The Physics Scientific Instrument Shop


The intent of this website is for its sections to be repositories of information that encourage comments, additions, and alternative opinions.   As such, its organization may not be optimum for the reader but it can at least serve as a source for a more carefully developed history of Michigan’s Physics Department.


Shop History  1890-2012

This section of MichiganPhysics is an archive of historical items related to the Physics Instrument Shop, a facility dating from the end of the 19th century that existed as a unit within the physics department until 2010.    This shop had a rich history; it built research apparatus ranging from small, precise optical instruments to the large components of high energy accelerators.  The shop was an indispensable part of the research done in the times when physicists built much of their own research apparatus, but the role of such shops has changed in the recent past, and it is the purpose of this section to capture the history of that change.

In the decades 1950-1970 the shop fully utilized as many as ten machinists and instrument makers, but by 2000 most physics research projects bought much of their apparatus from commercial vendors; over the following years the physics shop staff shrunk to five, and finally, with the retirement of shop supervisor Ted Webster, the shop staff comprised three individuals: the two instrument makers Dave Carter and Jim Tice along with the student shop supervisor Julian Broad.

Similar issues affected the Chemistry Department Shop that was facing the retirement of its supervisor Al Wilson and instrument maker Kim Firestone, while George Johnston and Steve Donajkowski were planning to remain.   The Astronomy Department’s technician, Scott Webster, was affected by the upcoming move of his department to another building.

In 2010 the University Administration, after deliberation and with consultation, decided that future research within the entire College  of Literature, Science and the Arts would be better served by unifying the Physics, Chemistry and Astronomy resources to create a Scientific Machine Shop under collegiate administration.   The existing Physics shop area in the Randall was cleared of obsolete machines and otherwise renovated to make room for the best of the machine tools from Chemistry.  Older milling machines were fitted with CNC drives.  Michael Folts, newly hired to be the supervisor of the unified shop, oversaw the acquisition of a 3-Axis CNC mill and a modern CNC lathe.   Several  of the machines that were deemed surplus to the new shop  trickled down to replace much older machines in the student shop.

We contrast the earlier configuration of the shop, in which lathes outnumbered milling machines

with the new arrangment shown below in which milling machines predominate.   The computer control retrofitted to these Bridgeport mills enable one to machine circular flanges, o-ring grooves, and bolt circles quite easily, tasks that were formerly done on lathes.


Technical Staff  1890-1937  as listed on the Michigan Physics Timeline
(prepared in 1937 by Charles F. Meyer)

Ralph H. Miller, Instrument maker, 1892-1894
Sidney W Barrow, Instrument maker  1916-1920
F G Nagel, Instrument maker, 1920-23
Captain Achilles de Khotinsky,  1921-1925, Design engineer  and instrument maker
B. Banta, instrument maker,  1922-1924
Hermann R. Roemer, 1922, Instrument maker; head of shop until retirement in 1965
Paul Weyrich, 1923-1962 (?), Instrument maker
August Wagner,  1924-became head of shop in 1965 and retired in 1970(?)
H.C. Ritz, 1927-193?  shop assistant
W.O. Mintel, 1935-19?? Instrument maker

Physics Glassblowers

Frank Schaefer, glassblower (piece work and part time) 1923-1926
Gunther Kessler, 1926-1965(?), our last glassblower in physics.

Post 1937 Shop Personnel  (fragmentary list, estimated dates)

Fritz Bausch  1960-1994?
Rudi Wolf      1964- 1990?
John Dix        1982?–1995?
Ernst Luder   1962?-1990?
Walter Widmayer  1960’s
Paul Halloway (in ~1970 followed Wagner as head of the shop) retired
Ted Webster   1975?  (in ~ 1980 followed Halloway as head of shop) retired 2004?


.   to be continued —-

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1 Comment

  1. Joe Jenney

     /  May 24, 2014

    Jens, great photo of August Wagner. If I remember correctly after Kessler retired as glassblower a young and very talented man did glassblowing in the first basement of Randal Lab. I don’t recall his name.


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