Arthur Holly Compton House
Updated: Feb 5
The Arthur Holly Compton House in Hyde Park, Chicago
Arthur Holly Compton was a groundbreaking American physicist, winner of the 1927 Noble Prize in Physics, one of the Manhattan Project scientists, and the discoverer of the Compton Effect: the scientific theory which contributes to the understanding of light's wave-particle duality. The Arthur Holly Compton House in Chicago is a National Historic Landmark, significant for its association with Compton. He lived here in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, directly adjacent to the University of Chicago campus, from the late 1920s until 1945, while he was a Chicago faculty member. Many of the peak moments in Compton's career came while he lived here.
The home itself is modest, of no recognizable architectural style, built by a man named Mr. Tetter in 1916. Its market value comes mostly from its prime location in leafy and well-heeled Hyde Park, and its historic value comes from its most famous occupant.
Arthur Compton portrait, courtesy of the Nobel Foundation
Arthur Compton was born in 1892. He grew up in Wooster, Ohio, where his father was a Presbyterian Minister and taught at the local college. Compton attended Wooster College himself, graduating in 1913 before heading to Princeton to complete graduate work in Physics. He received a Master's Degree and PhD from the Ivy and subsequently moved west to the University of Minnesota, where he taught for a year.
After a period working as a research physicist for the Westinghouse Corporation, Compton was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship, which provided funding for him to conduct research abroad. Compton decided to work in the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University in the UK.
Compton's work in England centered around X-rays, which had been discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Roentgen. At the Cavendish Laboratory, Compton worked with J.J. Thompson, a British scientist who had been experimenting with the scattering of X-rays by matter. After analyzing the results of Thompson's experiments, Compton realized that X-rays had been scattered in some cases without notable changes to their frequency or wavelength. In contrast, in other cases, the X-rays had a longer wavelength than before the scattering. What Compton had discovered were the results of his eponymous effect. He now only had to explain why it occurred.
Compton began his professional career in American academia at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught, conducted research, and later served as Chancellor for nearly a decade
Upon his return to the United States in 1922, Compton took a position at the institution besides Chicago, with which he would be most associated throughout his career: Washington University in St. Louis. He taught there for a bit and continued his research on X-rays. While on the Washington University faculty, Compton wrote A Quantum Theory of the Scattering of X-Rays by Light Elements (1923), the work in which he explained what would become known as the Compton Effect.
The Compton Effect holds that the electron which x-rays hit while being scattered recoils away after being hit and takes some of the x-ray's energy with it. The x-ray then has less energy than it did before it hit the electron, and less energy means a longer wavelength, the telltale sign of the Compton Effect (a.k.a Compton Scattering). In his work, Compton supplied the equations and theory to support his claims, the first time the phenomenon had been so well evidenced.
Later research by C. T. R. Wilson supported the Compton Effect by revealing the tracks of the recoiled electrons in a "cloud chamber." Compton also developed the "coincidence method," which shows that the recoil electron and longer wavelength are produced at exactly the same time, further evidence of the validity of Compton Scattering.
The Compton Effect essentially proves that light has both particle and wave properties. This understanding has since become a foundational concept in modern physics. Moreover, the effort to find a theoretical explanation for the Effect gave birth to the new field of quantum mechanics, which applies the laws of physics to the study of subatomic particles.
In 1923, as this major work was being published, Compton joined the Physics Department Faculty at the University of Chicago, where he would remain for 22 years.
In 1927 Arthur Compton became the latest Nobel Laureate on Chicago's faculty when he was co-awarded the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics "for his discovery of the effect named after him."
Compton shared the prize with C. T. R. Wilson, who won "for his method of making the paths of electrically charged particles visible by condensation of vapour." (The "cloud chamber" referenced above).
The Nobel Prize made Compton among the most prestigious faculty members at Chicago, and in 1929 he became the Charles H. Smith Distinguished Service Professor in recognition of his many accomplishments. While continuing to research and teach, Compton served as a consultant for the General Electric Company. It is believed he moved into the home around the time of his Nobel win and this promotion, indicating that it could have been a perk of his high position at the university.
Compton's significant contributions to science certainly did not end with the Compton Effect. In fact, that major discovery came relatively early in his career. Compton's other work uncovered systematic errors in measurements of the viscosity of air, helped define essential properties of x-rays, and revealed that incoming cosmic rays were most intense at the geomagnetic poles of the Earth.
Compton was present for the world's first self-sustaining nuclear reaction, which took place on the University of Chicago campus at the spot now marked by this Henry Moore sculpture
For all his contributions to scientific understanding, Compton also played a major role in world history. In 1941 he became Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Committee to Evaluate Use of Atomic Energy in War. In this role, he oversaw the beginnings of the Manhattan Project, serving as the Director of its Metallurgical Laboratory. Compton was present for the experiment under the bleachers of Chicago's football stadium that produced the first-ever self-sustaining nuclear reaction. Compton's work also lead to the creation of the Hanford Reactors in Washington State, which produced the plutonium used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki.
Compton was consulted by Secretary of War Henry Stimson when the government was deciding whether to use nuclear weapons against Japan. Compton urged the government to do so, clearing the way for the first and only two deployments in human history. In 1956, he published a book about his decision on the bomb, titled "Atomic Quest - a Personal Narrative."
When the war ended in 1945, Compton left Chicago and returned to Washington University in St. Louis, taking the position of Chancellor. The move marked the end of Compton's career as a research scientist. He led the university until 1954, when he resigned the post and became the Distinguished Service Professor of Natural Philosophy.
Philosophy had been an interest of Compton's for a long while, and he indulged that passion for the rest of the decade, teaching courses and writing books on scientific discoveries' social and moral role in modern society.
In his personal life, Arthur Compton was an avid tennis player, as well as astronomer, photographer, and musician. He married Betty Charity McCloskey in 1916, and the couple had two sons. Academic excellence and success ran deep in the Compton family. His father, as previously mentioned, was a professor at Wooster, his brother Wilson served as President of Washington State University, and his brother Karl Taylor served as President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Compton's youngest son, John Joseph (named for J.J. Thompson), became a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt.
In 1961, Compton retired from the Washington University Faculty entirely, planning to serve as professor at large, rotating between Washington, his alma mater Wooster College, and the University of California at Berkeley. Unfortunately, those plans were cut short when Compton passed away on March 15, 1962.
There is no question that Arthur Compton is a special case. Few nationally significant historic sites honor scientists or scientific discoveries, and even fewer accomplished scientists are well-known to the public. Compton certainly deserves to be among them. His groundbreaking discoveries and high-level role in the development of atomic weaponry are more than enough to solidify his status as one of the most brilliant and accomplished scientists and Americans of the 20th Century, if not of all time.
The humble house in Hyde Park, which he called home for so many years, serves now as a gentle reminder of the true genius which once lived within.
Compton House National Historic Landmark Plaque
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