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Arthur Holly Compton *1916
Physics 1927


The Nobel Prize in Physics 1927

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1927 was divided equally between Arthur Holly Compton "for his discovery of the effect named after him" and Charles Thomson Rees Wilson "for his method of making the paths of electrically charged particles visible by condensation of vapour."


According to Einstein’s photoelectric effect theory, light consists of quanta, “packages” with definite energies corresponding to certain frequencies. A light quantum is called a photon. When Arthur Compton directed X-ray photons onto a metal surface in 1922, electrons were emancipated and the X-rays’ wavelength increased because some of the incident photon energy was transferred to the electrons. The experiment confirmed that electromagnetic radiation could also be described as photon particles following the laws of mechanics.

[Curator’s note: The following material quotes and paraphrases extensively from articles posted by the Nobel Prize Committee and the Princeton Herald; see Sources below for details.]

Early life and Academics

Arthur Holly Compton was born at Wooster, Ohio, on September 10th, 1892, the son of Elias Compton, Professor of Philosophy and Dean of the College of Wooster.

He was educated at the College, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in 1913, and he spent three years in postgraduate study at Princeton University receiving his M.A. degree in 1914 and his Ph.D. in 1916.

After spending a year as instructor of physics at the University of Minnesota, he took a position as a research engineer with the Westinghouse Lamp Company at Pittsburgh until 1919 when he studied at Cambridge University as a National Research Council Fellow.

In 1920, he was appointed Wayman Crow Professor of Physics, and Head of the Department of Physics at the Washington University, St. Louis; and in 1923 he moved to the University of Chicago as Professor of Physics. Compton returned to St. Louis as Chancellor in 1945 and from 1954 until his retirement in 1961 he was Distinguished Service Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Washington University. Princeton Graduate Degree

In his early days at Princeton, Compton devised an elegant method for demonstrating the Earth’s rotation, but he was soon to begin his studies in the field of X-rays. He developed a theory of the intensity of X-ray reflection from crystals as a means of studying the arrangement of electrons and atoms, and in 1918 he started a study of X-ray scattering. This led, in 1922, to his discovery of the increase of wavelength of X-rays due to scattering of the incident radiation by free electrons, which implies that the scattered quanta have less energy than the quanta of the original beam. This effect, nowadays known as the Compton effect, which clearly illustrates the particle concept of electromagnetic radiation, was afterwards substantiated by C. T. R. Wilson who, in his cloud chamber, could show the presence of the tracks of the recoil electrons.

Another proof of the reality of this phenomenon was supplied by the coincidence method (developed by Compton and A.W. Simon, and independently in Germany by W. Bothe and H. Geiger), by which it could be established that individual scattered X-ray photons and recoil electrons appear at the same instant, contradicting the views then being developed by some investigators in an attempt to reconcile quantum views with the continuous waves of electromagnetic theory. For this discovery, Compton was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1927 (sharing this with C. T. R. Wilson who received the Prize for his discovery of the cloud chamber method).

In addition, Compton discovered (with C. F. Hagenow) the phenomenon of total reflection of X-rays and their complete polarization, which led to a more accurate determination of the number of electrons in an atom. He was also the first (with R. L. Doan) who obtained X-ray spectra from ruled gratings, which offers a direct method of measuring the wavelength of X-rays. By comparing these spectra with those obtained when using a crystal, the absolute value of the grating space of the crystal can be determined. The Avogadro number found by combining above value with the measured crystal density, led to a new value for the electronic charge. This outcome necessitated the revision of the Millikan oil-drop value from 4.774 to 4.803 X 10-10 e.s.u. (revealing that systematic errors had been made in the measurement of the viscosity of air, a quantity entering into the oil-drop method).

During 1930-1940, Compton led a world-wide study of the geographic variations of the intensity of cosmic rays, thereby fully confirming the observations made in 1927 by J. Clay from Amsterdam of the influence of latitude on cosmic ray intensity. He could, however, show that the intensity was correlated with geomagnetic rather than geographic latitude. This gave rise to extensive studies of the interaction of the Earth’s magnetic field with the incoming isotropic stream of primary charged particles.

Compton has numerous papers on scientific record and he is the author of Secondary Radiations Produced by X-rays (1922), X-Rays and Electrons (1926, second edition 1928), X-Rays in Theory and Experiment (with S. K. Allison, 1935, this being the revised edition of X-rays and Electrons), The Freedom of Man (1935, third edition 1939), On Going to College (with others, 1940), and Human Meaning of Science (1940).


Dr. Compton was awarded numerous honorary degrees and other distinctions including the Rumford Gold Medal (American Academy of Arts and Sciences), 1927; Gold Medal of Radiological Society of North America, 1928; Hughes Medal (Royal Society) and Franklin Medal (Franklin Institute), 1940. He served as President of the American Physical Society (1934), of the American Association of Scientific Workers (1939-1940), and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1942).

In 1941 Compton was appointed Chairman of the National Academy of Sciences Committee to Evaluate Use of Atomic Energy in War. His investigations, carried out in cooperation with E. Fermi, L. Szilard, E. P. Wigner and others, led to the establishment of the first controlled uranium fission reactors, and, ultimately, to the large plutonium-producing reactors in Hanford, Washington, which produced the plutonium for the Nagasaki bomb, in August 1945. (He also played a role in the Government’s decision to use the bomb; a personal account of these matters may be found in his book, Atomic Quest – a Personal Narrative, 1956.)

A family of University leaders

Member of the distinguished Compton family of educators, Dr. Compton, it was rumored 30 years ago, was under consideration for the presidency of Princeton University.

He was the younger brother of Dr. Karl T. Compton, one-time chairman of Princeton’s department of physics, who became president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Another brother, Wilson Compton was president of Washington State College. Their father, a minister, was dean of the College of Wooster. Long a member of the Chicago faculty, Arthur Compton became chancellor of Washington University following the war, a post he held until 1953. Compton was one of the key men in the development of the atom bomb and directed the Chicago laboratory of the Manhattan Project. Princeton’s Quadrangle designated For Compton brothers and Proctor

An original benefactor of the Graduate School and three distinguished brothers who received doctoral degrees from the University, for whom the new buildings are named, was honored during the ceremony for graduate school dormitory quadrangles. Speakers at the dedication included President Robert F. Goheen; Dr. Donald R. Hamilton, dean of the Graduate School; Sir Hugh Taylor, dean, emeritus; and Dr. Wilson M. Compton, the surviving member of the trio of brothers for whom one of the new quadrangles was named. The dean of the chapel, Dr. Ernest Gordon, delivered the invocation and benediction.

To be known as Compton Court, the western quadrangle is named for Dr. Karl T. Compton, Dr. Arthur H. Compton and Dr. Wilson M. Compton. The easterly quadrangle and the common room building, located between the two quadrangles, were memorials to William Cooper Procter, a trustee of the University when the Graduate College was dedicated in 1913. Together, Procter and Compton Courts accommodated 275 single graduate students. Karl T. Compton, first of the three brothers to enroll in the Graduate School, received a doctorate in 1912. He was a member of the Princeton faculty for 15 years and chairman of the department of physics before being called to the presidency of Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1930. During World War II he played a leading role in directing the application of science to the war effort. Arthur H. Compton, a Nobel Prize winner, was one of the key figures in the development of the atom bomb. Chancellor of Washington University, St. Louis, he received a M.A. degree in 1914 and a Ph.D. two years later from Princeton. A native of Wooster, Ohio, as were his brothers, Wilson M. Compton received a doctorate from Princeton in 1915 and became an economist, educator, and industrial executive. He was a professor of economics at Washington University and subsequently became president of Washington State University. He has been president of the Council for Financial Aid to Education.

Arthur Compton died on March 15th, 1962, in Berkeley, California.


From Nobel Lectures, Physics 1922-1941, Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1927: Arthur H. Compton – Biographical.

The Nobel Prize in Physics 1927. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022

Arthur H. Compton – Facts. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2022

ARTHUR H. COMPTON DIES; NOBEL PRIZE PHYSICIST. Princeton Herald, Volume 39, Number 49, 21 March 1962

GRADUATE ADDITION WILL BE DEDICATED. Princeton Herald, Volume 41, Number 52, 8 May 1964


Arthur Compton in Wikipedia

Atomic Heritage Foundation: Arthur Compton

Five Princeton Residents Are Chosen For Magazine's 50-Year Honor Roll. Princeton Herald, Volume 29, Number 73, 23 July 1952

Dean Eisenhart Delivers Citations As Eight Receive Honorary Degrees. Princeton Herald, Volume 11, Number 34, 22 June 1934