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Finding Aid for the Carl D. Anderson Papers 1923-1987
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Descriptive Summary
  • Access
  • Publication Rights
  • Preferred Citation
  • Acquisition Information
  • Biography
  • Scope and Content
  • Related Material
  • Indexing Terms

  • Descriptive Summary

    Title: Carl D. Anderson Papers,
    Date (inclusive): 1923-1987
    Collection number: 10053-MS
    Creator: Anderson, Carl D. (Carl David) 1905-1991
    Extent: 2.5 linear feet
    Repository: California Institute of Technology. Caltech Archives
    Pasadena, California 91125
    Abstract: A selection of the course and teaching notes, correspondence, technical files, and photographs of Carl D. Anderson (1905-1991) form the collection known as the Carl D. Anderson Papers in the Archives of the California Institute of Technology. Working under Robert A. Millikan at Caltech, Anderson conducted experiments on the penetrating radiation known as cosmic rays with a magnet cloud chamber, and in 1936 he won the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of the positive electron, or positron. Anderson was professor of physics at Caltech until 1976 and chairman of the Division of Physics, Math and Astronomy from 1962-1970.
    Physical location: Archives, California Institute of Technology.
    Language of Material:
    Languages represented in the collection:
    English German


    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], Carl D. Anderson Papers, 10053-MS, Caltech Archives, California Institute of Technology.

    Acquisition Information

    Carl D. Anderson donated selected papers to the Caltech Archives in 1987 and 1988.


    Carl David Anderson was born September 3, 1905, in New York City. He was the only child of Swedish immigrants Carl David Anderson and Emma Adolfina Ajaxson. In 1912 the family moved to Los Angeles, where the elder Anderson managed a small restaurant business. Carl attended Los Angeles Polytechnic High School, from which he graduated in 1923. The following fall he entered the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena as a freshman, intending to study electrical engineering. In his sophomore year, during a course with Ira Bowen, he decided to change his major to physics. After receiving his BS in 1927, he stayed on at Caltech to do graduate work under Robert A. Millikan. His doctoral thesis, entitled "Space-Distribution of X-Ray Photoelectrons Ejected from the K and L Atomic Energy-Levels," involved a cloud-chamber study of photoelectrons (electrons exposed to radiation) scattered from various gases by X rays. He received his PhD in 1930.
    Anderson was encouraged by Millikan to stay on at Caltech for a postdoctoral year to conduct experimental research on the penetrating radiation known as cosmic rays. Anderson designed and constructed an apparatus consisting of a giant electromagnet wrapped around a cloud chamber. He inserted a lead plate into the middle of the cloud chamber to lessen the particles' energy and to clarify the direction of their motion (negatively charged particles moved downward). An arc-lighted camera was focused on the chamber's window to record the vapor trails of electrons or other charged particles passing through. The magnet cloud chamber was put in operation in October 1931. At this time, scientists had only identified two elementary particles of matter--the electron and the proton. However, in 1928 Paul Dirac, in what came to be known as Dirac's equations, posited the existence of another particle, comparable in mass to the negatively charged electron, but with a positive charge, an "anti-electron." On August 2, 1932, viewing a very clear photograph of an upward-moving particle with mass similar to the electron, Anderson knew he had discovered the "positive electron," later named the positron. This was the particle predicted by Dirac. In fact, Dirac's theory predicted that all elementary particles should have their own antiparticles. Thus the term "antimatter" emerged, and Anderson was hailed as its discoverer. Anderson published his research in Science magazine on September 9, 1932. At first his results were met with skepticism. Ultimately they were confirmed by experimenters, initially in 1933 at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, England, by Patrick M. S. Blackett and G. P. S. Occhialini.
    Anderson's work garnered him the Nobel Prize in 1936, at the age of only 31. A year prior to this date, in 1935, Anderson and his first graduate student, Seth Neddermeyer, discovered another subatomic particle, which they named the mesotron (later called the μ-meson or muon). The muon discovery grew out of experimental work on cosmic rays done at high altitude (around 14,000 feet) on Pikes Peak in Colorado. In 1933 Anderson became assistant professor at Caltech. He was named associate professor in 1937 and professor in 1939.
    During World War II Anderson was closely associated with the Caltech rocket research and development effort, led by Charles C. Lauritsen and funded by the U. S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Anderson spent his time working on problems associated with the launching of rockets from airplanes. For his wartime work, he received the Presidential Certificate of Merit in 1945. In 1946 Anderson married Lorraine Bergman. They had two sons.
    In the postwar period Anderson returned to his work on cosmic rays. He and his graduate students continued to take cloud chamber photographs at high altitudes, now using a B-29 aircraft, and also measuring variations in cosmic-ray effects at selected latitudes on the Earth's surface. They painstakingly accumulated further evidence of the existence of more subatomic particles, thus confirming the underlying complexity in the structure of matter and leading the way to a new branch of study, particle physics.
    By the late 1950s, Anderson's kind of cosmic-ray investigation was beginning to be supplanted by work done on huge high-energy accelerators, both at Caltech and around the world. Anderson became chairman of the Caltech's Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy in 1962, a position which he held until 1970. He retired from Caltech in 1976 with the title Board of Trustees Professor of Physics, Emeritus.
    In addition to the Nobel Prize, Anderson was the recipient of many awards: the Gold Medal of the American Institute of the City of New York (1935), the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute (1937), the John Erikson Medal of the American Society of Swedish Engineers (1960), in addition to three honorary doctorates from Colgate University (1937), Temple University (1949) and Gustavus Adolphus College (1963). He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1936 and to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1954. Anderson died in San Marino, California, at the age of 85.

    Scope and Content

    The Carl D. Anderson papers represent only a small piece of Anderson's scientific legacy. The collection is divided into four series. The first, Course Notes and Teaching Files, 1920s-1940s, includes both notes taken by Anderson during his student years at Caltech and his own lecture notes. The former group is of interest for the prominent professors who taught at Caltech in this era, notably J. Robert Oppenheimer (quantum theory), but also Robert A. Millikan (electron theory) and the distinguished visiting physicist from Munich, Arnold Sommerfeld (problems in wave mechanics). The second series contains files from the period of Anderson's chairmanship of the Division of Physics, Math and Astronomy (PMA) at Caltech, from 1964-1970, and a few items past those dates. Series 3 contains a small set of correspondence which includes letters with scientific collaborators such as Seth Neddermeyer, H. Victor Neher, and Bruno Rossi. Also included here are two substantial files on William Shockley (Caltech B.S., physics, 1932; later inventor of the transistor and Nobel laureate) from the period of Shockley's notoriety over his controversial, inherently racist views on population genetics, 1962-1970.
    Series 4 is a mix of technical notes, photos, World War II material, and some biographical papers. Of special interest are the historic cloud-chamber photos taken by Anderson that record the discovery of new subatomic particles. (Most of these photos have been scanned to the Caltech Archives online database, PhotoNet .) The World War II material, though of small scope, provides some interesting documentation of the Holy Moses aircraft rocket, also known as the HVAR 5.0", engineered at Caltech towards the end of the war and first deployed in France following D-Day (1944). Anderson's war work centered on aircraft rockets and torpedoes; this work is documented in the 1970 interview by A. B. Christman of the Naval Weapons Center, China Lake, a copy of which is filed here. The assorted photos in this series were examined and described by Anderson's colleague, Professor Eugene W. Cowan, in a short, recorded interview which is filed following the photos in series 4.
    The collection is organized into the following series:
    • Series 1. Course Notes and Teaching Files, 1920s-1940s
    • Series 2. Administrative files
    • Series 3. Correspondence
    • Series 4. Technical files and biographical

    Related Material

    Scientific apparatus related to Carl D. Anderson, now in the Caltech Archives' collections, includes the cloud chamber with which his important particle discoveries were made; some of his Geiger counters, including the one used in the muon experiment; and a fragment of the Holy Moses rocket, returned to Anderson from France where it knocked out a German tank following the D-Day invasion.

    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
    Cosmic rays
    Particles (Nuclear physics)
    World War, 1939-1945 Equipment and supplies


    Nobel Prize winners