History of the Geophysical Laboratory

Made rich beyond any man’s wildest dreams through wise investments and the booming steel industry, Andrew Carnegie sought to share his wealth to advance knowledge and education. Over his lifetime, Carnegie had contributed to just causes associated with literature, education, and the arts. In 1901, he became interested in science.

America’s top minds immediately sprung into action, bombarding Carnegie with hundreds of different opinions about how to donate his money. Initially, Carnegie planned to fund a great new American university for science, but after a meeting with Daniel C. Gilman, the soon to be named President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and John S. Billings on November 16, 1901, he changed his emphasis from education to research and postgraduate training. On December 2, Carnegie formally announced the future gift of ten million dollars for a scientific institution in Washington, DC.

It took the Earth scientists only two weeks to respond. On December 16, 1901, George F. Becker, the then director of the physical laboratory at the U. S. Geological Survey, submitted an outline for a geophysical laboratory entitled “Concerning the Geophysical Laboratory” to Charles D. Walcott, who was soon to be appointed Secretary of the Carnegie Institution's Board of Trustees. More detailed proposals were submitted the following year by the Advisory Committee on Geophysics for the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the "Committee of Eight." By the end of 1903, the Advisory Committee on Geophysics agreed on and published a set of specific plans for staff, building design, budget, and organization for the proposed laboratory. With almost every detail arranged and accounted for, the Trustees officially approved and established the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington on December 12, 1905.

Programs in volcanology, seismology, high-pressure research, and experimental petrology followed in the 1910s and '20s, driven by great contributions by such renowned Laboratory staff members as N. L. Bowen, H. S. Washington, and G. W. Morey. Crystal structure determinations using x-ray diffraction were initiated in 1919 under R. W. G. Wyckoff. Upon Philip Abelson's arrival as director in 1953, the Geophysical Laboratory broadened its investigations to include biogeochemistry. In the 1970s and '80s, a flourishing mineral physics program was begun. In the 1990s, its program expanded to areas of materials physics and microbiology, with a focus on extreme environments.

From 1906 to 1907, architects, designers, and construction workers labored tirelessly until the laboratory was finished at the Upton Street campus in northwest Washington, DC in June of 1907. The total cost exceeded $300,000. Under the watchful eyes of Director Arthur L. Day, the Geophysical Laboratory flourished and rapidly established a reputation for excellence in physical-chemical studies of rocks and minerals. This tradition of excellence has proved a trend over the last one hundred years.

In 1990, the Geophysical Laboratory co-located with Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism on its current site on Broad Branch Road in Northwest Washington, D.C. The move proved advantageous, facilitating cooperation between the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and Geophysical Laboratory scientists for experimental and theoretical purposes.

In 2020, the Geophysical Laboratory merged with the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism to form the Earth and Planets Laboratory. 


 

The Geophysical Laboratory was established by the Carnegie Institution in 1905 as a center for experimental investigations of rocks and minerals and the physics and chemistry of the Earth’s interior. For over a hundred years the Laboratory has been at the forefront of high-pressure and high-temperature research. This site highlights notable scientists and research programs from the Laboratory’s first half-century. 

For more on GL's history, please enjoy this Library page which includes more photos and a timeline. - Jennifer Smith, summer intern, 2005 



Observing Earth and Atom

For over one hundred years, the Geophysical Laboratory and Department of Terrestrial Magnetism pioneered the development of advanced instrumentation for scientific research.  Preserved in their archives in Washington, DC is a rich visual legacy of their first fifty years:  a collection of five thousand historic photographs of instruments and apparatus used in geophysics, atomic physics, and astronomy.  Together with supporting field and laboratory documentation in the archives, these images provide an exceptional resource for the study of early 20th Century science.  "Observing Earth and Atom" presents some outstanding examples from the photograph collection.