Richard P. Feynman Papers
This collection documents the career of Nobel Prize winner Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988). It contains correspondence, biographical materials, course and lecture notes, speeches, manuscripts, publications, and technical notes relating to his work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman served as Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology from 1951 until his death.
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.
Conditions Governing Use
Copyright to this collection is not held by Caltech. If you wish to quote or reproduce an item created by Richard Feynman beyond the extent of fair use, please contact his heirs’ agent, Melanie Jackson Agency, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright to works by others may be held by their respective creators or publishers, or their heirs. If you wish to quote or reproduce them beyond fair use, please contact the copyright holder to request permission.
(“Fair use” is a legal principle which permits unlicensed reproduction in certain circumstances. You are responsible for determining whether your own reproduction would fit the legal requirements for fair use.)
Biographical / Historical
Physicist Richard 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 a part of this work he invented what came to be known as “Feynman Diagrams,” visual representations of space-time particle interactions. For this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, together with J. Schwinger and S. I. Tomonaga, in 1965. Later in his life Feynman became a prominent public figure through his association with the investigation of the space shuttle Challenger explosion and the publication of two best-selling books of personal recollections.
Feynman was born in the borough of Queens in New York City on May 11, 1918. He grew up and attended high school in Far Rockaway, New York. In 1939, he received his BS degree in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then attended Princeton University as a Proctor Fellow from 1940 to 1942, where he began his investigation of quantum electrodynamics under the supervision of J. A. Wheeler. He was awarded his PhD in 1942 for his thesis on the least action principle.
While still at Princeton, Feynman was recruited for the atomic bomb project. He was transferred to Los Alamos in 1942, where he headed a team undertaking complicated calculations using very primitive computers. While at Los Alamos, Feynman became good friends with Hans Bethe, who at the end of the war secured a position for Feynman as an associate professor of physics at Cornell. Feynman remained at Cornell from 1945 to 1951. During this time he formalized his theory of quantum electrodynamics and began to publish his results. He also participated in the Shelter Island Conference of 1947, which helped to determine the course of American physics in the atomic age. At this conference he introduced his theory of QED to the leading American physicists.
In 1951, Feynman accepted an offer to become the Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, a position he filled until his death. While at Caltech Feynman continued his work at the leading edge of theoretical physics, making important contributions to the study of liquid helium, particle physics, and later quantum chromodynamics. He also began his distinguished career as a teacher and lecturer. In 1961 and 1962 he delivered to Caltech’s freshmen the introductory lectures that were later published as The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
In 1986, Feynman was asked to serve on the Presidential Commission investigating the space shuttle Challenger accident. In a dramatic fashion, Feynman publicly demonstrated the inelasticity of the shuttle’s O-rings at near freezing temperatures, a leading cause of the disaster. He also contributed an extended appendix to the Committee’s report, highlighting the technical and administrative deficiencies of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s space program.
Feynman’s many interests outside of science, such as his fondness for codes and safecracking, his bongo drums, his theatrical appearances, his artwork, plus his experiments in out-of-body experiences, are well documented in his autobiographies, as well as in his papers at Caltech.
Feynman continued his scientific work and his lecturing activities up until his death on February 15, 1988, after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.
39 linear feet (93 boxes)
Language of Materials
The two groups of papers have been kept separate, although box numbering is continuous throughout the collection. The guide to the collection is in two parts, and researchers must expect to consult both parts. At the time the second group of papers was processed, an effort was made to create an arrangement parallel to that of group 1. However, the different content and larger scope of group 2 eventually resulted in a somewhat different scheme.
Correspondence: The Feynman collection contains a large amount of both incoming and outgoing correspondence. Feynman’s scientific contacts include many of the greatest names in twentieth-century physics: Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Stephen Hawking, Werner Heisenberg, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hideki Yukawa—to name only a few. In Group 1, correspondence has been spread over four series: correspondence (largely with individual colleagues), miscellaneous or general correspondence, publication correspondence, and, in the biographical series, a small number of personal letters.
For Group 2, an attempt was made to pull both personal, general, and publication correspondence into one main series, Series 1. However, when letters demonstrated both intellectual and physical links with other documents, their original contextual relationships were maintained. Thus, publication correspondence will be found both in Series 1 and in Series 6. Fan mail surrounding Feynman's television appearances, his two autobiographies, and his Nobel Prize has been placed in Series 2, Biographical, as has other correspondence relating to his business and consulting activities documented there.
Course and Lecture Notes: Feynman’s lecture courses at institutions in Southern California other than Caltech, and even outside the U.S., are represented in Group 2. Of special interest are the courses Feynman gave, in addition to those he attended, at Hughes Aircraft Company, and the sets of lectures that were later published as Statistical Mechanics and QED (originally the Mautner Lectures, which were in turn predated by the Robb Lectures, first delivered at the University of Aukland, New Zealand). Material pertaining to the publication of these lecture series is found in Group 2 correspondence under the respective publishers.
Talks, Speeches, Conferences: In this category are those lectures delivered for a special occasion or purpose, usually as single lectures, but sometimes as a series, and in both formal and informal settings. This category overlaps somewhat with Course Notes and Lectures. In Group 1, these materials are to be found under Professional Organizations and Meetings (Series 3) and Manuscripts (Series 5). In Group 2, they are arranged under Series 5 in chronological order, when dated, and in a sub-series of undated talks. Folders in this category contain a wide variety of talk-related documents, from holograph notes to correspondence to slides, figures, or transparencies.
Publications: Group 1 contains a small series of publication correspondence (Group 1, Series 4), mostly pertaining to Feynman’s book or monograph publishers; in Group 2, similar correspondence has been placed in the main correspondence series (Group 2, Series 1). Group 2’s Series 6 lists Feynman’s publications by title in chronological order. Folders contain a variety of material, from holograph notes to correspondence to proofs and prints. Researchers should note that formal reprints have been grouped at the end of Group 2, in Section 9.
Working Notes and Calculations: The vast majority of Feynman's working notes are located in Group 2. A representative sample from his early years appears in Group 1, Series 5. Of special interest in this group are notebooks from his student days, beginning circa 1933. The notes in Group 2 capture the breadth and depth of Feynman's thought, as well as reflecting many aspects of his personality. They cover a wide range of subjects, from quantum electrodynamics and later quantum chromodynamics to biology and computers. The notes also reflect Feynman's working style. They are sometimes carefully organized into notebooks that were rigorously dated, such as the binders dated between 1966 and 1987 at the beginning of Group 2, Series 7. Unfortunately for researchers, these are the exception. The great mass of Feynman's working notes are scattered on miscellaneous sheets of papers, envelopes, placemats, and seemingly whatever else was at hand when thoughts struck him. Feynman occasionally took time to organize these into a system for files, although only a small fraction of his notes found their way into such a system. The great majority was left in a scattered condition and grouped during the processing of the papers as well as possible by subject matter. Many miscellaneous papers remain.
Work of Others: Feynman officially maintained neutrality on the work of his contemporaries, but informal commentaries in the form of notes and marginal glosses on the work of others abound in his papers. A small segment of such materials can be found in Group 1, Series 5. A large amount of work by others, both with and without Feynman’s commentary, forms Group 2’s Series 8. A preponderance of material on computers dictated an arrangement in which computer-related projects are categorized separately. Individuals whose work is strongly represented—largely Caltech colleagues, students, or collaborators—are listed singly; otherwise materials have been listed by subject.
Immediate Source of Acquisition
The Richard Phillips Feynman Papers were given to Caltech by Richard Feynman and Gweneth Feynman in two main installments.
The first group of papers, now boxes 1-20 of the collection, was donated by Richard Feynman himself beginning in 1968, with additions later. It contains materials dating from about 1933 to 1970. The second group occupies boxes 21-90. It was given to Caltech by Feynman’s widow Gweneth early in 1989. Group 2 contains papers primarily from the 1970s and 1980s, although some older material is present. Supplements since 1994 occupy three boxes and have come from various donors outside the Feynman family.
The initial processing of this collection was completed on July 1, 1993.
- Challenger (Space shuttle) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Computers Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Gravitation--Research Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Particles (Nuclear physics) Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Physics--Study and teaching Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Quantum chromodynamics Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Quantum electrodynamics Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Quantum theory Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Space shuttles--Accidents--Investigation--United States Subject Source: Library of Congress Subject Headings
- Guide to the Richard P. Feynman Papers
- Charlotte E. Erwin, Carol Finerman, David A. Valone, Kevin C. Knox
- Description rules
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard
- Language of description
- Script of description
- American Institute of Physics, National Endowment for the Humanities