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Karl Taylor Compton

Karl Taylor Compton
Karl Taylor Compton, 1940.
President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
In office
Preceded by Samuel Wesley Stratton
Succeeded by James Killian
Personal details
Born (1887-09-14)September 14, 1887
Wooster, Ohio
Died June 22, 1954(1954-06-22) (aged 66)
New York City, New York
Alma mater Princeton University

Karl Taylor Compton (September 14, 1887 – June 22, 1954) was a prominent American physicist and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) from 1930 to 1948.[1]


  • The early years (1897–1912) 1
  • Reed College and WW I (1913–1918) 2
  • Princeton University (1918–1930) 3
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1930–1954) 4
  • Cooperation with the military (1933–1949) 5
  • Awards and honors 6
  • Publications 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

The early years (1897–1912)

Karl Taylor Compton was born in Wooster, Ohio, the eldest of three brothers (including Arthur Compton and Wilson Martindale Compton) and one sister, Mary. His father, Elias Compton, was from an old American Presbyterian family, and his mother, Otelia Augspurger Compton, was from an Alsatian and Hessian Mennonite family that had recently immigrated to the United States. He came from a remarkably accomplished family in which his brother Arthur became a prominent physicist and sister Mary a missionary.

Beginning in 1897, Compton's summers were spent camping at Otsego Lake, Michigan while attending Wooster public schools in fall, winter and summer. He took hard labor jobs starting at age eleven to help pay for college, working carrying hods for construction projects, as a farm hand, mule skinner, a book canvasser, in tile and brick factories and surveyed the first mile of paved road in Ohio.

In 1902, Compton skipped a grade and went into Wooster University's preparatory department for the last two years of high school. In 1908, he graduated from Wooster cum laude with a bachelor of philosophy degree, then in 1909 his master's thesis A study of the Wehnelt electrolytic interrupter was published in Physical Review. During (1909–1910) he was an instructor in Wooster's chemistry department before entering a graduate program at Princeton University. There he received the Porter Ogden Jacobus Fellowship, and worked with Owen Willans Richardson and jointly published several papers on electrons released by ultraviolet light, electron theory and on the photoelectric effect. Richardson went on to receive the Nobel Prize in some of the areas where Compton contributed. In 1912, Compton received his Ph.D. from Princeton summa cum laude.

Reed College and WW I (1913–1918)

In June 1913, Compton married Rowena Raymond. They moved to Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where Compton was an instructor in Physics. In 1915, he returned to Princeton as an associate professor of physics. He also took a consultancy at the General Electric Corporation. He contributed to the war effort at Princeton and with the Signal Corps. In December 1917, Compton was attached to the US Embassy in Paris as an associate science attaché.

Princeton University (1918–1930)

After the Armistice of 1918, the end of World War I Compton returned home to Princeton, his wife and three-year-old daughter Mary Evelyn. In June 1919, Compton was made a full professor, and worked in the Palmer Laboratory where his gift for teaching was legendary. His research was in the area of electronics and spectroscopy in subject areas such as passage of photoelectrons through metals, ionization, the motion of electrons in gases, fluorescence, theory of the electric arc, absorption and emission spectra of mercury vapor, and collisions of electrons and atoms. Unfortunately, Rowena died in the fall of 1919. In 1921, Compton married Margaret Hutchinson, with whom he had a daughter, Jean, and a son, Charles Arthur. In 1927, Compton was named Director of Research at the Palmer Laboratory and Cyrus Fogg Brackett professor. In 1929 he was appointed head of the department. Over one hundred papers were published in his name during his time at Princeton.

In 1923, Compton was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society and in 1924 a member of the National Academy of Sciences for which he was chairman of the Section of Physics (1927–1930). He was named vice-president of the American Physical Society (APS) in 1925 and in 1927 became its president. Compton was also a fellow of the Optical Society of America, a member of the American Chemical Society, the Franklin Institute and other professional engineering societies.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1930–1954)

In 1930, Compton accepted an invitation from the MIT Corporation to be president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an engineering school that was redefining the relationship between engineering and science. He took office at the beginning of the Great Depression in America, a time of economic turmoil and a time when science was under attack as a source of social ills and national despair. Compton was to strengthen basic scientific research at the Institute while becoming a spokesman for science and technology.

During Compton's service as President, the organization went through a revolutionary change. He developed a new approach to education in science and engineering, the influence of which was felt far beyond MIT. Significantly, he was active in the Society for the Promotion of Engineering Education, and its president in 1938. He was a leader in establishing new standards for the accreditation of engineering criteria through his role as chairman of the Committee on Engineering Schools of the Engineer's Council for Professional Development. He believed in broad-based education for scientists and engineers that was responsive to the needs of the time, and that science should be an element of industrial progress.

In the early 1930s, Compton joined with members of the APS to form the American Institute of Physics (AIP). While he was chairman of the AIP board during 1931–1936, the organization became a federation of several disparate societies for developing subject areas in physics. It sponsored publication of research results in the rapidly expanding study of physics during that era.

In 1948, Compton resigned his post as President of MIT and was elected president of the MIT Corporation. He held that position until his death on June 22, 1954.

Cooperation with the military (1933–1949)

In 1933, U.S. President Roosevelt asked Compton to chair a new Scientific Advisory Board that lasted two years. This put him into a forefront of scientists that perceived a need for reliable scientific advice at the highest levels of government. The start of World War II motivated the start of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), created in 1940 under the chairmanship of Vannevar Bush. Compton was a member of the NDRC and became head of Division D which was responsible for assembling a group of academic and industrial engineers and scientists that would study primarily radar, fire control and thermal radiation. In 1941, the NDRC was assimilated into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) where Compton chaired the United States Radar Mission to the United Kingdom. In August 1942, Roosevelt appointed Compton to the Rubber Survey Committee, which investigated and made recommendations to help resolve conflicts on technical direction in the development of synthetic rubber, arising due to the loss of rubber supply during the war.[2] In 1945, Compton was selected as one of eight members of the Interim Committee appointed to advise President Harry S. Truman on the use of the atomic bomb. When Japan surrendered in 1945, World War II came to an end and Compton left the OSRD. In 1946, Compton chaired the President's Advisory Commission on Military Training. From 1946 to 1948, he was a member of the Naval Research Advisory Committee. Compton chaired the Joint Research and Development Board from 1948 to 1949, when he stepped down for health reasons.

Awards and honors

The lunar crater Compton is named after Compton and his brother Arthur, who was also an influential scientist. Compton was also the recipient of thirty-two honorary degrees.


  • Karl Taylor Compton, A Study of the Whenelt Electrolytic Interrupter, Physical Review, Vol. 30, No. 2, pp. 161–179, American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, Cornell University, 1910.


  • Office Of The National Research Council, Biographical Memoirs, National Academies Press, (October 1, 1992), ISBN 0-309-04746-3
  1. ^ Borth, Christy. Masters of Mass Production, pp.14-15, Bobbs-Merrill Co., Indianapolis, IN, 1945.
  2. ^ "U.S. Synthetic Rubber Program". Retrieved 4 Jan 2014. 
  3. ^ "Public Welfare Award". National Academy of Sciences. Retrieved 14 February 2011. 
  4. ^ "Joseph Priestley Celebration". Dickinson College. Retrieved 17 February 2011. 

External links

  • Photograph of Kart Taylor Compton and other members of the NDRC
  • Official MIT Presidential Biography
  • Julius A. Stratton's biography of Compton
  • Annotated bibliography for Karl Compton from the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues
  • National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir
Government offices
Preceded by
Vannevar Bush
Chairman, Research and Development Board
Succeeded by
William Webster
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