AAPT.org - American Association of Physics Teachers

History of AAPT — Prelude

Scientific societies in the United States have diverse roots. Perhaps the most significant were the various philosophical societies and academies organized early in the nineteenth century, but these attempts at organization proved temporary or regional.

The first permanent society of national scope in this country was the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), organized in Philadelphia in 1848. The British Association for the Advancement of Science had been organized in 1831, and its meetings are credited with serving as a model for gatherings devoted to the entire gamut of science.

The founders of AAAS were for the most part geologists, but the Association included all sciences. In the beginning there were two sections; according to the AAAS Constitution one was “to embrace General Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, and the Applied Sciences generally, the other… Natural History, Geology, Physiology, and Medicine.” The sections met simultaneously but in separate sessions. At the first meeting, Joseph Henry was chair of the physical science section. More specialized interests were later represented in AAAS by the establishment of separate sections; nine sections, including Section B, Physics, date from 1882.

As the country and science grew, the need for communication among scientists increased. Professional societies and journals were created to meet this need; sometimes the journals came first. Charles Frederick Chandler was instrumental in founding the American Chemical Society (ACS) in 1876, but he and W.H. Chandler had initiated a journal, The American Chemist, in 1871. Edward L. Nichols and Ernest Meritt of Cornell University founded the Physical Review in 1893, and The American Physical Society (APS) dates from 1899. In the call to the organizational meeting for APS, emphasis was placed on meetings, not journals; the Physical Review was taken over by APS only in 1913. (The Physical Review was “conducted with the cooperation of APS” beginning in 1903, published by APS beginning in 1913, published for APS by the American Institute of Physics (AIP) from 1932, and is now published by APS through AIP.)

Attention to problems in teaching science and mathematics came to the forefront in various ways. In the 1890s some sessions of the American Chemical Society included the teaching of chemistry, and in 1909 a section of ACS on education was formed. The section became the Division of Chemical Education in 1924; its Journal of Chemical Education appeared the following year.

In mathematics the history was quite different: the American Mathematical Society (AMS) grew out of the New York Mathematical Society which was founded in 1888, and the American Mathematical Monthly (AMM) dates from 1894, the year the name of the society was changed to reflect the increasingly wide distribution of members. But reports of mathematics research tended to be published as transactions of the society, and it is evident that by 1915 the monthly was by no means a research journal. While not strictly pedagogical, its contents were apt to be more useful in the learning and teaching of mathematics than in mathematical research. In April of that year, the AMS Council resolved: “It is deemed unwise for the American Mathematical Society to enter into the activities of the special field now covered by the American Mathematical Monthly; but the Council desires to express its realization of the importance of the work in this field and its value to mathematical science, and to say that should an organization be formed to deal specifically with this work, the Society would entertain toward such an organization only feelings of good will and encouragement.” (Note that the word teaching is not used!)

In December 1915 the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) was formed to encourage the advancement of mathematics teaching. Many of the most influential American mathematicians were active in both societies: The initial MAA vice presidents included Oswald Veblen and Florian Cajori. The new association took over the AMM, and so began with a journal already more than 20 years old. [The information on the non-physics scientific societies is to be found in Ralph S. Bates’ Scientific Societies in the United States (Columbia University Press,1958).]

The person most instrumental in founding The American Physical Society was Arthur Gordon Webster of Clark University. He undertook the initial correspondence, and his name heads the list of physicists signing the letter of call for the first meeting. This meeting, held at Columbia University on May 20, 1899, included Michael Pupin of Columbia, B.O. Peirce of Harvard, J.S. Ames of Johns Hopkins, E.L. Nichols of Cornell, and W.F. Magie of Princeton (all of whom signed the call), along with some 35 others. [Am. J. Phys. 58, 219 (1990)].

The society was to be professional but nonexclusive, unlike the National Academy of Sciences. The letter was explicitly democratic intone: “The proposed society will conflict with the interest of no other organization, and will represent no institution or clique, but will be devoted to the advancement of our science.” (There had been some argument parallel to discussion during the formation earlier of the American Chemical Society that another association of physicists would be in conflict with Section B of AAAS.) Nevertheless, APS was elitist from the beginning. It was expedient, and undoubtedly wise, to persuade the most prestigious physicists in the country to take leadership positions in the new society.

H.W. Rowland, the first president of APS, set the tone in his presidential address in October 1899. In his words, “we form an aristocracy, not of wealth, not of pedigree, but of intellect and of ideals.” He recognized that American genius had shown itself in invention but not in pure research, and he sought to change the situation. It was the primary, and essentially the exclusive, aim of APS to raise the level of research, and not “waste the intellect of the country in the pursuit of so-called practical science which ministers to our physical needs.” [This address has been reprinted: Spencer R. Weart, Ed., Selected Papers of Great American Physicists: The Bicentennial Commemorative Volume of The American Physical Society (AIP, New York, 1976).]

Unlike the American Chemical Society, which embraced all aspects of chemistry, APS continued to take a very narrow view of its role. Members might raise questions of applications and of pedagogy, but the decisions of the APS Council did not reflect these concerns. It is evident that much discussion took place that did not result in actions recorded in the formal Council minutes. A letter from A.G. Webster to Elizabeth Laird of Mount Holyoke, dated November 20, 1905, in response to a letter of hers, states, “I have often tried to get the Physical Society to take up pedagogical questions, but without success.”

Applied physics and even fundamental physics related to applications suffered much the same neglect: the Optical Society of America (OSA) came into being in 1916, partly because the Great War had cut off supplies of optical glass from Germany, but also because most of the influential physicists in APS took no interest in problems involving the principles of optics. There were exceptions: The first article in the Journal of the Optical Society was written by F.K. Richtmyer; nearly 20 years later he was to write the first article in the new journal of the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).

At the insistence of George V. Wendell of Columbia University, some action on education was finally taken at a meeting of the APS Council on February 28, 1920. According to Council records, “a letter from George V. Wendell was presented, setting for the desirability of a consideration by the Society of various aspects of the teaching of physics. After general discussion it was voted that a committee be appointed to formulate a comprehensive plan whereby the Society can give adequate consideration to the teaching of physics. The following were appointed: George V. Wendell, Chair, W.J. Bliss (Johns Hopkins), A. Wilmer Duff (Worcester Polytechnic Institute), H.M. Randall (University of Michigan), and the President was authorized to add to the Committee as may seem desirable.”

The Committee made seven recommendations to the Council on April 23,1920, including the creation of an educational section of the Society,but this was voted adversely by the Council. There was created,however, a standing committee on education “whose function shall include: the arrangement of programs for meetings, the preparation of reports on educational matters, the printing of reports, and the general oversight of all educational matters that pertain to the welfare and progress of physics.” The recommendation that APS issue a bulletin on education, the contents to be supervised by the Committee,was “referred to the Secretary and Treasurer for report at the next meeting.” But minutes of the next meeting note only the full slate of committee members; E.P. Lewis of the University of California and Paul E. Klopsteg had been added. Paul Klopsteg was younger than the others, and not a professor of physics at that time, but he had published papers in Science [50, 199 (1919) and 51, 384 (1920)] on the need for better preparation in physics for students of the other sciences.

Meanwhile Homer L. Dodge, then at the University of Iowa, had been appointed to represent APS as an associate editor of School Science and Mathematics “for the purpose of presenting various items of research in physics.” It is in this connection that the name of Homer Dodge first occurs in the APS Council minutes. From 1916 to 1924 Dodge edited a department in School Science and Mathematics called “Recent Advances in Physics.” (He was succeeded in this role by Duane E. Roller, later editor of the AAPT journal.)

Dodge’s appointment to represent APS in this way came as a result of his connection with A.G. Webster, for whom he had served as a research assistant at Columbia University in the summer of 1913. His acquaintance with Paul Klopsteg, then at the University of Minnesota,dates from a meeting of The American Physical Society, and was renewed in 1916 when Klopsteg visited the University of Iowa to see the new physics building. At that time they discussed at length what both saw as a sorry neglect of physics education and what might possibly be done to improve the situation.

The first report prepared by the APS Committee on Education was entitled “The Teaching of Physics with Especial Reference to the Teaching of Physics to Students of Engineering.” It was presented to the Council on February 25, 1922. The Council decided that it “be received and approved for publication provided such publication can be made without in any way affecting the resources of the Society which are now, or may be, available for the present undertakings of the Society.” Later, “there was an extended discussion of the desirability and characteristics of a proposed journal which should publish articles which are now excluded from the Physical Review.” The report of the Committee was printed as a pamphlet in April 1922 and offered to members for $1. There was no attempt to solicit sales, and very few copies were distributed. Professor Wendell had died in March, and A.W.Duff was made chair in April 1922; additions to the Committee included David L. Webster of Stanford University, later very active in AAPT.

The second report, “Physics in Relation to Medicine,” was prepared with the cooperation of H.B. Williams, Professor of Physiology at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and was printed in 1923. It met with much the same fate as the first report, but was afterward reprinted in the American Physics Teacher [to become the American Journal of Physics] 2 (1934). Two more reports, one on the use of British units in the teaching of mechanics and one on physics with special reference to students of agriculture, were ordered printed in 1925, but appeared in APS bulletins, rather than as separate pamphlets. Both were printed in School Science and Mathematics, however, during 1927. The Education Committee [sic] of APS was discontinued at the end of 1927.