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Guide to the Papers of William H. Pickering, 1941-1970
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Administrative Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content of Collection
  • Indexing Terms
  • Related Collections

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: William H. Pickering papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1941-1970
    Collection number: Consult repository
    Creator: Pickering, William H.
    Extent: 7.5 linear ft.
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Archives.
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: A native of New Zealand, William H. Pickering came to the U.S. in 1929 to study physics at Caltech under Robert A. Millikan. He became professor of electrical engineering at Caltech in 1936. In 1944 he joined the staff of the newly formed Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California; he became JPL's director in 1954, retaining the position until 1976. Pickering's papers document his professional career as a scientist and administrator from 1959 on.
    Language: English.

    Administrative Information


    The collection is open for research. Researchers must apply in writing for access.

    Publication Rights

    Copyright may not have been assigned to the California Institute of Technology Archives. All requests for permission to publish or quote from manuscripts must be submitted in writing to the Head of the Archives. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    Papers of William H. Pickering. Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The collection was donated by Dr. William H. Pickering in January 1990 and consists of 18 boxes. They have been organized to accord as closely as possible with his original filing scheme. In most cases original file folder names have been retained. Almost all of the material in this collection is dated between 1959 and 1970.


    William H. Pickering was born in Havelock, a small town on New Zealand's South Island, in 1910. He came to the United States to study at Caltech in 1929. He received his BS from Caltech in 1932, his MS in 1933 and his PhD in Physics in 1936. William Pickering's graduate advisor was Robert Millikan. After completing his PhD, he was hired as an assistant professor in Caltech's Electrical Engineering Department.
    In 1944 Dr. Pickering moved to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to head up a new group developing radio telemetry systems for missiles. Five years later, Pickering moved onto a new project at JPL: developing the Army's first long-range, liquid-propelled, supersonic missile, called Corporal. By 1950, Dr. Pickering had ceased teaching at Caltech and had moved up to the Laboratory full-time.
    When JPL director Louis Dunn resigned in 1954, Caltech president Lee DuBridge selected Pickering to take over as JPL director. He would remain in this position for twenty-two years, until 1976. Dr. Pickering remained on sabbatical from Caltech through all of his years as JPL director. Dr. Pickering managed the Laboratory during the time when it was transferred from Army to NASA stewardship. He was involved with the Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions in the 1960s and 1970s.
    Dr. Pickering was not just involved in JPL missions but was very active professionally outside of JPL. He was president of the International Astronautical Foundation. Pickering was also active in the International Academy of Aeronautics and the International Science Foundation. Dr. Pickering also participated in numerous scientific congresses and conferences throughout his career. He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. He has received numerous honorary degrees and was awarded the prestigious Columbus Medal in 1964 and the Japan Prize in 1994.

    Scope and Content of Collection

    The collection has been divided into seven series. General Correspondence is the first section and is relatively brief. Most of the correspondence in the collection is not in the general correspondence section but instead is grouped with the particular committee, conference or professional organization that the correspondence is related to. Much of the correspondence in this section is personal correspondence and is not connected to other things in the collection.
    The second series, titled JPL, includes official correspondence and material related to Dr. Pickering's work as director at JPL. There is a lot of information about the relationship between Caltech, JPL and NASA and the management issues connected to these relationships. There is also a great deal of information about the Surveyor project.
    The next three series-committees, conferences and professional organizations-include correspondence, presentations by Dr. Pickering, meeting minutes, and papers and reports. There is a lot of correspondence associated with the various committees and professional organizations that Dr. Pickering worked with in the 1960s. These committees include the Army Scientific Advisory Panel (ASAP), Ordnance Corps Advisory Committee (OCAC), Advisory Board of the Naval Ordnance Test Station (NOTS) and the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC). Some of the professional organizations include the International Astronautical Foundation (IAF), International Academy of Aeronautics (IAA) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). There is a good deal of information about the creation of the National Academy of Engineering in the early 1960s. The collection also contains a great deal of information about various conferences that Dr. Pickering attended in the late 1950s through the 1960s.
    The last two series include information on the Genoa Award and reprints that Dr. Pickering received from other researchers. Transcripts of presentations that Dr. Pickering gave at conferences are organized with the particular event where he delivered the talk.

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection.


    Pickering, William H.
    California Institute of Technology
    Jet Propulsion Laboratory
    Electric Engineering
    Space Flight


    Electrical Engineers

    Related Collections

    • William H. Pickering Oral History with Mary Terrall (1981)
    • Bruce Murray Oral History with Rachel Prud'homme (1993)
    • Lew Allen Oral History with Heidi Aspaturian (1999)
    • Papers of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory 1939-1968
    • Papers of Bruce Murray [CLOSED]
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