Brackett, Cyrus Fogg

Brackett, Cyrus Fogg (1833-1915), first Joseph Henry Professor of Physics and founder of the Electrical Engineering Department, was born on a farm in Parsonfield, Maine. He put himself through Bowdoin College by teaching in country schools, graduating in 1859 when he was twenty-six. While continuing to teach, he studied medicine at Bowdoin and at Harvard, and received his M.D. degree from the Medical School of Maine in 1863. For ten years thereafter he held professorships of natural science, chemistry, zoology, geology, and physics at Bowdoin.

In 1873 Brackett was called to Princeton to occupy a new chair in physics founded in honor of Joseph Henry. He soon became an adviser to the trustees in their efforts to improve instruction in scientific subjects and was also influential with the faculty in the development of the scientific curriculum. One of his first tasks was to build up the College's equipment, which, after Henry's departure in 1848, had been allowed to fall behind new developments in physics. He was mechanically skillful, and constructed much of the apparatus needed for his ingenious lecture demonstrations himself.

Brackett believed that physics should be an essential part of every student's education; and he drew upon literature and philosophy as well as other sciences to arouse interest in his subject. He was generally regarded as one of the most brilliant lecturers of his day and one of the most stimulating influences in the intellectual growth of his students.

Brackett's own interests were stimulated by the developments in electricity of the seventies and eighties. He was closely associated with Thomas Alva Edison, who frequently sought his advice and counsel, and developed a dynamometer to measure the power delivered by Edison's early generators. He was also acquainted with Alexander Graham Bell and testified in the litigation that established Bell's claims to the basic patents for the telephone.

Brackett s lecture room, according to tradition, was the first electrically lighted classroom in America. He constructed a dynamo and battery system for this purpose soon after Edison invented the incandescent lamp. He also rigged up Princeton's first telephone line, which extended from his laboratory in the School of Science to Professor Young's office in the observatory on Prospect Avenue.

He was thus led, in 1889, to undertake the development of a school of electrical engineering, leaving responsibility for undergraduate courses in physics to his associate, Professor William F. Magie. The program of the new school was designed for college graduates with a strong background in mathematics, physics, and chemistry, and it emphasized advanced study of general electrical science.

With Professor William A. Anthony of Cornell (who initiated the electrical engineering course there), Brackett wrote a Textbook of Physics (1884), which was widely used in the closing years of the last century. He was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1877 and became a charter member of the American Physical Society when it was organized in 1899. He drew upon his early medical training both as chairman of the University's Sanitary Committee, originally in charge of the college infirmary, and as president of the Board of Health of New Jersey from 1888 to 1908.

Brackett's engaging personality won the warm regard of colleagues and students. It also inspired the gift of Palmer Physical Laboratory by Stephen S. Palmer, father of Edgar Palmer '03, one of Brackett's students in electrical engineering, and its endowment by David B. Jones 1876 and Thomas D. Jones 1876, two of his early students in physics. Palmer Laboratory was completed in 1908, the year Brackett, then seventy-five, retired. Commenting on Brackett's retirement in his annual report, President Wilson wrote:

``Few college careers have been more notable than his. He worked in the quiet field of mind whose achievements are not talked about outside the circle of those who are intent upon science or letters, and gave his brilliant gifts to the work of teaching and organization rather than to the work of investigation for which he was so admirably fitted; but the application of his fine force to the work he had to do produced remarkable results in developing the study of physics at Princeton.''

Princetonians gave Brackett an ovation at Commencement in 1910 when President Wilson awarded him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Brackett is memorialized by a lectureship, founded by the Princeton Engineering Association in 1921, and by an endowed professorship in physics, donated in 1927 by Thomas D. Jones 1876 to give expression to ``a debt of gratitude'' he said he owed Brackett ``as a teacher and friend.''

Brackett Hall, one of the six units of the Engineering Quadrangle built in 1962, is also named for him.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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