daughter of William Williams of Lebanon. Her earliest ancestor in this country was Robert Williams, who was born in England in 1593, but in 1637 made his home in Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Wright received his early education in Lebanon, but his special preparation for college he obtained principally from Bacon Academy, Colchester, and later at Kinne's private school in Canterbury, not far distant from his native town. He entered college in 1855 and through his course maintained an excellent rank as a scholar, obtaining at graduation in 1859 the stand of High Oration. He did especially well in Latin, also in mathematics and astronomy. Further than this, he stood well with his classmates on the personal side. His facility in music was a point in his favor, and gave him a place in several musical societies. His continued interest in music contributed much to his happiness throughout life.
The class of 1859 numbered at graduation 107 men. It was a notable company, including several who also attained positions
of special prominence. The following deserve to be mentioned:
John Haskell Hewitt, a student of the ancient languages and professor in Williams College from 1882 to 1909; Thomas Raynesford Lounsbury, who will be long remembered as professor of English in the Sheffield Scientific School; William Thompson Lusk, a prominent physician, connected with Bellevue Hospital from 1864 till his death in 1897; Eugene Schuyler, the diplomat, Consul General at Constantinople in 1878, and United States Minister to Roumania, Servia, and Greece from 1882-1884; also Joseph Hopkins Twichell, the distinguished clergyman and writer in Hartford, Connecticut.
After receiving his bachelor's degree, Wright continued his studies at Yale in the recently organized graduate school, where
ARTHUR WIWJAMS WRIGHT DANAhe specialized in mathematics and science. In 1861, he and two others were the first to receive the degree of doctor of philosophy in the recently established department of philosophy and the arts.
Wright's comrades in this honor were his classmate, Eugene Schuyler, spoken of above, and James Morris Whiton, Yale 1853, who was for years rector of the Hopkins Grammar School in New Haven, which was founded as early as i860. During this period, Wright was assistant in the Yale College Library;
also librarian of the Linonian Library from 1860-63.