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.
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. 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. 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.
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).
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 long time 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.