Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 204:
MILLIKAN

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 204.

Today, we meet a man who didn't want to be a scientist. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Robert A. Millikan never meant to be a scientist. He was born in 1868 and raised in a small town in Iowa. He liked athletics and classics. His high-school physics course was a joke; and, when he went to Oberlin to study classics, his college physics wasn't much better. But, as an upperclassman, he was asked to teach the college physics course. When he balked, he was told, Anyone who can understand Greek can teach physics. I suppose some of you might agree with that sentiment.

The year he graduated, 1891, was a depression year, so he continued as a physics instructor at $600 a year. It was the only work he could find. While he was doing that, someone on the Oberlin faculty submitted his name for a graduate assistantship in physics at Columbia. It came through with a $700 stipend, so Millikan took it. The doors to physics kept opening for him. He was lent money to study with people like Roentgen and Curie in Europe. Then the University of Chicago hired him.

1906 found Millikan pushing forty and falling into a kind of academic dead end. He was still an assistant professor; he'd done little beyond some textbook writing; he was up to his nose in administrative chores; he had a family to support. His life was headed nowhere in particular.

But his education had put him in contact with the great overturning of Victorian physics that was just beginning. He'd been a sharp observer, and now he joined that scientific revolution. He started doing experimental research.

Two of his experiments were profoundly important. In one, he found out how to evaluate the exact charge of an electron by measuring its effect on a tiny drop of oil. In the other he created means for making a direct measurement of Planck's constant. Millikan put the last bricks of Planck's quantum mechanics in place, and he set the stage for modern quantum theory.

In 1921 Millikan went on to high technical and administrative posts at Cal Tech. For ten years he represented the United States in the League of Nations. And in 1923 his Planck's constant work won him the Nobel Prize in physics.

But for all of this, he hadn't unfurled his enormous abilities until he'd lived half his long life. He didn't even appear to take physics very seriously until he'd been in it for ten years. How often have you heard the old canard, "If you haven't done something significant by the time you're 25, you never will."

Well, don't you believe it. Don't ever believe it.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Wilson, M., American Science and Invention, A Pictorial History. New York: Bonanza Books, 1960.

This Episode has been greatly rewritten as Episode 2019.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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