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Robert A. Millikan Papers

Identifier: MillikanRA

Scope and Contents

The core of the Robert A. Millikan Papers consists of the official papers generated by Millikan during the 25 years that he was the executive officer at the Institute. The bulk of the papers consist of correspondence, lecture notes, and other materials dealing with scientific and academic matters.

For scholars pursuing topics related to Millikan’s professional activities, the first five series will hold the greatest interest as they contain the bulk of correspondence and other papers dealing with scientific and academic matters. Millikan’s lecture notes offer glimpses of Millikan's classroom technique as well as an insight into the state of physics at the turn of the century. Of similar interest is the assortment of notebooks in which Millikan recorded data from his scientific experiments. Millikan played a significant role in the mobilization of science for national defense during World War I, much of which is documented by materials in series 2.

However, the preponderance of the material in this part of the collection deals with the period between 1921 when Millikan came to Caltech and 1953 when he died. Millikan’s Chicago years are not well represented. (Some material is scattered through several collections at the University of Chicago, but no systematic collection of his early papers is extant.) Millikan was in actuality, if not in title, executive head of Caltech until his retirement in 1945, and his correspondence reflects an administrator’s concerns. He was determined to put Caltech in the front ranks of scientific research and teaching institutions; his papers illuminate the methods through which that goal was realized. There is little in the collection pertaining directly to his own scientific work during these years. He remained active in the affairs of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Research Council, and similar organizations devoted to the promotion of scientific research; materials relating to these activities will be found in abundance. He was for many years a trustee of the Henry Huntington Library and Art Gallery in nearby San Marino. Much of his activity in that capacity is documented in the collection.

Millikan was an avid correspondent. Among his most frequent correspondents were fellow scientists and administrators, such as Frank B. Jewett, Karl T. Compton, Paul Brockett, Albert Barrows, and Gano Dunn; and Southern California business figures, such as Harry Chandler, Henry M. Robinson, Arthur H. Fleming and John A. Fleming. Herbert Hoover and other political figures appear often in the collection. Millikan worked closely with astronomer George Ellery Hale and aerodynamicist Theodore von Kármán; their papers (also housed in the Institute Archives) contain a great many more Millikan letters. The critical role played by Caltech during World War II is shown in his extensive correspondence with Henry H. (“Hap”) Arnold and Vannevar Bush.

The most intensively indexed part of the collection is that portion dealing with Millikan's professional affairs. The remainder is material of a more personal or family nature. Here one finds the voluminous correspondence that passed between Millikan and his wife, Greta, during the frequent periods when they were apart. Greta’s correspondence with other family members and friends is also found here. Together, these letters provide a rich social commentary, not only on the private lives of the Millikan family, but also on contemporary events, and in Greta’s case, on the roles played by the wife of a famous scientist and administrator.

Other family material in the collection includes letters and writings by the couple’s three sons, Clark, Glenn, and Max, as well as members of each of their families. (The Institute Archives also has the papers of Clark Millikan, who was a professor of aeronautics at Caltech from 1928-1966). This portion of the collection includes a variety of scrapbooks, photo albums, newspaper clippings, legal papers, diaries, notebooks, manuscript drafts, and reprints.


  • 1821 - 1953


Conditions Governing Access

This collection has not been digitized, and is available only in the reading room of the Caltech Archives. Access is available to anyone conducting research for which it is necessary; please contact the Caltech Archives to make an appointment.


50 linear feet

Language of Materials


Immediate Source of Acquisition

Shortly after Millikan’s death, the family presented to the Institute his correspondence, personal papers, and items from his library. Four filing drawers of Millikan memorabilia were subsequently deposited in the Library in 1959 by his son, Clark.

Following the establishment of a permanent archival program at the Institute in 1968, Archivist Judith R. Goodstein supplemented the collection with material from other sources, including additional gifts of the Millikan family and facsimiles of Millikan correspondence found in such repositories as Cambridge University Library and Algemeen Rijksarchief in The Hague.

Existence and Location of Copies

This collection is also available in microfilm.

Processing Information

In 1966 Daniel J. Kevles, historian of science at Caltech, began the collation and preliminary organization of the collection. In this he had the advice and encouragement of Charles Weiner, at that time Director of the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. Lee A. DuBridge, President of Caltech, made available funds and space for the project. Kevles and his assistant, Rowena Danziger, produced an inventory list that was long the only guide to the collection.

Albert F. Gunns, historian at California State University, Long Beach, undertook the systematic organizing, cataloging, and indexing of the collection in 1971, with the help of Carol Finerman, Jackie Kuhl, and Ruth Gordon. Funding for the publication of the print guide in 1975 was provided by the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics. A second guide to the microfilm edition of the papers was published by Gunns and Judith R. Goodstein in 1977.

  • Physicists Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
Albert F. Gunns, Judith R. Goodstein, Francisco J. Medina, Peter Sachs Collopy
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
EAD encoding by the Center for the History of Physics (1999) supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities

Repository Details

Part of the California Institute of Technology Archives and Special Collections Repository

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