Robert Millikan (1868 – 1953)
In 1875, the Millikans moved to Maquoketa, in Iowa State. This small village with a population of 3000 had 13 liquor bars. The village was known for its ruffians and thugs who frequented it. Yet, they stayed here for 11 years. The entire day revolved around the same routine as there was no avenue for them. Going to the gymnasium in the morning, helping the family in domestic duties, playing baseball and then a swim in the river were the kind of activities they indulged in. All such activities ensured that the three Millikan brothers became good body-builders. There was a small village school which the brothers joined. The principal was a teacher of physics, but he was more interested in other activities than his subject. Hence, students too were not inclined towards physics. Millikan took a liking for the Greek language, literature and mathematics.
When asked at a school, “Are you ready to take up job as physics teacher?” he readily agreed out of necessity. He started burning the midnight oil to teach himself physics. Gradually, he picked up and started mastering the subject. He devoted his vacations to the study of physics. Students started attending his classes. The principal too, was pleased with the young man and offered him tutorship with a yearly remuneration of $600. In 1891, he graduated from Oberlin. He also offered his services at the local gymnasium. Meanwhile, his professor recommended him for a fellowship at Columbia University. In the fall of 1893, he was awarded special fellowship. Here, he came into contact with geniuses like Professor Rood, Woodward and Pupin. Under their able guidance coupled with his perseverance, he received his doctorate in 1895.
In 1896, Professor Albert Michelson invited Millikan to join his department as assistant at Chicago University. Millikan accepted the offer despite more lucrative offers form other places. He stayed on at Chicago University for 25 years and contributed his career’s best research years. He was made professor in 1910. During his tenure the department of physics gained immense popularity and became the most important centre for study of physics in America. Now those things were moving smoothly. Millikan reduced his teaching and concentrated totally on research. He carried out the oil-drop experiment and concluded that a tiny drop of oil measured to a thousandth part of a millimeter. Earlier, J J Thomson had determined the charge of cathode particles (electrons). In 1909, he performed his famous oil-drop experiment to determine the value of the electronic charge. Millikan reanalyzed it and in 1912 he determined electronic mass with his experiments. He also verified Einstein’s photoelectric equation and obtained a precise value for the Planck’s constant were very accurate; the accuracy of which was not surpassed for several years.
In 1953, at the ripe old age of 87, Millikan passed away. He was one of the scientists who brought America to the forefront of research in physics and guided a young generation of scientists.