Skip to Main Content

About the Archives: Caltech History

Caltech History

14 Facts about Caltech History

1. When was Caltech founded?
Caltech was founded in 1891 as Throop University by Amos Gager Throop (pronounced T-R-O-O-P). The name was changed to Throop Polytechnic Institute (1893-1912) and then to Throop College of Technology (1913-1919).

2. When did Caltech receive its present name?
Caltech became the California Institute of Technology on February 10, 1920.

3. Where was Caltech's first campus?
In its first year, 1891, the school occupied rented quarters in the Wooster Block—a building which still stands on the southeast corner of the intersection of Fair Oaks and Green Street. In 1892 the campus was moved to a site bordered by Raymond Avenue to the west and Chestnut Street to the south. This location today is across Raymond Avenue from St. Andrew's Church and bordered on the north by the 210 Freeway. In 1910, with the building of Throop Hall by the architects Elmer Grey and Myron Hunt on the present site, the old campus buildings were leased and then finally demolished in the 1920s.

4. Who were Caltech's presidents?
In the early years, the chief executive officers were Millard M. Parker, Vice President (1891); Charles H. Keyes, President (1892-1896); Walter A. Edwards, President (1897-1907); Arthur Henry Chamberlain, Acting President (1908); and James A. B. Scherer, President (1908-1920). After the school became the California Institute of Technology, the presidents were: Robert A. Millikan, Chairman of the Executive Council (1921-1945 — Millikan never held the title of President); Lee A. DuBridge, President (1946-1969); Harold Brown, President (1969-1977); Robert F. Christy, Acting President (1977-1978); Marvin L. Goldberger, President (1978-1987); Thomas E. Everhart, President (1987-1997); David Baltimore, President (1997-2006); Jean-Lou Chameau, President (2006-2013); Edward Stolper, Interim President (2013-2014); Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President (2014-).

5. Who received Caltech's first doctoral degree?
Caltech's first PhD was awarded to Roscoe Dickinson in chemistry in 1920, who went on to become a chemistry professor at Caltech and was the doctoral advisor to Nobel laureate Linus Pauling and to Arnold O. Beckman, inventor of the pH meter.

6. Who was Caltech's first Nobel laureate?
Robert A. Millikan was Caltech's first Nobel laureate, winning the prize for physics in 1923, during his tenure as Caltech's president (1921-1945).

7. Did Einstein teach at Caltech?
Einstein was a visiting professor at Caltech for three winter terms only — 1931, 1932, and 1933. When Einstein decided to settle in the United States permanently, he accepted an appointment at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

8. Where did Einstein live in Pasadena?
During his first winter of residence in 1931, Einstein lived in a bungalow at 707 South Oakland Avenue. During the following two winters, he resided at Caltech's faculty club, the Athenaeum.

9. Who was the first woman to receive a PhD from Caltech?
The first female recipient of a Caltech PhD was Dorothy Ann Semenow in 1955. Her degree was awarded in chemistry and biology.

10. When did Caltech first admit women undergraduates?
Women undergraduates were admitted in the fall of 1970, four of them receiving bachelor's degrees in 1973.

11. What are the major areas of study at Caltech?
There are 6 main divisions: biology and biological engineering; chemistry and chemical engineering; engineering and applied science; geological and planetary sciences; the humanities and social sciences; and physics, mathematics, and astronomy.

12. Who are some of Caltech's distinguished faculty and alumni?

David Baltimore: Sharing the 1975 Nobel Prize in medicine—at age 37 for his work in virology and the discovery of the—enzyme reverse transcriptase, Baltimore was already a renowned biologist when he was invited to become Caltech's president in 1997, where he would serve until 2006, and where he continues his work on recombinant DNA research.

Frank Capra: Better known as an Academy Award winning film director for such popular films of the 1930s and 1940s as It's a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Capra graduated from Throop College of Technology in 1918 with a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering.

Richard Feynman: A professor of physics from 1951 until his death in 1988, Feynman won his scientific renown through the development of quantum electrodynamics, or QED, a theory describing the interaction of particles and atoms in radiation fields. As part of this work he invented what came to be known as the "Feynman Diagrams"—visual representations of space-time particle interactions, for which he would be awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics, together with J. Schwinger and S. I. Tomonaga.

William A. Fowler: He spent many years at Caltech, first receiving his PhD in nuclear physics in 1936, followed by being appointed associate professor in 1942 and professor in 1946, and finally Institute Professor of Physics in 1970, which he held until his retirement in 1982. In 1983, Fowler would share the Nobel Prize in physics for his research into the creation of chemical elements inside stars.

Murray Gell-Mann: Within a year of his arrival to Caltech in 1955, Gell-Mann at age 30 would become the youngest full professor in Caltech’s history, where he would remain for the next thirty-eight years, until his retirement in 1993, during which time he would receive the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics for his work on the theory of elementary particles.

George Ellery Hale: Playing a major role in transforming the Throop Polytechnic Institute into the California Institute of Technology—a distinguished school of research and teaching in science and engineering—in 1906 Hale became a trustee of Throop and was instrumental in inviting Robert Millikan to lead Caltech. As a renowned astronomer, Hale became director of the newly established Mount Wilson Observatory in California, where he served from 1904 to 1923. He spent the last 15 years of his life organizing the equipping and building of the Palomar Observatory in California and in the pursuit of his solar researches in his private observatory in Pasadena. He influenced the creation of the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Gallery and worked on the master plan for Pasadena's civic center.

Paul MacCready: Known as the father of human-powered flight, being the creator of the Gossamer Condor (1977) and the Gossamer Albatross (1979)—both times winning the Kremer Prize—MacCready received both his Masters in physics (1948) and his PhD in aeronautics (1952) from Caltech. He would go on to create solar-powered aircraft such as the Gossamer Penguin and the Solar Challenger.

Linus Pauling: After receiving his PhD from Caltech in physical chemistry and mathematical physics in 1925, two years later he accepted a position here as an assistant professor in theoretical chemistry. It would be the work done here at Caltech regarding the nature of chemical bonding and the structure of the atomic nucleus that would lead to his being awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1954. And in 1962, he would also receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work against above ground nuclear testing. Pauling’s forty-one year association with Caltech—both as a student and professor—would end in 1963 with his resignation.

Charles Richter: Originally trained as a theoretical geophysicist, he joined the Caltech-Carnegie Seismological Laboratory in 1927, and received his PhD from Caltech in 1928. In 1932, collaborating with Beno Gutenberg—a renowned German geophysicist who joined the Caltech geology division—together they developed an earthquake magnitude scale, better known today as the Richter Scale. Richter would serve Caltech as professor of seismology from 1952 to 1970.

Gerald J. Wasserburg: A Caltech professor of geology and geophysics joining the faculty in 1959, one of Wasserburg’s primary research endeavors was his isotope studies of lunar materials collected by the Apollo missions—done in his lab known as the Lunatic Asylum at Caltech—which was in conjunction with his long association with NASA throughout the 1970s and 1980s as a member of the Lunar Sample Analysis Planning Team and Lunar Sample Review Board. In 1986, Wasserburg won the prestigious Crafoord Prize in geosciences.

13. What is JPL and how is it connected to Caltech?
The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center managed and operated by Caltech under a contract from NASA, a partnership that began in 1958. Its history can be traced back to 1936, when the first set of rocket experiments were carried out in the Arroyo Seco, located north of Los Angeles. Today, its primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, as well as to conduct Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. JPL-run projects have included: the Ranger and Surveyor missions to the moon; the Mariner missions to Venus, Mars, and Mercury; the Galileo mission to Jupiter and its moons; and the Mars rovers.

14. What is GALCIT?
Originally, the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech (GALCIT) was a research institute created in 1928 with funds provided by the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. In 1930, Theodore von Karman was invited to become its first director, until his retirement in 1949. In 1936, GALCIT’s Rocket Research Project was created, which led to US government financial support in 1939 to research rocket-assisted take-off of aircraft. Starting in 1943, the Army Air Force asked GALCIT to study the possible use of rockets to propel long-range missiles as well as develop missiles for field use—work that would lead to the eventual development of the Private, Corporal, and Sargeant missiles. In 1961 the name was changed when two new laboratories, the Firestone Flight Sciences Laboratory and the Karman Laboratory of Fluid Mechanics and Jet Propulsion were established, thus creating the new GALCIT—Graduate Aeronautical Laboratories of the California Institute of Technology.