Today, we meet a man who didn't want to be a
scientist. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Robert A. Millikan never
meant to be a scientist. He was born in 1868 and
raised in a small town in Iowa. He liked athletics
and classics. His high-school physics course was a
joke; and, when he went to Oberlin to study
classics, his college physics wasn't much better.
But, as an upperclassman, he was asked to teach the
college physics course. When he balked, he was
told, Anyone who can understand Greek can teach
physics. I suppose some of you might agree with
The year he graduated, 1891, was a depression year,
so he continued as a physics instructor at $600 a
year. It was the only work he could find. While he
was doing that, someone on the Oberlin faculty
submitted his name for a graduate assistantship in
physics at Columbia. It came through with a $700
stipend, so Millikan took it. The doors to physics
kept opening for him. He was lent money to study
with people like Roentgen and Curie in Europe. Then
the University of Chicago hired him.
1906 found Millikan pushing forty and falling into
a kind of academic dead end. He was still an
assistant professor; he'd done little beyond some
textbook writing; he was up to his nose in
administrative chores; he had a family to support.
His life was headed nowhere in particular.
But his education had put him in contact with the
great overturning of Victorian physics that was
just beginning. He'd been a sharp observer, and now
he joined that scientific revolution. He started
doing experimental research.
Two of his experiments were profoundly important.
In one, he found out how to evaluate the exact
charge of an electron by measuring its effect on a
tiny drop of oil. In the other he created means for
making a direct measurement of Planck's constant.
Millikan put the last bricks of Planck's quantum
mechanics in place, and he set the stage for modern
In 1921 Millikan went on to high technical and
administrative posts at Cal Tech. For ten years he
represented the United States in the League of
Nations. And in 1923 his Planck's constant work won
him the Nobel Prize in physics.
But for all of this, he hadn't unfurled his
enormous abilities until he'd lived half his long
life. He didn't even appear to take physics very
seriously until he'd been in it for ten years. How
often have you heard the old canard, "If you
haven't done something significant by the time
you're 25, you never will."
Well, don't you believe it. Don't ever believe it.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds