Elusive Professor Brought Physics to CU

by Silvia Pettem (published in the Daily Camera, May 15, 2003)

In 1885, when 30-year-old William Waggener stepped off the train in Boulder, the city’s population was slightly over 3,000. The University of Colorado, where he had accepted the position of professor of physical sciences, was in its infancy. No students had graduated the year of his arrival and, the year before, there had been only one. Although Waggener remained at CU through 1898 and founded the Department of Physics, he’s not even mentioned in the school’s major histories.

“Waggener is truly the unknown faculty member of the early history of the University,” said Al Bartlett and Jack Kraushaar, in their new edition of a comprehensive book they co-authored on the history of the Department of Physics at CU. Bartlett and Kraushaar, both professors emeritus, spent years chronicling the people and the accomplishments of their department, starting with the elusive Waggener. With much digging and personal correspondence with his descendants, the authors were able to glimpse into the life of their predecessor.

When Waggener (a Missouri native and the first graduate of the University of Arkansas) was hired, his professorship came with a starting annual salary of $1,200. All classes were held in CU’s then-only academic building, Old Main. In the earliest days, the third floor (now the Heritage Center Museum) was shared by the physics and chemistry departments. The space included a laboratory, lecture room, store room for supplies, and a room used for assaying and analysis.

Although strapped for funds, the Regents immediately authorized Waggener to purchase scientific books and instruments. These most likely included one of the current department’s prize possessions, a brass binocular microscope from London.

In 1891, when the entire University consisted of 287 students and 60 professors and instructors, construction was underway on the central portion of the Hale Scientific Building. Waggener was involved in the design of the new facility which was said to have been the most thoroughly equipped scientific building in the country. Brass instead of iron nails were used in rooms in which iron would have interfered with studies of the earth’s magnetic fields.

After a leave of absence and advanced study in Berlin, Waggener published a research paper on flame temperatures. In 1898, he tendered his resignation on account of ill health. A student publication reported on his “haggard face” and stated, “His short address was pathetic, full of the tragedy of overwork, and it won the students’ sympathy.”

Little is known of Waggener’s life after he left Boulder. In 1939, three years before his death, he left his home in Los Angeles and visited the CU campus. By then he wore a huge white beard, and his presence was reported as “awesome and a bit frightening.” He successfully urged the University to preserve what remained of his early records and equipment.

Copies of “A History of the Department of Physics of the University of Colorado at Boulder” are available from the Department of Physics on the Boulder campus. The chapters on Waggener are only the beginning.

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