Physics had a place in the curriculum in the earliest days of the College, when it was known as “natural philosophy.” Entries of the diary of Solomon Drowne 1773 describe experimental work in natural philosophy.
“Aug 3 1772 This morning at about 8 the senior and junior classes go down to Mr. Brown’s apparatus at the works to attend electrical and Philosophycal lectures. Mr. Howell present. In the forenoon and part of the afternoon try electrical experiments. Kill a pigeon, etc. Then darken the room to construct the camera obscura which affords very pretty diversion as some go out and ride, play, etc. and David ^Ebenezer David 1772, later a Baptist clergyman and chaplain in the Revolutionary War` stands upon his head. We then carry out the telescope and micrometer up on the hill and look at the sun as long as we could see him, then at the moon, then stars, and lastly the planet Jupiter, 3 of whose moons we see.The annual catalogue for 1823 listed Enfield’s Institute of Natural Philosophy in the curriculum for the junior year. In the 1829 catalogue the studies mentioned in the junior year were mechanics, pneumatics, hydrostatics, optics, and astronomy, to which a course in electricity and magnetism was added in 1831. Natural Philosophy was taught by Alexis Caswell from 1828 to 1850, by William Augustus Norton in 1850 and 1851, by Henry Day from 1851 to 1854, again by Caswell from 1855 to 1864. Samuel Stillman Greene was professor of natural philosophy and astronomy from 1864 to 1883.
“Aug. 4th. This morning at 8 we go again to the apparatus. In the first place we fill a globe with water which is hung up in a darkened room with only a hole in the window shutter to let a ray shine upon the globe, which after a refraction and reflection or two exhibits a rainbow; but our globe falls in the midst of the experiment, not being well suspended. Next we demonstrate the theory of light and colors with a very neat prism: Then we fix the camera obscura or solar microscope which magnifies objects amazingly. A louse is made to appear six feet long in which we could plainly discern the peristaltic motion. Lastly we see water ascend in capillary tubes which concludes the experiments.”
In 1869 Rowland Gibson Hazard and his son Rowland Hazard donated $40,000, for a professorship which would benefit the university and concurred in the recommendation of President Caswell that the funds be used for the Hazard Professorship of Physics, to which Eli Whitney Blake was appointed. Physics became a very popular study with the arrival in 1870 of both the well-liked Professor Blake and a Holtz Electrical Machine, from which, in a darkened room, the students observed with wonder the power of electricity. Two members of Blake’s first class, juniors John J. Holbrook 1872 and Edwin A. Herring 1872 were inspired by his lectures to install a telegraphic line between their rooms at opposite ends of University Hall. Blake was hampered by the lack of facilities, but finally reported in 1877, “The Physical laboratory was thrown open to students this year.” Thirteen students applied for the laboratory course, but only ten could be accommodated in two divisions. Blake regretted that during the first year so much time had to be devoted by these students to construction of apparatus, but observed that “the tangible results of their term’s work remain as valuable additions to our means of instruction.” In 1887-88 Arnold Green added to the physical apparatus his gift of a barometer, solar radiometer, and hygrometer which had been used by Professor Alexis Caswell 1822 in his meteorological observations. In 1891 Wilson Hall was opened for the use of the Physics Department. Its lecture room was used in 1891-92 for two University Extension courses, one in mechanics and the other in electricity, given by William D. Mount. The first Ph.D. degree in the Physics Department was awarded to Albert DeForest Palmer 1891 in 1895. The next year Otis E. Randall earned a doctorate in mechanics.
Carl Barus was named to the Hazard professorship in 1895. Palmer remained at Brown and taught in the department until 1934, the last two years as associate professor on the Hazard Foundation. Carl W. Miller came in 1924 and taught until 1955. The Physics Department was reorganized in 1926, and Frederick George Keyes, head of the Department of Chemistry at M.I.T., was appointed acting head of the department. Harrison E. Farnsworth joined the department in 1926 and taught until 1970. R. Bruce Lindsay 1920, who returned to teach in 1930, became chairman of the department in 1934 and Hazard professor in 1936. He brought with him an interest in acoustics, and that field dominated the department for forty years, during which there was a close association with the Acoustical Society of America. Three Brown physics professors served as president of the Society, Lindsay in 1957, Robert W. Morse, who came to Brown in 1946, in 1966, and Robert T. Beyer, who came to Brown in 1950, in 1968. Lindsay and Beyer were both awarded the Gold Medal of the Society, and Arthur O. Williams, who joined the department in 1950, received its Pioneers Medal for work in Underwater Sound. The acoustics work of the department was primarily in underwater sound and in physical acoustics, especially nonlinear acoustics, a field in which Peter J. Westervelt, who joined the department in 1951, pioneered.
Lindsay became Dean of the Graduate School in 1954, and Williams succeeded him as chairman of the department. Under Williams’ direction the department broadened extensively. Professor Russell A. Peck, who had joined the department in 1953, carried out research in experimental nuclear physics. With the help of research and technical assistants, he built a 200,000 volt “atom smasher” from scratch (including some war surplus material) in a project supported by the University and the Atomic Energy Commission. The equipment was located in two small buildings (since torn down) at the end of Butler Avenue near the Seekonk River. In the Laboratory of Surface Physics, first located in Barus Hall( the former President’s House), then in the old Castle, and, finally, in the new Barus and Holley Building, Professor Harrison E. Farnsworth developed apparatus for the atomic cleaning of solid surfaces within a vacuum and work in low-energy electron diffraction. In 1957 Williams was able to bring in Leon Cooper in solid state theory. Cooper was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1972 (with Bardeen and superconductivity. Cooper set up a new research program at Brown in neural networks, and was later named Thomas J. Watson Sr. Professor of Science. Williams was named the fourth Hazard professor in 1975, and was followed by Beyer as the fifth in 1984.
Philip J. Bray, who had joined the department and begun work in applications of nuclear magnetic resonance to the study of the atomic structure of glass and crystalline materials, became chair of the department in 1963 and sixth Hazard professor in 1985. Under Williams, Morse, and Bray the department added strong research groups in high-energy physics, including Robert Lanou, Anatole Shapiro, and Mildred Widgoff (the first woman professor in the department) as experimentalists, and David Feldman in theory. A theoretical side to the nuclear physics program was added, as well as a new theoretical group in astrophysics. The solid state group was strengthened by the addition of Charles Elbaum and Manuel Cardona, and the theoretical side by John J. Quinn and Anthony Houghton.
In the late 1960s money was received from Thomas J. Watson Jr. to develop further the program in solid state physics, but the the national decline of support in physics, the department shrank, and the astrophysics group was eliminated. The department did bring in Leon Kadanoff and Walter Massey in theoretical solid state and Phillip J. Stiles in experimental solid state. Stiles served as chairman of the department from 1974 to 1980, and was succeeded by Charles Elbaum who was named Hazard professor in 1991. Robert Lanou followed as chairman in 1986, and Anthony Houghton in 1992.