Robert Millikan

Robert A. Millikan won the Nobel Prize in 1923

This is a great recognition for a country, a tremendous recognition for a state, but for a city, especially a small city like Maquoketa, it is an honor so great it is almost unbelieveable.”  Quote from Professor Eddie Ortell

As proof of excellence of early schools in Maquoketa one has only to look at the success of some of the graduates.  In 1885, Robert A. Millikan, graduated in a class of thirteen girls and two boys.  Millikan went on to become one of this world’s greatest scientists, being awarded the 1923 Nobel Prize in Physics.

The son of the Congregational Minister, they moved here in 1875 when he says the population was 3,000.  He lived on West Platt Street, where the Baptist Church is now and where most of the 13 saloons of the time were located, so he saw the rougher side of a small Midwest town – and thought that had done him no lasting harm!

He was taught at home the first year, then in 1876 “was sent for the first time to the ward school”.  Again, I wish we knew where theses early ward schools stood.  He tells of a “lesson in moral philosophy” he learned there “that disturbed his peace of mind for years”.  Whispering was forbidden, and at one point the noise became unbearable for the teacher so she went down the row asking each boy if he had whispered that day.  They all made their denials and “as the teacher’s accusing finger came down the row toward him, he was searching madly for his formula.”  When she got to him, he had found it and said, “NO” because of course he had not whispered - he had just talked out loud a little.  He stated “I lost more sleep over that crime than any other I ever committed!  It came back to torment my soul through all my childhood.”  


In high school he had some “stimulating teachers”.  This is what he had to say about Dan Priaulax:  He was “a man largely self-educated, who kept his algebra class competing hard with one another in solving problems.  He had not learned that competition was harmful.  Why?  Because he had lived and learned and reflected, and was in fact a born thinker and educator.  He would send us all to the board at once, give us a problem and say, ‘I’ll buy two quarts of peanuts for the pupil who gets the right answer first.’  Then he would take the 16 of us down to the store, in school hours, too, and buy the winner this very big bag of peanuts.  Of course they were passed around.”  

Milliken stated that his education in science here was pathetic – as in all US schools at the time, for America had not yet awaken to the fact they were miserably behind the rest of the world in that field.  He was, however, thankful for a first class education in algebra, Latin and history, adding that the methods were antiquated but in his judgment more effective methods than some of the more modern ones.  He attended Oberlin College in Ohio with the help of William Boardman, who began the Boardman Library in Maquoketa, and attended the Congregational Church of which Millikan’s father was pastor.

Robert was born March 22, 1868 in Morrison, IL, died December 19, 1953 in San Marino, CA.  One of the most eminent physicists of the 20th century, he was known for precisely determining the magnitude of the electron’s charge with his famous Oil Drop Experiment and for his work on photoelectric effect.  His friends and colleagues were the top scientists of the time - Albert Einstein, Madame Curie and Geiger, the man who developed the Geiger counter.  He was Executive Chairman of Caltech (California Institute of Technology) and the library there is named for him.  Caltech operates NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and his work there is directly responsible for our country’s success in the space effort.   

The JCHS honored to be asked to participate in the Conference of the Iowa/Illinois Sections of the American Association of Physics Teachers.  It met at the Bettendorf High School, a beautiful facility, and there in its state of the art planetarium three of our members presented 2 workshops on Dr. Robert Andrews Millikan, 1885 graduate of Maquoketa High School, one of the greatest scientists of all times and America’s first Nobel Prize winner in Physics.

We were invited because one of the organizers, Dr. Richard Ross, remembered touring our Museum over 10 years prior and seeing an exhibit on MIllikan.  When he learned we had videotaped appearances from the 1998 Diamond Jubilee of three of the world’s leading scientist all on the same stage, attesting to the greatness of the man, the scientist and the administrator, he felt that this primary source information was priceless and any physics teacher worth his salt would like to see it, and have a copy to use in his classroom.  

Again to quote Dr. Ortell, as he inducted Robert A. Milliken into the JCHS Hall of Fame in 1979:  “Robert A. Millikan won the Nobel Prize in 1923.  This is a great recognition for a country, a tremendous recognition for a state, but for a city, especially a small city like Maquoketa, it is an honor so great it is almost unbelieveable.”

A very important question for you to ponder - Why is it that there are people all over the world that remember and honor Robert A. Millikan and yet in Maquoketa where he grew up and graduated from High School, there is nothing to pay tribute to him.  He never became too rich or too famous to remember his hometown and throughout his life credited his great success to his upbringing and education here.  But have we remembered him???  Please be thinking of a way that Maquoketa might do that.

Robert A. Millikan - Nobel Prize Winner in Physics

Robert Millikan, moved to Maquoketa with his parents in 18-- at the age of Graduated from Maquoketa High School in 1885, attended Oberlin College as did his entire family, and had a great career at the University of Chicago before going on to Cal Tech in southern California. Millikan became recognized as one of the world’s leading scientists - working closely with counterparts such as Madame Currie.