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Karl Taylor Compton papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: MC-0416

Scope and Contents of the Collection

The collection contains biographical information about Karl T. Compton, physicist and president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Materials include correspondence between George Harrison, Julius Stratton, and Margaret Hutchinson Compton about Harrison's biography of Compton.

Compton's date books, 1919,1934-1935, 1942-1954, some with detailed entries, and Karl and Margaret Compton's appointment calendars provide some information about the Comptons' daily activities. Essays and newspaper clippings about playing football document his years as a student at the College of Wooster; a copy of a College of Wooster memorial program for his mother, Otelia Compton, and an address given there by him 1927 reveal his continuing relationship with his alma mater.

Correspondence with his parents and about other family members including his wife, Margaret Hutchinson, and his son Charles Compton, provides further information about his college years, as well as some insight into his early days at Princeton and his World War I work for the National Research Council, and the family connections and interests through the 1970s.

The collection also includes physics lecture notes from Reed College and Princeton University from his years as a college professor as both schools. Other professional materials are book manuscripts and notes, and reprints of Compton's scientific papers on photoelectricity and ionization of gasses; and reprints of publications, lectures, and addresses on the roles of academia, government, and industry, the growth of MIT and engineering education, and the development of atomic weapons. A checklist of his publications as a physicist is included, as are a set of reprints of publications from 1910 to 1934.

Karl T. Compton's death in 1954 is noted in condolence letters to his wife, his brother, Arthur H. Compton, and in a recording of memorial speeches given by Ralph Lowell and James R. Killian, on October 4, 1954.

Compton's official MIT records form two separate collections in the Institute Archives: AC 4, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Office of the President, and AC 65, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Corporation. Office of the Chair.


  • 1906 - 1961


Access note

This collection is open.

Conditions Governing Use

Access to collections in the Department of Distinctive Collections is not authorization to publish. Please see the MIT Libraries Permissions Policy for permission information. Copyright of some items in this collection may be held by respective creators, not by the donor of the collection or MIT.


Karl Taylor Compton was born on September 14,1887, and died June 22, 1954. He earned a BS in 1908 and an MS in 1909 from the College of Wooster; and a PhD in physics in 1912 from Princeton University. Compton was president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1930 to 1948, then chair of the Corporation until his death in 1954.

Karl Compton taught physics at Reed College, then at Princeton University, where he was also director of research at the Palmer Laboratory and chair of the Physics Department. His areas of research included the passage of photoelectrons through metals, ionization and the motion of electrons in gases, the phenomena of fluorescence, the theory of the electric arc, and collisions of electrons and atoms.

In World War I he was assigned to the American Embassy in Paris as an associate scientific attache. At MIT Compton transformed both the administrative and academic structure, strengthened the scientific curriculum, and developed a new approach to education in science and engineering. He served as chair of the Section of Physics of the National Academy of Sciences, 1927-1930, and in 1930 helped organize the American Institute of Physics.

In 1933 President Roosevelt asked Compton to chair the new Scientific Advisory Board. When the National Defense Research Committee was formed in 1940, Compton became chief of Division D (detection: radar, fire control, etc.) and in 1941 was placed in charge of those divisions concerned with radar within the new Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). From 1943 to 1945 he was chief of the Office of Field Services of OSRD and scientific advisor to General MacArthur. After the Japanese surrender, Compton went to Japan as part of the Scientific Intelligence Mission.

He stepped down from the position of MIT president in October 1948, when he was appointed by President Truman to head the Research and Development Board, formed to oversee scientific preparedness in the postwar period.


7.3 Cubic Feet (6 record cartons, 4 manuscript boxes, 1 half-manuscript box)

Language of Materials



Materials are stored off-site. Advance notice is required for use.

Related Materials in the Institute Archives and Special Collections

Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Office of the President, 1930-1959 (AC 4)

Records of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Corporation, Office of the Chairman (AC 65)

Biographical Notes

  • "Karl Taylor Compton, 1887-1954, a Biographical Memoir by Julius A. Stratton." National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir, 1992.
  • Resolutions of the Corporation on the Death of Karl Taylor Compton, President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1930-1948, and Chairman of the Corporation, 1948-1954. Technology Review, November 1954, page 12.
  • Unpublished biography of Karl T. Compton, by Professor George Harrison, may be found in Harrison's collection in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Institute Archives and Special Collections , MC 60.
Guide to the Papers of Karl Taylor Compton
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Libraries. Department of Distinctive Collections Repository

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Libraries
Building 14N-118
77 Massachusetts Avenue
Cambridge MA 02139-4307 US