July 17, 2000

A Faculty For Physics: Henry Rowland

When Daniel Gilman was appointed president of The Johns Hopkins University in 1875, the trustees, none of whom were educators, left the matter of recruiting a faculty in his hands. With an eye to the future, Gilman sought to fill the ranks with “young scholars of promise,” likely to become important figures in their fields. Gilman solicited recommendations for students or former students, or younger colleagues respected by their peers. In the discipline of physics, one name often repeated was Henry Augustus Rowland.

Born in Pennsylvania in 1848 and trained as a civil engineer, Rowland was in his late 20s and isolated at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute when he came to Gilman’s attention. Gilman realized that Rowland, who had abandoned engineering for physics and electricity, was “a young man of rare intellectual powers and of uncommon aptitude for experimental science.” Gilman offered Rowland the position of professor of physics, at a beginning salary of $1,600. The name “Johns Hopkins” at that time meant only a businessman who had left a fortune to found a university, so it was a gamble for Rowland as well as for Gilman. Upon accepting Gilman’s offer, he wrote, “I have gone there on faith, and will do my best to make the institution a success.” Rowland became the very first faculty member hired for the new university.

With nearly a year between his hiring and the opening of classes in October 1876, Rowland spent his time in Europe, gathering the components of a laboratory and pondering the questions on which he would focus his research and instruction. He became interested in the study of light and achieved his most durable success when he perfected a device to divide the visible spectrum into constant and reproducible components. His “Ruling Engine,” as it was known, was so well designed that, even decades later, it could not be improved significantly. Rowland was interested in pure science rather than in patentable discoveries, and he expected his students to share his enthusiasm for learning. A legend exists concerning his students: When asked by a colleague what he would do with his students, Rowland allegedly replied, “Do with them? I shall neglect them.” Many of his students, on the other hand, reported a more benevolent attitude.

Rowland might have continued his pursuit of pure science indefinitely, but fate intervened. He was diagnosed with diabetes, at that time an untreatable disease. Realizing his life would be cut short, he shifted his studies to subjects that would bring financial benefits, to provide for his family after his death. He devoted the last five years of his life to perfecting a new telegraph apparatus. This, along with other inventions and improvements, left his family in comfortable circumstances when he passed away on April 16, 1901, at the age of 53.

In 1929, the university constructed a physics building on the Homewood campus and named it in honor of Hopkins’ first professor. In 1991, when the Department of Physics moved to the new Bloomberg Center, Rowland Hall was renamed for Zanvyl Krieger, and the department became the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy. Although the name Rowland is no longer visible on the bricks and mortar of Homewood campus, his mark remains through contributions that have enriched the study of physics and benefited nonphysicists as well.