This history of science at IIT is adapted from a lecture by Dean Russell Betts at the 2012 Golden Alumni Reunion.
LEWIS INSTITUTE, STATE AND ROBEY: Science has played an essential role at IIT since the foundation of Armour and Lewis institutes in the 1890s. In the early days, course catalogs show, science was more narrowly defined than today. Biology, for example, was a largely empirical, observational science.
DR. SMITH, CHEMIST, LEWIS INSTITUTE: Chemistry—inorganic, organic, and analytical—in many ways was leading the way. The chemists already knew about atoms and the structure of chemical compounds albeit without any deep understanding of the nature of the basic building blocks.
PHYSICS TEXT 1897: The mathematics syllabus was like that of a pretty good high school course of today, with algebra, calculus, and differential equations. Physics was what we would call classical physics, covered today in the first two semesters of university physics: mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity and magnetism, and light.
GEORGE BIRKHOFF: Yet even in those early days, we see a characteristic of IIT in the amazing people who came through the institution, studying or teaching here. For example, George Birkhoff, who attended high school and junior college at Lewis (1896-1902), became arguably the most famous U.S. mathematician of his day. Birkhoff spent most of his career at Harvard University and became a member of the National Academy of Sciences. Birkhoff typified what mathematicians were doing at that period. There was a lot of interest in complex classical systems. His most famous result was the ergodic theorem, the basis of statistical physics—given enough time, a system will find its way to all the possible configurations.
LEE DE FOREST: Lee de Forest taught at both Armour and Lewis. At Armour, he made experimental radio transmissions from the top of Main Building out to a hotel not too far away and eventually to the Auditorium Theater in the Loop. Later, he invented the Audion, a forerunner to the vacuum tube triode—the basis of the first electronic amplifier circuits.
NIELS BOHR: Within the 20 years of the foundation of Armour and Lewis, the scientific world was turned on end—from the discovery of the electron in 1897 to the introduction of the atomic Niemodel in 1913. Atoms and quanta were now the standard for describing the physical world. The new theory of quantum mechanics was introduced to deal with the new probabilistic world of the atom, and mathematics developed in the 19th century found application in the solution of the complex equations that evolved from this theory.
PAGE FROM 1927 LEWIS YEARBOOK: Between the great wars, economic and social problems dominated the world scene. Financial pressures caused IIT to consider merger with other Chicago universities, but that did not come to pass.
WISHNICK HALL BY MIES VAN DER ROHE: One of the huge impacts on American science and culture during this period was the exodus of some of the finest creative minds from Europe, driven by political upheaval and the rise of Anti-Semitism. Like many American universities, IIT benefited from this migration. Mies van der Rohe had left Germany in 1937 and became the head of IIT’s architecture college; Laszlo Moholy-Nagy left Hungary in 1937 and opened the Institute of Design.
KARL MENGER: In mathematics, Karl Menger was already a well-known mathematician and professor in Vienna when he came to the United States in 1937. After first spending time at Notre Dame University, he came to IIT in 1946 and spent the rest of his career, until 1971, here. He is best known for the Menger sponge and work on classic problems such as the four-color map problem.
JACK STEINBERGER & LEON LEDERMAN: Jack Steinberger [left] attended IIT from 1938 to 1940 before going on to the University of Chicago. He worked at Princeton University, University of California-Berkeley, and Columbia University and eventually at CERN. He was winner of Nobel Prize for Physics in 1988 for his research into neutrinos with Leon Lederman [right], a faculty member at IIT until his retirement, and Melvin Schwartz. He also received the National Medal of Science and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
CAMPUS PUBLICATION 1948: Armour and Lewis eventually joined in 1940 to become IIT. World War II, as elsewhere, had a huge impact on the new university and on science. Research became increasingly important to IIT and was manifest not only by activity on campus but by the contract research work for the government carried out at the newly formed IIT Research Institute (IITRI).
Following WW II—where government-funded research had produced such profound advances as radar, penicillin, operations research, digital computers, and so much more—many people asked, "Why should this stop?" In the report "Science, the Endless Frontier (1945)," Vannevar Bush proposed that the U.S. government continue to fund research in peacetime "for the improvement of the national health, the creation of new enterprises bringing new jobs, and the betterment of the national standard of living." This new initiative led to the formation of the National Science Foundation and the federal national research laboratories and to the research compact between the federal government and U.S. universities which continues to this day.
MARTIN KILPATRICK: As a result, post-WW II was a wonderful time in science at IIT. For example, Martin Kilpatrick was recruited to IIT in 1947 as chair of chemistry, and he increased the faculty count from six to 24, and undergraduate enrollment in chemistry rose to 100. Research became an important component of the department, with nationally and internationally recognized research. Very importantly, this growth included the genesis of computational science at IIT, as Peter Lykos and others realized the power of computers to deal with challenging computational problems in physical chemistry.
COMPUTER SCIENCE FACULTY: Computer science also grew in mathematics as information science, in the research foundation and at Argonne National Laboratory, with important contributions including IIT's version of FORTRAN. In 1971, as we celebrated last year, the computer science department was formed. It had an enormously successful faculty and students who went out to success into the field, with such people as Robert Dewar, Jack Dongarra, Robert Tobey, Anthony Wojcik, and Martha Evens. Computation and computer science have been a major component of what goes on here ever since.
"BIG SCIENCE": During that period, "Big Science" made its appearance on campus as universities became home to instruments of a scale hitherto impossible. At IIT, these included a Van de Graaff accelerator and a nuclear reactor (once at 3400 S. State Street, no longer there). Students had the opportunity to participate in research with major scientific instrumentation on campus.
ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY: A key advantage for IIT has been being in Chicago near Argonne National Laboratory (founded in 1946) and Fermi National Accelerator Lab (1968). IIT people have played important roles in the development of programs at these labs. This includes at Argonne’s Advanced Photon Source, where IIT was involved very early on in construction of beam lines for the study of biological structure, material structure, and more recently radiologic materials. It’s a major powerhouse in computational research, materials research, and more.
YAOFU ZHOU AT FERMILAB: Fermilab is a flagship of particle physics and accelerator physics in the United States and is also an important link to the worldwide physics community and their facilities.