On November 2, 1891, Throop University, named for its founder, Amos Throop, was born. According to the book
Millikan’s School: A History of the California Institute of Technology by former Caltech archivist Judith Goodstein, the school was a “thoroughly undistinguished little college” that barely survived its first year in Pasadena. Two years later, it expanded its course offerings, becoming “all things to all people, teaching a great variety of subjects, with considerable stress on manual training,” for men, women, boys, and girls, grammar school age and up.
It would take 27 more years and two additional name changes before the founders of the California Institute of Technology—astronomer George Ellery Hale, chemist
Arthur Amos Noyes, and physicist Robert A. Millikan—established Caltech as the science and engineering stronghold it is today.
To honor both the school’s humble beginnings and the leaps and bounds it—along with technology, society, and science—has made over these first 125 years, we decided to compare facets of the school, past and present.
THEN: A Caltech Archives photo shows a typical representation of students in the mid-1930s, perhaps gathered for a game of hoops. At the time, the all-male undergraduates had their choice of two degree tracks: science or engineering. NOW: From left: Mojo Sonola, president of Fleming House, is a senior working toward a degree in chemical engineering with a minor in computer science. Michael Abrams is a graduate student working to learn more about tissue regeneration in jellyfish. Stephanie Huard, a junior, is a double major in biology and philosophy, and does research in neuroscience. Monica Li (BS ’16) recently graduated with a mechanical engineering degree and was one of only three female members of the men’s soccer team. Partly due to her efforts, a women’s soccer team is launching at Caltech this fall.
THEN: Caltech got its start in 1891 on the south-east corner of the intersection of Fair Oaks and Green Street in rented quarters that served as a vocational school. Throop University was founded by Pasadena businessman and politician Amos G. Throop (pronounced “troop”). NOW: The LEED-certified, steel-framed Annenberg Center for Information Science and Technology is just one of the many state-of-the-art research buildings found on Caltech’s 124-acre campus, less than two miles southeast of its original home.
THEN: Pranks often used to involve moving items—planes, flip-cards, furniture—as this 1957 Ricketts student discovered when he found the contents of his dorm room hanging from a tree in the house’s courtyard. NOW: An annual day of “pranks,” Ditch Day now involves nearly every student on campus, with underclassmen spending many hours solving puzzles, playing games, and participating in challenges aimed at keeping them out of the rooms of the seniors, who have spent all year planning those challenges, called stacks.
THEN: Explorer 1 became the first satellite launched by the United States when it was sent into space on January 31, 1958. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory received the assignment to design, build, and operate the artificial satellite that would serve as the rocket’s payload, a job it completed in less than three months. The primary science instrument on Explorer 1 was a cosmic-ray detector designed to measure the radiation environment in Earth’s orbit. NOW: JPL’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission was launched in 2012 and is the most powerful high-energy X-ray telescope ever developed. By focusing high-energy X-rays, NuSTAR is able to study some of the hottest, densest, and most energetic phenomena in the universe, including black holes, collapsed stars, and supernovae remnants.
THEN: A Throop Polytechnic chemical laboratory, from sometime in the mid-1890s, doubles as a classroom. NOW: While students do much of their learning in classrooms, they also get to spend time in state-of-the-art labs like this one belonging to Professor of Chemistry Sarah Reisman (left).
THEN: Charles Richter, creator of the Richter magnitude scale for measuring earthquakes, was likely the only person in the 1960s to keep a seismometer in his living room; most were much larger and housed in basement laboratories. NOW: Richter now has company: today, living rooms across Pasadena are equipped with palm-sized seismic sensors thanks to the Community Seismic Network (CSN). The CSN is a collaboration among Caltech’s seismology, earthquake engineering, and computer science departments, and offers the technology free of charge in order to collect block-by-block data during a quake.
THEN: Caltech founding father Robert A. Millikan sends cosmic-ray measuring instruments to high altitude by balloon in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 1938. Millikan had previously coined the term “cosmic ray” after he proved that the high-energy radiation first detected by others in the early 1900s was indeed coming from outer space. NOW: Particle physics has moved beyond balloons to giant experiments like the particle detectors at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, where Caltech researchers work with scientists from around the world to hunt for and learn about new particles like the Higgs boson.
THEN: In 1937, pastoral mountaintops—seen here at the Palomar Observatory site, with the 18-inch Schmidt and 200-inch Hale telescope domes in the background and workers’ cottages in the foreground—were some of the best places from which to get a look at outer space. NOW: The Curiosity rover, developed at JPL as part of NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission, gives us an up-close and personal look at the rugged terrain of the Red Planet—a view that was mere science fiction just a few decades ago.
—By Katie Neith