History of Science & Technology, Including the Life and Letters of Richard P. Feynman, and Space Exploration

History of Science & Technology, Including the Life and Letters of Richard P. Feynman, and Space Exploration

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Property from the Family of Arthur Holly Compton

Compton, Arthur Holly

The 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to Arthur Holly Compton, for His Demonstration of the Particle Nature of Electromagnetic Radiation

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December 13, 08:04 PM GMT


200,000 - 300,000 USD

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Nobel Prize medal, struck in 23 carat gold, designed by Erik Lundberg and manufactured by the Swedish Royal Mint. Obverse with bust of Alfred Nobel left, in field left, ALFR· / NOBEL; behind head to right, NAT· / XXXIII / OB· / MDCCC / XCVI; at left edge, before bust, E· LINDBERG 1902. Reverse with, INVENTAS · VITAM · IUVAT · EXCOLUISSE · PER · ARTES (Life is enhanced through the arts of discovery) — REG · ACAD · — SCIENT · SUEC · (The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences); below, incuse, on tablet in exergue,  A· H· COMPTON / MCMXXVII, Nature, in the form of a goddess, standing left, her right arm holding a cornucopia, a figure representing the Genius of Science, standing right, holding up the veil of Science; in field, left, NATURA, in field, right, SCIENTIA / ERIK / LINDBERG; the edge marked GULD 1927; weight: 206.80 g. (7.29 oz.); diameter: 65 mm. Housed in the original red morocco case, top of case with border of double-gilt rule and gilt dot-fillet, and corner tools; the interior lined with velvet and satin; interior case edges with gilt dentelles.

[WITH]: Arthur H. Compton's Nobel Prize Diploma: 2 vellum leaves laid down in a crushed blue morocco binding (15 1/4 x 11 1/2 inches), covers with foliated borders in gilt, upper cover with central green & gilt wreath device. Both leaves with calligraphic inscriptions in Swedish, designed by Ella Waldenström. In the original clamshell box, worn.


In 1941, Compton became Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' Committee to Study the Military Potential of Atomic Energy. In this role, he was integral to the National Defense Research Committee's efforts to build a nuclear bomb, an endeavor which would eventually become the Manhattan Project. In 1942, Compton became Director of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, which was established to convert uranium to plutonium, to separate the two elements, and to design and build an atomic bomb. It was the Metallurgical Laboratory (so named to obscure the actual work of the group) that produced the first controlled, self-sustaining nuclear reaction (i.e., the first manmade nuclear reactor), famously located under the stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago.

The 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Arthur Holly Compton, "one of the great American physicists of the twentieth century," for his discovery of the "Compton Effect," or the decrease in energy of a photon after its interaction with a charged particle. This result, now a cornerstone of quantum mechanics, was significant because it confirmed that electromagnetic radiation — visible light, X-rays, radio waves, etc.— could not be explained purely as a wave phenomenon. The Compton Effect provided support for Albert Einstein's quantum theory of light and Louis de Broglie's theory of wave-particle duality, for which the former won the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize was awarded jointly to Scottish physicist C.T.R. Wilson who substantiated the Compton Effect through the use of his invention, the cloud chamber, that visualized particles of ionizing radiation.

Born in 1892 to Elias Compton, professor of philosophy and dean of the University of Wooster (Ohio), and Otelia Compton, named "Mother of the Year" in 1939 by Eleanor Roosevelt and J.C. Penney's American Mothers Committee, Arthur Compton was born to a "family of monumental stature in education, in business, in science, and in government" (MIT Press Website, The House on College Avenue). The youngest of four siblings, his eldest brother, Karl, was a prominent physicist who worked with Arthur on the Manhattan Project and was President of MIT from 1930 to 1948. His middle brother, Wilson, was an economist who served as President of the State College of Washington — now Washington State University — from 1945 to 1951, and was Director of the International Information Administration, the forerunner to the Department of State's U.S. Information Agency. Arthur himself would become chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis from 1946 to 1954.

Arthur completed his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1916 working on X-ray reflection, a topic of study that would prove integral to his later Nobel Prize-winning work. In 1919, after a number of years spent as a physics instructor at the University of Minnesota, a research engineer at the Westinghouse Lamp Company, and as part of the team developing aircraft instruments for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, Compton received one of the first National Research Council fellowships which he used to study with Ernest Rutherford in the Cavendish Laboratory at the University of Cambridge. However, because of inadequate X-ray equipment in the Cavendish Laboratory, Compton worked on problems related to the scattering and absorption of gamma rays. While at Cambridge, he verified that scattered radiation had a longer wavelength than the incoming gamma rays, a result that hinted at the quantized transfer of energy from gamma rays to the interfering electrons, and which would anticipate his later conclusion that all electromagnetic radiation could be described as if it consisted of particles.

Returning to the United States in 1920 to take up the Wayman Crow Professorship of Physics at Washington University in St. Louis, he would extend his Cavendish Laboratory experiments in 1922 using X-rays instead of gamma rays, providing another example of the particle nature of electromagnetic radiation at lower energy levels, the result for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1927. In addition, Compton's adoption of the word "photon" — from the Greek for "light" — for the fundamental particle of electromagnetic radiation, following from chemist Gilbert Lewis's use of the term, popularized the term among physicists and gave it the widespread currency it has today. In the 1930s, his interests shifted to cosmic rays, where he showed that the intensity of cosmic rays are correlated to geomagnetic latitude, thus explaining why equatorial regions that are more heavily shielded by Earth's magnetic field receive fewer cosmic rays.

Arthur Compton was of such stature during World War II that President Truman called upon him, Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and E.O. Lawrence to help decide whether to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. For his work on the Manhattan Project, Compton was awarded the Medal for Merit, the United States' highest civilian decoration at the time.

After the war, Compton became Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, returning to the institution where he had engaged in his Nobel Prize-winning research. Serving from 1946 to 1954, it was during his tenure that the undergraduate division was formally desegregated, and the school named its first three woman full professors, including Gerty Cori, who would win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947 with her husband Carl Cori, "for their discovery of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen."

Arthur Holly Compton won numerous prizes and medals throughout his life in addition to the Nobel Prize, including: the Rumford Gold Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1927), the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society of London (1940), the Franklin Medal of the American Philosophical Society (1945), the Gold Medal of the Académie Française (1947), and the Theodore Roosevelt Award (1955), among many others. He was a member of numerous professional and scholarly societies, including: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Philosophical Society, the American Physical Society, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the Cambridge Philosophical Society, among many others.

Arthur Holly Compton: Winner of the 1927 Nobel Prize in Physics, Phi Beta Kappa, Member of the American Philosophical Society, Honorary Member of the Académie Française, Awardee of the U.S. Medal for Merit for his work on the Manhattan Project and the fight against the Axis in World War II, Chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis — This Nobel Prize honors the achievements of one of the most important and consequential figures in the history of American science.


Allison, Samuel K. "Arthur Holly Compton, 1892-1962." National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoir (1965).

"Arthur Holly Compton, 1892-1962." American Institute of Physics.

The House on College Avenue, MIT Press