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Finding Aid for the H. P. Robertson Papers 1922-1980
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Processing History
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: H. P. Robertson Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1922-1980
    Collection number: 10024-MS
    Creator: Robertson, H. P. (Howard Percy) 1903-1961
    Extent: 12.5 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: H. P. Robertson was professor of mathematical physics at Caltech in 1927-1929 and again from 1947 until his death in 1961. He made notable contributions to the fields of relativity and cosmology and held important positions in the U.S. government related to national defense and science advising. His papers include correspondence, some with the most prominent physicists and mathematicians of his day; papers relating to professional organizations, companies, and government; teaching, writing, and lecture files; technical notes and scientific reprints; and biographical material.
    Physical location: Archives, California Institute of Technology.
    Language of Material:
    Languages represented in the collection:
    English GermanFrench


    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 Caltech Archivist. Permission for publication is given on behalf of the California Institute of Technology Archives as the owner of the physical items and, unless explicitly stated otherwise, is not intended to include or imply permission of the copyright holder, which must also be obtained by the reader.

    Preferred Citation

    [Identification of item], H. P. Robertson Papers, 10024-MS, Caltech Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    The papers of H. P. Robertson were donated to the Caltech Archives by Robertson's daughter, Mariette Fay, and her husband, Professor Peter Fay. Additional materials were donated by professor of astronomy Jesse L. Greenstein. Materials were given in installments beginning in 1971 and ending in 1998.

    Processing History

    Processed by Caltech Archives Staff, beginning 1970s. Completed 2002.
    Processing was begun on the Robertson papers in the 1970s by archivist Carol Finerman. Following the final donation in 1998, the entire collection was integrated, rearranged and described by Charlotte E. Erwin.


    Howard Percy Robertson, known to colleagues and friends as Bob, was born in Hoquiam, Washington, on January 27, 1903. He was educated in Montesano, Washington schools, and later at the University of Washington, where he received his bachelor's degree in mathematics in 1922 and his master's in mathematics and physics in 1923. While at the university, Robertson came under the influence of the mathematician E. T. Bell. Impressed with his mathematical abilities, Bell encouraged Robertson to pursue graduate work at Caltech. (Bell himself was later hired to teach at Caltech by Robert A. Millikan.) Robertson completed his PhD at Caltech in mathematics and physics in 1925 under Harry Bateman, with the dissertation, "On Dynamical Space-Times Which Contain a Conformal Euclidean 3-Space."
    Upon graduation from Caltech, Robertson was awarded a National Research Council Fellowship for study at the Universities of Göttingen, Munich and Princeton, where he came into contact with a number of outstanding mathematicians and physicists. He went on to serve as professor at Princeton from 1929 to 1947, where he also worked with Albert Einstein and his collaborators at the Institute for Advanced Study.
    By 1939 Robertson had become involved in national defense work on the urging of his Caltech colleague Richard C. Tolman. He was to stay connected with these activities for the rest of his life. During World War II he served in numerous advisory capacities to various military units, including the London mission of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. He was also liaison officer to several intelligence-gathering units on enemy (German) secret weapons. For his war work he received the Medal for Merit in 1946.
    In 1947 Robertson accepted a professorial position in mathematical physics at Caltech, which he held until his death. He continued to be active in governmental affairs; the list of his affiliations is long. During his later years he was scientific advisor to SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Power Europe, 1954-1956), chairman of the Defense Science Board under the Department of Defense (1957-1961) and a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC, 1957-1961). In 1958 he was elected foreign secretary of the National Academy of Sciences, but his term of office was cut short by his untimely death.
    Robertson's scientific work centered on relativity. Jesse Greenstein writes, "Robertson's scientific contributions were largely derived from his interest and ability in differential geometry and group theory, which he applied to atomic physics, quantum physics, general relativity, and cosmology" [National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 51:346]. For a thorough discussion of Robertson's scientific work, the reader is referred to Greenstein's Memoir. A more condensed but informative article on Robertson by Joseph D. Zund appears in American National Biography, vol. 18 (Oxford, 1999).
    In 1923 Robertson married Angela Turinsky; the couple had two children. Robertson died unexpectedly in Pasadena on August 26, 1961, of a pulmonary embolism following an automobile accident.

    Scope and Content

    The H. P. Robertson papers were donated to the Caltech Archives by Robertson's daughter and son-in-law, Mariette and Peter Fay, beginning in 1971. The collection is housed in 28 document boxes, with one additional card file box, and is arranged in ten series. Processing of the collection was begun in the 1970s following the original donation, but additional gifts from the Fays and from Professor Jesse Greenstein continued through 1998. It was then decided that the collection should be reprocessed, and all supplements should be integrated. This revision was completed in July 2002.
    Early layers of processing have in some cases been preserved, notably in Series 1, the correspondence, where most original folders still remain. Further, in Series 8, Technical Notes, many old folder titles have been retained. It is assumed that these folder titles were carried over from original folders, now no longer in existence. In many cases the titles reflect the folder contents accurately, but in some cases the titles may be questionable, and it will be the researcher's call to decide if the notes and calculations are correctly identified.
    There is also some uncertainty about the labeling of materials in Series 6, Teaching and Lectures. Lecture notes were filed together in folders, but the majority of course lectures are undated. There is enough internal evidence to show that Robertson continued to use Princeton exam books (of the "blue book" type, only not bound in blue) long after he came to Caltech. The degree to which he worked over and refined his course lectures can be inferred from physical evidence, but again, researchers may wish to look more carefully at the material to determine the sequence of his ideas and their formulations and reformulations as lecture material.
    Robertson's involvement in science advising was deep and time-consuming and left him less and less time for research. His publications tapered off after 1939, as the small number of his reprints indicates. However, he continued to read widely on scientific subjects and to correspond actively with colleagues in his field. These include such notables as the mathematicians John Von Neumann, Hermann Weyl, Oswald Veblen, and Luther Eisenhart. Robertson also had contact with Albert Einstein at Princeton and with his collaborators Banesh Hoffmann and Leopold Infeld. A stormy but entertaining record of Robertson's relationship with his sometime mentor and fellow reveler, E. T. Bell, is to be found in the lengthy correspondence between the two.
    The collection is organized into the following series:
    • Series 1. Correspondence
    • Series 2. Caltech and Other Educational Institutions
    • Series 3. Professional Organizations
    • Series 4. Companies and Industry
    • Series 5. Government
    • Series 6. Teaching and Lectures
    • Series 7. Writings and Reprints
    • Series 8. Technical Notes
    • Series 9. Reprints of Others
    • Series 10. Biographical

    Indexing Terms

    The following terms have been used to index the description of this collection in the library's online public access catalog.


    California Institute of Technology
    Princeton University
    Mathematical physics
    National security
    Relativity (Physics)