History of the Department of Physics @ Virginia Tech

Compiled by Richard W. Rusk1, 1990

James Henry Lane

Physics has been taught at Virginia Tech since it opened its doors in 1872. It was first taught in the scientific department by James Henry Lane, professor of natural philosophy, who was also professor of military tactics.2

By 1902 physics was taught in the Science Hall (located on the Upper Quad) along with chemistry, geology, and biology. Although the Science Hall burned in 1905, it was immediately rebuilt.3 In 1927 the science departments of chemistry, geology, and physics vacated the building and moved to the newly completed Davidson Hall.

In the early years physics was taught in many different multidisciplinary departments.4 From 1904 to 1908 the department was called the Physics Department, and then in 1921, after an interval of thirteen years, it was again renamed the Physics Department, a name it has continued to bear to the present day.

Frank Leigh Robeson

The first undergraduate physics curriculum was established in 1917 as the Applied Physics curriculum. It was discontinued in 1921. In 1937 the Industrial Physics curriculum was begun. The descriptive adjective was used in the name in order not to offend the sister institution, which lies east of the Blue Ridge. In 1953 this connotation was dropped, and the department's undergraduate curriculum has been called physics ever since.

During Frank Leigh Robeson's tenure as department head (1918-1954), three advanced laboratories were developed by Hugh D. Ussery (spectroscopy), Webster Richardson (X-ray), and J. F. Ryman (heat and pyrometry).

T. Marshall Hahn Jr.

After World War II the department grew so rapidly that its space in Davidson Hall (the first and third floors in the front) was inadequate. Extra space was provided in some temporary frame buildings, which were moved from Norfolk. Also, during this period, under the leadership of T. Marshall Hahn, the research facilities were expanded and the doctoral program in physics was begun. The masters program was started much earlier in 1929. In 1960 the department moved into Robeson Hall, named for its longtime head. This building gave the department much-needed space for teaching and research, including a nuclear reactor with a neutron activation analysis laboratory. In 1972 the reactor group (Andrew Robeson, Milton C. Edlund, Aaron G. Bullard and Ronald J. Onega) moved to the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and that department took control of the reactor. The reactor was removed from Robeson Hall in 1989.


  1. This information was compiled by Prof. Richard W. Rusk, a faculty member of the Department of Physics from 1949 to 1982.
  2. Click here to read about the fist-fight between Prof. James Henry Lane and University President Charles Landon Carter Minor.
  3. The site of Science Hall is now occupied by Shanks Hall.
  4. See list of Department names below.

Department Name:

  • 1872 Physics taught in the Scientific Department
  • 1883 Department of Physics and Mathematics
  • 1884 Department of Physics and Mechanics
  • 1891 Department of Physics and Electrical Engineering
  • 1898 Department of Mathematics and Physics
  • 1904 Department of Physics
  • 1908 Department of Applied Sciences which included physics
  • 1921 Department of Physics to the present

Department Heads/Chairs:

In the early years (~1921) physics was taught in multidisciplinary departments under various names (see above). In those years the name of the ranking physics professor is used. (List up to date as of April 2012.)

Early Years:
1872 - 1881 James Henry Lane (July 28, 1833 - Sept. 21, 1907)
- Professor of military tactics, natural philosophy, and general chemistry
- first Commandant of the Corps of Cadets (1872-1879)
- namesake of Lane Hall and Lane Stadium
1881 - 1883 William Ballard Preston (? - Dec. 8, 1903, class of 1879)
- Professor of agriculture? (1881-1898?)
- second Commandant of the Corps of Cadets (1881-1885)
- commissioned in 1898 when the Spanish-American War erupted and served in
  Cuba and the Phillippines
- nephew of William Ballard Preston, secretary of the Navy 1849-1850
- grandson of James Patton Preston, governor of Virginia 1816-1819
1883 - 1886 Floyd Hugh Davis (May 29, 1859 - Aug. 28, 1917)
- Professor of chemistry and metallurgy?
1886 - 1891 James "Jamie" Henry Fitts Jr. (Jan. 27, 1861 - Aug. 24, 1893)
- Professor of mechanical engineering?
1891 - 1893 William E. Anderson
- Professor of physics and electrical engineering
- captain of the first VT football team
1893 - 1898 Samuel Reynolds Pritchard (Oct. 30, 1863 - Sept. 30, 1935)
- Professor of physics and electrical engineering (1893-1935)
- Dean of engineering (1918-1928)
- namesake of Pritchard Hall and
  the Samuel Reynolds Pritchard Professorship in engineering.
1898 - 1917 Charles Erastus Vawter Jr. (? - May 20, 1931)
- Professor of mathematics and physics
- son of Charles Erastus Vawter Sr., rector of the Board of Visitors (1889-1900)
  and namesake of Vawter Hall


Modern Times:
1918 - 1954 Frank Leigh Robeson (1884-1974, class of 1904)
- faculty member from 1904 to 1954
- namesake of Robeson Hall
1954 - 1959 Thomas Marshall Hahn Jr.
- President of Virginia Tech 1962-1974
- namesake of Hahn Hall North and South Wings
1959 - 1960 Thomas Edward Gilmer Jr. (acting)
1960 - 1973 James Albert Jacobs
1973 - 1977 Vigdor Louis Teplitz
1977 - 1978 L. David Roper (acting)
1978 - 1979 John R. Ficenec (acting)
1979 - 1980 Ray Fenton Tipsword (acting)
1980 - 1982 Alexander Abashian
1982 - 1989 Thomas Edward Gilmer Jr.
1989 - 1990 Clayton Drews Williams (acting)
1990 - 1994 L. David Roper
1995 - 2002 Lay Nam Chang
2002 - 2004 John R. Ficenec (interim)
2004 - 2006 Royce K. P. Zia
2006 - 2012 Beate Schmittmann
2012 - 2015 Leo Eric Piilonen
2015 - present Patrick Huber

Physics Curricula & Degrees:

1872 - 1916 None
1916 - 1921 Bachelor of Science in Applied Physics
1929 - present Master of Science in Physics
1939 - 1952 Bachelor of Science in Industrial Physics
1953 - present Bachelor of Science in Physics
1956 - 1972 Master of Science in Nuclear Science and Engineering
1957 - present Doctor of Philosophy in Physics
1969 - 1986 Bachelor of Science in Nuclear Science
1971 - 1972 Doctor of Philosophy in Nuclear Science & Engineering
1989 - present Bachelor of Arts in Physics
1996 - present Master of Science in Applied & Industrial Physics
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Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University 
Department of Physics MC 0435, 850 West Campus Drive, Blacksburg, VA 24061 
Phone: (540) 231-6544; Fax: (540) 231-7511