Museum History

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Physics Museum began in 1917 by Professor Leonard Rose Ingersoll and Professor Benjamin Warner Snow. Prof. Ingersoll first came to Madison for graduate school in 1902. In just three years Ingersoll received his Ph.D. in physics and joined the ranks of UW-Madison’s physics instructors, advancing to the position of Professor in 1925. Professor Snow was the Chair for the Physics Department from 1893 to 1925 and presided over the conception of both Sterling Hall and the Physics Museum. The idea for a museum was granted and made its presence in 1918 in Sterling Hall which, at the time, was still under construction.

The construction of Sterling hall was granted due to the large increase in the population in the college of Letters and Science. The plans included the addition of a physics building and a liberal arts building. The location and plans for the physics building were approved in 1914 however construction was delayed in 1915 because. The contracts to build were finally signed eight months after the contractor had calculated all of the bids and materials, resulting in inconsistencies in cost estimates. The completion of the building construction was also delayed by another eight months and inspection took place on January 15, 1918. During this time, Professor Ingersoll saw an opportunity to create a museum in which students and visitors could experience many physics demonstrations first hand. He believed it was important for students to be able see classroom physics actually at work within the world. The establishment of this physics museum made it one of the first in the country. However since this museum would be open to all ages of the public, there was careful consideration of the instruments and security measures taken for both the safety of visitors and to minimize repairs. Professor Ingersoll was so dedicated to the success of this museum he continued to add to the exhibits while being the Chair of the Physics Department from 1938 to 1947 and after retiring from teaching in 1950. He was actually found installing new additions to the museum on the day of his death on  April 25, 1958. Following his death the Physics Museum was renamed the Leonard R. Ingersoll Physics Museum.

While the museum is constantly experiencing changes of exhibits, many of the original items present during its opening can still be viewed there today. The museum originally featured a probability board that offers a distribution curve represented by a collection of metal beads. This board can still be seen in the museum along with many other original items including an angular momentum wheel, a bicycle wheel gyroscope, a small dynamo, a car gearbox that is now motorized, along with a few others. The museum stayed in adjacent rooms within Sterling Hall for years, but after massive renovations to Chamberlin Hall, named after Thomas C. Chamberlin, the Physics Department moved into Chamberlin Hall taking the museum with it. The museum can now be found near the main entrance of Chamberlin Hall and is still a point of interest to university visitors of all ages.

References have not yet been added and revisions are very welcome.

Future Plans:

The space in Chamberlin Hall allows for substantial expansion of exhibits, including interactive exhibits of optics, magnetism, and atomic physics. If sufficient funding becomes available, our next purchases will include a continuously operating cloud chamber, and the necessary components to construct a heliostat. We are working on the reinstallation of our foucault pendulum that was in Sterling Hall. We are also working on the addition of a phosphorescent photo booth, infinity mirror, and mainy other new exhibits for our centennial anniversary in 2018.

©2013 Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System