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Henry Augustus Rowland and his electromagnetic researches Public Deposited

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  • This analysis concerns the life and scientific work of Henry Augustus Rowland (1848-1901), organizer and the first chairman of the physics department at The Johns Hopkins University in 1876. Special materials used in this research included three pieces of Rowland's experimental apparatus which are extant in the Smithsonian Institution Division of Electricity Collection and Rowland's hitherto unknown scientific notebooks discovered during the course of this study. In the latter half of the nineteenth century at least three American physicists practiced their science as well as their mathematics at a level equal to the best of their European colleagues: Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839-1903), Albert Abraham Michelson (1852- 1931), and Henry Augustus Rowland. Rowland is best remembered for his work in spectroscopy, however, historians have largely overlooked Rowland's electromagnetic researches which were carried out in an intricate theoretical context. The technical portion of this analysis concentrates on Rowland's electromagnetic work, particularly the experiments in magnetic distribution, charge convection, the measurement of a transverse electric current, the ratio of units, the Ohm, and production of electricity from the ether. Rowland's formal scientific education began in 1865 with a "practical science" course at Rensselaer Institute. He was graduated from Rensselaer as a civil engineer in 1870. Immediately following graduation Rowland was unable to find any kind of employment in which he might continue his experimental studies in magnetism which had been inspired by the writings of Michael Faraday (1791- 1867). Rowland thus turned his mother's home into a private laboratory and carried out a series of magnetic researches in the winter of 1870-71. The work lead to the discovery of a magnetic analogy to Ohm's law, but Rowland found difficulty in publishing his results in the United States because they were not understood. He appealed directly to Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), England's eminent electrical theorist, who immediately recognized the value of the magnetic studies and had them published abroad. Later in 1875 Daniel Coit Gilman (1831-1908), searching for a faculty for the newly-endowed Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, heard of Maxwell's recognition of Rowland's work and invited the latter to aid in the organization of the physics department of the new university. Gilman took Rowland on a tour of the European universities and scientific institutions during 1875-76. Rowland gained admittance to the laboratory of Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) in Berlin and there carried out an experiment which seemed to demonstrate magnetic effects from convected electric currents. The experiment was studied and repeated in Europe and the United States for more than a quarter of a century. The physics department which Rowland organized at Johns Hopkins was largely concerned with the exact measurement of physical constants as Charles Peirce (1839-1914) observed after a visit in 1878. Yet also during that time Rowland's student, Edwin Hall (1855-1938), discovered a new transverse electrical current by employing an experimental configuration suggested by Rowland and sensitive instruments Rowland had purchased in Europe. Although Rowland often pleaded for "pure science" as a higher American goal than commercial exploitation and application of science, he was himself diverted into commercial pursuits in the nineties by the financial obligations of a family coupled with the discovery that he had diabetes and faced a premature death. Unfortunately this work distracted a brilliant experimentalist from his laboratory during an exciting period of discovery in physics throughout the world. Wilhelm Rontgen's (1845-1923) discovery in 1895 of a new form of radiation brought Maxwell's theory of light under question even at Johns Hopkins where Maxwell had long occupied a high place of respect. For Rowland the ether had suddenly become very complicated. He designed new experiments to further test its properties but his early death in 1901 denied him full analysis of these researches. His published papers and the instruments of precision in the physical laboratory at Johns Hopkins remained as testimony to his successful effort to establish high quality experimental physics in America.
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