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Sun Mar 1, 2020, 09:13 PM

William Francis Gray Swann

I always do some light reading at bedtime, usually history, and the history book I'm reading now is this one: Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex

Chapter 2 is a brief, pre-fame biography of E.O. Lawrence, his youth and college career. (His freshman year at a Lutheran University his mother insisted he attend, St. Olaf's, this future Nobel Physics Laureate who won for the invention of the cyclotron got a C in religion and a D in electricity and magnetism.) He dropped out of college for a while, then surreptitiously began to attend classes at the heathen University of South Dakota, where a physics professor took him under his wing, announcing to the classes that this undergraduate student is "going to be famous some day."

So he was.

After graduating from USD, Lawrence went on to graduate school studying under an iconoclast, William Francis Gray Swann at the University of Minnesota, then following him when he moved to Yale, where Lawrence was awarded his Ph.D. Intrigued by what I read in the brief pages describing him, I looked into Swann, whose patent unorthodoxy inspired Lawrence.

Here's a brief biography of his from the American Philosophical Society, which holds his papers:

A pioneer in particle physics and the study of cosmic rays, W. F. G. Swann was the first Director of the Bartol Research Foundation of the Franklin Institute. From its inception in 1927, Swann guided the Foundation for over thirty years, developing it into a major center for research in the physical sciences.

Born at Ironbridge, England on August 29, 1884, Swann demonstrated an early aptitude for music, but little in the sciences. While his love for music continued to grow, however, Swann nevertheless elected to pursue what seemed to be a more practical course in medicine when he entered Brighton Technical College as a scholarship student in 1900. At Brighton, Swann was introduced to James Clerk Maxwell's treatise on electricity and magnetism, and swayed by its elegance and precision, he switched from medicine to physics, transferring to the Royal College of Science, from which he received his BSc in 1905.

As a Junior Demonstrator at the Royal College, Swann gained valuable teaching experience while strengthening his background in the "practical things of science" by studying electrical engineering. His combination of experimental and teaching prowess earned him an appointment as Assistant Lecturer and demonstrator at the University of Sheffield in 1907, where he worked while completing his doctoral studies at the University College London. He received his DSc in 1910. It was the first stop in an upward climb into increasingly prestigious academic appointments.

Despite low pay and less than ideal working conditions, Swann displayed sufficient promise in mathematical physics, electrodynamics, and in the new quantum theory that he garnered the attention of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Lured away from Sheffield in 1913, Swann was appointed Chief of the Physical Division at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism, spending much of the next four years in the design and production of an apparatus to assist in magnetic and atmospheric-electric observations aboard the ship Carnegie, but with his reputation rising, other offers were not long in coming.

After war-time service working on submarine detection with the National Bureau of Standards and with the army to determine why their balloons were prone to explosion, Swann accepted a standing offer to join the faculty at the University of Minnesota. An administrative prodigy, Swann developed the graduate program with such remarkable success, reaping the rewards along the way, that by the time he left in 1923, he had become the highest paid professor at the University. Two of his own students won National Research Council Fellowships, but in his own opinion, his greatest success was in mentoring a young Edwin O. Lawrence.

The next stop in Swann's academic climb was the University of Chicago, who in 1923 offered Swann a substantial increase in pay to replace Robert Millikan. Even before he accepted, however, Yale approached him with even more lucrative honor: full professorship, Director of the supremely well-equipped Sloane Laboratory, and responsibilities for only one postgraduate course. As Yale was courting, other offers poured in, including the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, who struck up what Swann called a "fliratation" in connection with a proposed research institute for "practical Electrical Engineering." Funded by a bequest from Henry W. Bartol (d. 1918), a prominent industrialist and member of the Franklin Institute, the institute got off the ground in 1925, when Arthur Bramley became the first Bartol fellow even before a facility or staff were available.

Faced with a Hobson's choice of Chicago, Yale, or the prospective Bartol, Swann chose Yale. The Ryerson Lab at Chicago, he reasoned, was crowded and antiquated, and the research opportunities at Yale offered by Pres. James B. Angell were simply too attractive to turn down. After only one year at Chicago, and despite his department's pleas, Swann therefore moved to New Haven, bringing Lawrence in tow. As the Bartol got off the ground, however, Swann soon reconsidered, and when the number of fellows rose to five, he was tapped as the first Director of the Bartol Research Foundation.

One of Swann's first acts as Director was to secure an agreement with Swarthmore College to relocate the institute from its temporary quarters in Philadelphia to facilities on the college campus. Always meticulous and detail-oriented, his administrative oversight extended even to minor custodial expenditures, yet he was well regarded by the fellows and staff he oversaw, however his attentions appear to have been well appreciated by Bartol fellows. Swann was concerned that "the great industrial rese'rch laboratories" instilled a culture that led physicists away from "using their own hands," and he therefore insisted on manufacturing his own apparatus, including blowing his own glass, and he was adamant that his fellows follow suit. On a personal level, several fellows considered Swann to be something of a "father confessor" as well as scientist.

An immensely productive researcher, who wrote over 250 publications during his career, Swann continued to blend theoretical and empirical approaches, evolving as rapidly as his discipline to touch on relativity theory, condensed matter physics, atomic structure, matter, antimatter, and gravitation. He was best known, however, for his pioneering work on cosmic rays and high energy physics. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, he developed a mechanism for accelerating charged particles to cosmic ray energies by means of changing magnetic fields, a device he named the cygnatron ("swan tube" ). More in the public eye, he took part in organizing a number of high profile projects to investigate cosmic ray intensities at high altitudes, including a series of manned balloon flights funded by the National Geographic Society and the U.S. Army. Swann subsequently took these studies to airplanes, ships, underwater, and on mountain tops. Late in his career, Swann developed a keep interest in the relationship between religion and science and in psychic research.

As charismatic in presentation as he was dramatic, Swann was a natural teacher and effective public spokesman for science at various levels. Throughout his tenure at the Bartol, he conducted seminars for high school students at the Franklin Institute, he lectured on electrodynamics at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and later in life, was Professor of Physics at Temple University. His 1934 book The Architecture of the Universe, its interpretation of the new, and often abstruse developments in modern physics, was a major success with the broader public, and as a result, Swann was regularly called upon to appear on the radio and interviewed in the newspaper. With a slightly eccentric image and trademark shock of long white hair, he was a natural as well for television, hosting a weekly program in Philadelphia popularizing science during the 1950s.

Despite the demands of a rigorous schedule of research, administration, and public appearances, Swann managed to preserve time and energy for his great passion, music. An accomplished cellist who had studied under Diran Alexanian, Swann maintained an active social and musical correspondence with musicians and kept an active hand in the music scene in Philadelphia. In addition to his performing as a soloist and with various orchestras, he helped found the Swarthmore Symphony Orchestra, worked as assistant conductor of the Main Line Orchestra and as director of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and was a supporter and honorary fellow of Trinity College of Music, London. Music entered deeply into his private life as well: After his first wife, Frances Mabel Thompson died in 1954, he married Helene Diedrichs, a former child prodigy, pianist and Chair of the Piano Department at the Philadelphia Musical Academy. Mrs. Swann (who played professionally under her maiden name) had studied under Carl Wendling at the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and received degrees from the Royal Academy of Music and the Tobais Matthay Pianoforte School.

Swann was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1926, and served as vice president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1923-1924) and president of the American Physical Society (1931-1933). He received honorary degrees from Yale (1924), Swarthmore (1929), Temple (1954), and was made a fellow of the Imperial College of Science in Technology (1956) and was awarded the Elliot Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1960) for his research on cosmic rays. The final honor awarded Swann vaulted him literally to the heavens: In 1967, the International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater in Swann's honor.

In August 1959, already 75 years old, Swann retired to emeritus status at the Bartol Institute and was succeeded by Martin Pomerantz. Unburdened by administrative duties, he continued to conduct research almost until the day he died, January 29, 1962. He was survived by Helene Diedrichs, two sons, William F. Swann and Charles P. Swann, and a daughter Sylvia Swann Briggs. Both sons became prominent physical scientists, Charles at the Bartol.

William Francis Gray Swann Papers

Swarthmore housed the Bartol until the 1970's after which it declined to renew its lease, as it was not part of the University, something now viewed with some regret:

...For the next 50 years, Bartol scientists employed Swarthmore students in various capacities, taught classes at the college, and collaborated with faculty members. The foundation also produced a host of scientists who made major contributions to their fields, a feat made even more impressive given its small size.

Known for its pioneering studies of cosmic rays and work in nuclear physics, Bartol hosted an international contingent of scientists and researchers. During World War II, Bartol's principal work involved the development of magnetron cathodes. William Elmore, a member of Swarthmore's physics department, conducted research at Bartol at that time. After the war, basic research in solid state and surface physics continued, along with the resumption of cosmic ray investigations led by Bartol director W.F.G. Swann...

...Yet Bartol never became an integral part of the College and, even among the College's science faculty, was known well by only a few. When Bartol's lease came up for review in the 1970s, the College ended its relationship with the foundation and took possession of its building. The inability of both institutions to develop closer collaborations is now viewed by many on both sides as a lost opportunity.

Renamed the Bartol Research Institute, it moved to its present location at the University of Delaware in 1977. The building it once occupied on campus was renamed Papazian Hall and for 40 years housed the College's philosophy and psychology departments. It was demolished in 2017 and is the future site of the Biology, Engineering, and Psychology building.

From the Bartol History page at UD:

The Bartol Research Institute
A Brief History
Mr. Henry W. Bartol, a member of The Franklin Institute, died on the 19th of December, 1918, leaving behind a will and codicil that provided for the establishment of the Bartol Research Institute. In that will Mr. Bartol designated as residuary legatee the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvania. He stipulated: "All the rest, residue and remainder of my estate, except such as is situated in France, I give, devise, and bequeath to the Franklin Institute... to be applied to the establishment and maintenance of a department of practical Electrical Engineering..." The codicil subsequently changed this to "...the founding and maintenance of an institute... the preference however, being given to workers or those making researches into electrical science."
Mr. Bartol was a prominent Philadelphia industrialist. Although his gift in 1918 was sufficient to fund an institute of scientific study, the birth of the Bartol Research Institute (then called the Bartol Research Foundation) was slow and difficult. It was not until the end of 1925 that the first Bartol Fellow, Dr. Arthur Bramley, was appointed. The first publication of research supported by the Bartol Research Foundation, and performed by Dr. Bramley, appeared in the January, 1926 issue of the Journal of the Franklin Institute. This report discussed the multiplet structure in the Zeeman effect. The number of Bartol Fellows rose to five and on February 3, 1927, Dr. W. F. G. Swann was elected by the Board of Managers to be the first director of the Bartol Research Foundation.

W. F. G. Swann was appointed the Director of the Bartol Research Foundation at the age of 43. Born in England, he was educated at Brighton Technical College, the Royal College of Science, University College, Kings College and the City Guilds of London Institute. Dr. Swann came to this country in 1913 as head of the Physical Division of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute in Washington. Later he was Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago and Yale, where he became Director of the Sloane Laboratory. A man of many talents, Dr. Swann was an accomplished cellist, founder of the Swarthmore Symphony Orchestra, a former assistant conductor of the Main Line Orchestra and former director of the Philadelphia Academy of Music.

By the time of his appointment, Professor Swann had already distinguished himself as an excellent teacher, an outstanding researcher, and an emerging leader of the scientific community. Although Dr. Swann is perhaps best known for his experimental and theoretical efforts in the area of cosmic ray physics, his research interests touched on many other disciplines such as condensed matter physics, relativity, and charged particle acceleration. In the last seven years of his life he had 22 publications on such diverse subjects as atmospheric electricity, thermal conductivity of solids, the restricted theory of relativity, matter, antimatter and gravitation, and charged particle acceleration to cosmic ray energies. His grasp of electromagnetism was far reaching and entered into most of his research. In his capacity as a professor he is perhaps best known as the advisor of Dr. E. O. Lawrence who subsequently was awarded the Nobel Prize for developing the cyclotron. Lawrence followed Dr. Swann from Minnesota, to Chicago, and then to Yale where he received his Ph.D. Altogether Dr. Swann had over 250 publications including a well known book "The Architecture of the Universe". In 1967 the International Astronomical Union honored Professor Swann when it gave his name to a crater on the lunar surface at 52 north latitude and 112 east longitude.

Shortly after his appointment as Director of the Bartol Research Foundation, Dr. Swann secured an agreement with Swarthmore College to move the Foundation from its temporary lodgings in Philadelphia to the home campus of the college where it was able to enjoy the benefits of a college atmosphere. During the early 30's Dr. K. T. Bainbridge, then a Bartol scientist, developed a magnetic spectrograph with which he was able to make accurate mass determinations of low Z elements including 6Li using their accelerator. At about the same time Cockroft and Walton performed measurements on the 7Li + p = 2 reaction using their accelerator. Bainbridge was then able to verify Einstein's famous principle of mass- energy equivalence using the established masses for the proton and 7Li.

Several "high" altitude manned balloon flights were made in 1934 and '35 for the purpose of studying cosmic rays. Two of these, one of which crashed on descent, were sponsored by the National Geographic Society and the Army Air Corps and were flown by Air Corps personnel; fortunately the men on the crashed flight were able to eject and come down on parachute. Three other flights were flown by Dr. Jean Piccard and his wife. All of these flights contained a significant amount of Bartol equipment for the study of cosmic rays. Related investigations of cosmic rays were pursued from mountain tops, airplanes and ships, underwater, and in unmanned balloons.

Bartol became further involved in nuclear physics research with the construction of a 2.5 MV Van de Graaff accelerator under the guidance of Dr. W. E. Danforth. Bartol personnel also constructed a cyclotron in the late 1930's, the first cyclotron outside of Berkeley. This machine was actually built for The Franklin Institute's Biochemical Foundation, which was housed in the present Penny Hall of the University of Delaware. An extensive nuclear physics program did not develop until after World War II, with the completion of the 2.5 MV Van de Graaff and the construction of a second Van de Graaff with a potential of 5 MV. The principal research interests during the war, conducted in close collaboration with the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, involved the development of magnetron cathodes. Basic research in solid state and surface physics continued after the war, in parallel with the resumption of cosmic ray investigations. Bartol's scope was further expanded in the 1960's with the initiation of research programs in astronomy and astrophysics...


The Franklin Institute is still in Philadelphia, and when my kids were small, I was a member, and took them there for many hands on science demonstrations. (It's one of the reasons why raising children in New Jersey is a wonderful experience.) Mostly now, the institute is geared more for children than adults, but I think there is still some scientific research conducted there and some activities geared for adults.

I never knew however about the Bartol Institute, William Francis Gray Swann, and his role in the creation of E.O. Lawrence and the growth of "Big Science," which helped make America truly great, before philistines got a hold of it and began to dismantle the country to pay off debts to Putin.

I wish you a pleasant work week.

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Reply William Francis Gray Swann (Original post)
NNadir Mar 2020 OP
friendly_iconoclast Mar 2020 #1

Response to NNadir (Original post)

Mon Mar 2, 2020, 02:54 PM

1. I read it- it's a great biography of both Lawrence and the early years of Big Science

I was amused to find out that Lawrence also invented and patented a TV picture tube:


The Chromatron is a color television cathode ray tube design invented by Nobel prize-winner Ernest Lawrence and developed commercially by Paramount Pictures, Sony, Litton Industries and others. The Chromatron offered brighter images than conventional color television systems using a shadow mask, but a host of development problems kept it from being widely used in spite of years of development. Sony eventually abandoned it in favor of their famous Trinitron system using an aperture grille.

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