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Earnest C. Watson Oral History Interview with Larry Shirley

 Digital Record
Identifier: 2016-02-17-000163


  • Other: 2016 February 17


An interview in January 1969 with Earnest C. Watson, retired dean of the faculty emeritus and emeritus professor of physics. Dr. Watson arrived at Caltech in 1919 after graduate work with R. A. Millikan at the University of Chicago and two years of military service in World War I. He immediately supervised the design and construction of the Norman Bridge Laboratory of Physics and thereafter became chief assistant to Dr. Millikan when the latter arrived as Caltech’s first head (chairman of the Executive Council) in 1921.

Watson became dean of the faculty in 1946 and held that position through 1959, when he retired. In January 1960 he left Caltech for India, as scientific attaché to the U.S. Embassy there.

In this interview, he reminisces about his relationship with Millikan and with Arthur Amos Noyes, the development of Caltech in the institute’s early years, and Millikan’s carte-blanche from the Board of Trustees. He comments on the campus mood during the Depression era; the rise of Communist-leaning discussion groups; and the persecution of aeronautical engineer Hsue-shen Tsien in the McCarthy era. He recalls Einstein’s visits to Caltech in the 1930s and the Millikans’ careful supervision of his contacts. He comments on industrial funding for Caltech, on the collapse of the Arthur H. Fleming trust at the outset of the Depression, and on his close relationship with trustees William C. McDuffie and James R. Page. He concludes by discussing his own role in developing and running the institute.

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