By Daniel J. Kevles

Daniel J. Kevles is the J.O. and Juliette Koepfli Professor of the Humanities, Emeritus, at Caltech and the Stanley Woodward Professor of History, Emeritus, at Yale University. He was on the faculty of Caltech’s Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) for more than 35 years (1964-2001), focusing on the history of science. His research and writings encompass the interplay of science, technology, and society past and present with a focus on the United States. He is recognized for historical works that integrate diverse sources into accessible, analytic narratives, and is the author or coauthor of five books. On January 28, 2016, Kevles was the first speaker in a lecture series celebrating the 50th anniversary of HSS. The text that follows is a revised and expanded version of that talk.

Both the Athenaeum and the germ of what became the core of the Archives—Robert Millikan’s correspondence files—figured prominently in my introduction to Caltech, which I first visited while on a doctoral research trip in 1962. I discovered and worked with Millikan’s papers, which were stored unattended in six or seven file cabinets in the dimly lit basement of the Arms geology building, and I stayed at the Athenaeum, savoring its understated opulence as I sat in the dining room under the portrait gaze of George Ellery Hale, Millikan, and Arthur A. Noyes.

I found myself at the Athenaeum again during a three-day weekend two years later, in February 1964, when I was under consideration for appointment to an assistant professorship in the humanities division. On Sunday morning, as I was about to leave for the airport, Hallett Smith, the chair of the division, stopped by, offered me a job, and gave me a week to decide. The Millikan papers and the Athenaeum remaining vivid in mind, I said “yes” before the week was out. I arrived in Pasadena at the beginning of September 1964.

The Division

At the time, the division was beginning to rumble with initiatives for change in both scope and character. The ideas concerning scope were, I believe, connected to the issue that the physicist and novelist C. P. Snow had raised in his provocative and influential essay, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, published in 1959. Snow’s main point was that science and technology were transforming the world and that citizens in democratic societies knew too little about them to participate knowledgeably and intelligently in a civilization teetering on the edge of nuclear armageddon. Educators and cultural critics responded to Snow’s book by calling for better educating nonscientists in the sciences.

On the back wall, a portrait of George Ellery Hale, Millikan, and Arthur A. Noyes watches over the main dining room of the Athenaeum.
On the back wall, a portrait of George Ellery Hale, Millikan, and Arthur A. Noyes watches over the main dining room of the Athenaeum.

At Caltech, various faculty approached Snow’s provocation with efforts to bridge the two cultures in the opposite direction—that is, by building bridges from the humanities and social sciences to the natural sciences. In a sense the division had been doing this for a long time, aiming to give students a patina of liberal and practical education by requiring them to take nominally a fifth of their courses in history, literature, economics, and a smattering of electives in both humanities and social sciences.

Now, in the wake of Snow’s Two Cultures, a number of the Institute’s scientists involved in advising the government and of the divisional faculty counted it advantageous to instruct students in public affairs—especially concerning science, technology, and foreign policy—and establish public affairs in general as an intellectual presence on the campus. That purpose generated an effort to bolster the social sciences.

At the beginning of 1964, the social sciences were already represented by eight professors, or about one-third of the professorial faculty. They covered political geography, international economics, macroeconomics, business, industrial relations, and psychology. None used any mathematics to speak of in their work. The drive to bolster the social sciences was spearheaded in the division by a coalition of several of these faculty and a few of the historians. Their idea was to hire social scientists who would deal with issues in science and society such as national security, arms control, and development in the Third World. This effort produced the acquisition of Thayer Scudder, a social anthropologist with extensive postdoctoral experience in the African field, who also joined the faculty in 1964. It was in recognition of the social science faculty already in place—and of the division’s ambitions to expand in the field—that 50 years ago, at the beginning of 1966, the Caltech Board of Trustees authorized a change in the division’s name to the Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences.

Judy Goodstein, left, with Dan Kevles reviewing materials for the Caltech Archives. Goodstein was the first archivist at Caltech, a position and program created by Kevles. Today the Archives’ unique research collections in the history of science and technology range from the time of Copernicus to today. To learn more, visit archives.caltech.edu.
Judy Goodstein, left, with Dan Kevles reviewing materials for the Caltech Archives. Goodstein was the first archivist at Caltech, a position and program created by Kevles. Today the Archives’ unique research collections in the history of science and technology range from the time of Copernicus to today. To learn more, visit archives.caltech.edu.

During the next couple of years, several more economists were hired, including Lance Davis, who came to Caltech as a full professor from Purdue in 1968. Lance was 40 and already a highly distinguished economic historian, a pioneer in the application of economic theory and quantitative analysis to the development of financial and business institutions in the United States. His appointment marked a milestone, turning the future of social sciences at the Institute away from a focus on science and society, and toward an innovative program in mathematically grounded micro-politics and microeconomics.

In 1970, Smith’s chairmanship ended after more than 20 years, and Robert Huttenback, well known for his scholarship on the history of the British Empire and at the time the popular Master of Student Houses, was named acting chair. He became full chair in 1972.

Huttenback led the way in establishing demonstrated scholarly promise and accomplishment as new criteria for appointment and promotion, along with teaching and service; these standards came to prevail in the division and to be supported by the Institute as a whole. He obtained and made readily available resources for research and brought the faculty procedurally into decisions on curriculum, programs, hiring, and promotion.

The 50th anniversary that we celebrate this year thus marks the inauguration in HSS of a double transformation: the establishment of the social science program and, across the division, of standards of high achievement in scholarship as well as teaching. Both changes quickly returned substantial dividends.

Huttenback expanded the social science faculty still more, bringing in several exceptionally promising younger economists and political scientists who practiced or were strongly oriented toward microeconomics and micro-politics. The Institute faculty approved the establishment of a doctoral program in the social sciences that quickly achieved national prominence.

Recruitment in the humanities over the years followed a similar course of high aspirations, with the appointment at both the junior and senior professorial levels of distinguished literary scholars and critics; political, cultural, and economic historians (two of whom were jointly appointed in social science); and philosophers. Within a decade or so, the division had substantially increased in size.

The Archives

The inspiration to create the Caltech Archives came not only from my awareness of the Millikan papers sitting in the basement of Arms but also from my becoming acquainted with the papers of George Ellery Hale.

Caltech sprang arguably from Hale’s vision and entrepreneurial energies. An accomplished solar physicist, he had persuaded Andrew Carnegie early in the century to establish the Mount Wilson Observatory and had mobilized the National Academy of Sciences for defense in World War I by creating the National Research Council and recruiting Robert Millikan to run it. A few years later he persuaded Millikan to head the new Caltech.

In the fall of 1967 (or thereabouts), Horace Babcock, the director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, asked me to help him decide what to do with Hale’s papers, which were taking up a good deal of space in the observatory’s offices in Pasadena. A quick look revealed that this collection was bigger even than Millikan’s and rich with materials bearing on Hale’s life and career, his role at Caltech, and his multiple activities in national and international science. At my suggestion, Horace happily allowed its temporary loan to Caltech. With the help of an undergraduate, I organized the collection, had it microfilmed— using a grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission—and wrote a catalogue for the 100 reels it filled.

When I was working on the Hale papers, a letter arrived from a young scholar named Judy Goodstein, who was just finishing her doctorate in the history of science at the University of Washington. Judy said she was coming to Pasadena with her husband, David Goodstein, who was joining the Caltech physics faculty, and wondered if she might find a position in the history of science at the Institute. We had no faculty positions available, but Judy’s inquiry prompted me to think: “Here is a possible archivist. All we need is an archive.”

I broached the subject with President Lee DuBridge, telling him about the Hale and Millikan collections and saying that Caltech ought to establish an archive where they could be cared for and made available to scholars. I added that the archive could be a repository for the papers of other Caltech scientists and engineers when they retired, thus building a vital ongoing record of the life and work of the Institute. I also told him about Judy. Lee liked the idea and asked me how much it would cost. I said about $6,000 a year would be enough to cover a half-time archivist plus expenses for materials. Adjusted for inflation, $6,000 then is about $41,000 now, not a trivial sum. Without blinking an eye, Lee said, “Fine. Go ahead.” So, after about 15 minutes, Caltech had an archive.

Judy accepted the job and swiftly took charge. Today the Caltech Archives houses multiple treasures and is one of the leading repositories of materials for the history of science and engineering since the beginning of the 20th century.

The Institute

The Millikan and Hale papers were essential for my own historical work, and once I expanded my repertoire into the history of genetics, eugenics, and molecular biology, so were other collections that Judy acquired. But no less important was the resource of Caltech’s faculty, a number of whom had been students or young faculty at the Institute before World War II and many of whom I got to know.

A Round Table gathering of graduate students at the Athenaeum in the mid-1930s.
A Round Table gathering of graduate students at the Athenaeum in the mid-1930s.

Caltech was then, as it is now, small, informal, and, for the most part, a welcoming place, a kind of republic of science and scholarship. Like other universities, it was somewhat tainted by anti-Semitism in faculty appointments, but its ambition for world-class standing trumped its lingering discriminatory leanings.

I came to know the faculty in a variety of ways but in none more rewarding than frequenting the “Round Tables,” where notable scholars from various disciplines gathered to dine, debate, and discuss at the Athenaeum. Like so many other features of the Institute, the Athenaeum was intended to foster crosstalk among faculty in different disciplines. From the beginning it was an appealing gathering place for graduate students, postdocs, and professors.

My Round Table luncheon companions were usually eager to chat about the news of the day (political, cultural, scientific, and otherwise), reflect on the state of their fields, or simply reminisce. Faculty who regularly ate at the Round Tables—as well as those who did not—formed for me a vital link between past and present, a corps of living history, not only for the 1930s but for World War II and the Cold War. Most of the physical scientists and engineers I encountered at the Round Tables had been part of the wartime mobilization, developing microwave radar, solid fuel rockets, jet-assisted takeoff, and the atomic bomb. During the postwar years, a number of the same scientists and engineers had become deeply involved in issues of national security and federal science policy. Some were political conservatives, many were liberals, but all struck me as adhering to a code of human decency as each struggled in his way to prevent the world from hurtling to some thermonuclear armageddon.

The Einstein Papers

Perhaps no one better exemplifies the living-historical links between the Archives and the Athenaeum than Albert Einstein. The Hale papers include a striking letter from Einstein in October 1913 outlining for astronomers, with a hand-drawn diagram, a striking consequence of his then-incipient general theory of relativity: that a ray of starlight would be deflected when it passed near the mass of our sun and that the deflection might be observed during a solar eclipse. British scientists announced in November 1919 that they had confirmed the prediction, and Einstein was hailed around the world as the Newton of the 20th century.

Albert Einstein joins Charlie Chaplin at the Los Angeles Theater in 1931 for the premiere of Chaplin’s movie City Lights.
Albert Einstein joins Charlie Chaplin at the Los Angeles Theater in 1931 for the premiere of Chaplin’s movie City Lights.

Each winter term, from 1931 to 1933, Einstein visited Caltech, living in the Athenaeum in rooms that are now called the “Einstein Suite.” Political conservatives in greater Los Angeles did not like Einstein, but Hollywood adored him. When he joined Charlie Chaplin at the premiere of City Lights, Chaplin reportedly remarked, “I’m famous because everyone understands me. You’re famous because no one understands you.”

But physicists have now long understood another profound prediction of Einstein’s general theory of relativity: that massive objects violently accelerating in space would generate gravitational waves. The ruminations on the topic of Einstein and his theoretical circle are revealed in his correspondence, the editing and publication of which—both in print and online—are now ongoing at Caltech in the Einstein Papers Project under the exceptionally capable leadership of Diana Buchwald. Physicists at Caltech and elsewhere have been collaborating for some three decades to detect gravitational waves, designing and developing for the purpose the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). In September 2015, LIGO yielded the first direct experimental evidence of gravitational waves: a chirp of a signal, etching another entry in the catalogue of Caltech’s living history, its roots discernible in the Archives, in Einstein’s papers, and in the ghosts of the Athenaeum.