Monday, February 8, 2021

This Wednesday, February 10, commemorates the 101st anniversary of the day the Throop College of Technology officially became the California Institute of Technology. A visit to the Caltech Archives' "Becoming Caltech" presentations would be an excellent way to celebrate the Institute's storied history.

Like many of us, the Caltech Archives and Special Collections had big plans for 2020. Their new exhibit Becoming Caltech: Building a Research Community, 1910-1930 opened on February 10 in the Beckman Room, displaying a collection of historical documents, objects, photographs, and film that tell the story of Caltech's early growth.

In the 1910s and 1920s, Caltech dramatically reinvented itself, transforming from a manual arts academy to an engineering school, then expanding into a research institute. The school began building its current campus, recruited renowned faculty, constructed sophisticated laboratories, trained students to become leading researchers, and established new relationships with industry and government. On February 10, 1920, the Institute’s trustees acknowledged this transformation by changing the institution’s name from Throop College of Technology to California Institute of Technology.

The Archives staff were planning to offer a presentation on the exhibit at the Caltech Alumni Day celebration in May, but by mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic had required the campus to close and all events to be canceled. There were hopes that the exhibit would re-open on September 1, but when that date arrived, the campus had shifted to remote learning for the fall term. However, the archivists working on Becoming Caltech were not to be deterred from bringing the exhibit to the Caltech community and general public.

Beginning on June 11, Commencement Day 2020, and running through August, the Caltech Archives staff took to Zoom and YouTube and recorded six hour-long, multimedia presentations covering nineteen topics: four discussions of Caltech’s architecture, five on the Caltech community, and ten on various aspects of the Institute’s early scientific advancement. Over the course of the summer, an average of 100 viewers tuned in to the livestreamed presentations, where members of the Archives staff and special guests shared items from the exhibit and offered historical insight.

The first presentation features University Archivist Peter Collopy, who serves as host for all the live streams, speaking on a topic of much relevance to viewers today: the arrival of the 1918 influenza epidemic to the Throop College of Technology. Loma Karklins, Archivist for Reader Services, presents on planning and building the campus that was to become Caltech. Senior Editor and Interviewer for the Caltech Archives, Heidi Aspaturian, documents the rise of seismology from Harry Wood to the Richter/Gutenberg scale. Finally, focusing on an appropriate subject for Commencement Day, Associate Archivist for Digital Collections Development Elisa Piccio discusses the early history of commencement at Caltech.

The remaining presentations highlight various subjects from the three themes of Becoming Caltech. “Becoming” traces Caltech's evolution through the reformation instigated by George Ellery Hale and catalyzed by World War I. "Building Research" chronicles both the history of science, engineering, and the humanities at Caltech—ranging from the core activities of the 1910s (electrical engineering, chemistry, and physics) to the new fields of the 1920s (genetics, seismology, and aeronautics)—and the architecture and construction of the buildings that housed this research. "Community" explores the lives and culture of the students, faculty, and staff who made up the Institute, including athletics, clubs, the Athenaeum, and the big T that students carved out of the forest on the side of Mt. Wilson.

The recorded presentations are now available on demand at Caltech’s YouTube channel. University Archivist Emeritus Judith R. Goodstein makes an appearance in Session 3 to discuss “E.T. Bell and Mathematics Between the Wars.” Tune in to Session 2 to learn more about women in the early days of Caltech or Session 6 to find out about the origins of the Athenaeum. Watch all six presentations to view archival items such as Throop College class pins, early architectural plans for the campus, the original Caltech flag designed by Belgian artist Godefroid Devreese, and photographs of Throop students practicing for trench warfare, experiments in high voltage, early Caltech basketball teams, and Southern California’s first wind tunnel.

In addition to links to all the presentations, the Archives page for Becoming Caltech also offers a bibliography for additional reading. Hopefully, not too far in the future, the exhibit will reopen in its physical form and visitors will be welcome to come to the Beckman Room and learn more about this fascinating time in Caltech history.