Harrison M. Randall

Harrison Randall only published a small number of papers in his lifetime, but his impact on physics in the United States was enormous, particularly at the University of Michigan.

Randall published his first paper in 1896, “An Apparatus for Illustrating the Laws of Falling Bodies,” while he was still a high school teacher. He his second paper in 1905, “On the Coefficient of Expansion of Quartz” in Physical Review, was a refinement of his 1902 doctoral thesis. In 1937 he published “The Far Infrared Spectrum of Water Vapor”, also in Physical Review. During World War 2 he published “Infra-Red Spectra: Observation and Uses” in the Journal of Applied Physics in 1939, as well as “Fine Structure in the Far Infra-Red Spectrum of NH3” in Physical Review in 1941 and “The Infra-Red Spectra of the Isomeric Octanes in the Vapor Phase” in the Review of Modern Physics in 1944.

Though ostensibly retired at that point, he went on to publish “Infrared Spectroscopy in Bacteriological Research” in 1953 and “Infrared Spectroscopy at the University of Michigan” in 1954, both in the Journal of the Optical Society of America.

Randall was born in Burr Oak, Michigan on December 17, 1870. His family then moved to Ann Arbor, where he spent his formative years and most of his life. He graduated from the Ann Arbor High School (now Pioneer High School) in 1889, and then earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Michigan in 1893. A year later he completed a master’s degree, then spent a few years teaching in high schools in West Bay City and Saginaw, living with his girlfriend Ida Muma who had a degree in classical studies from Michigan.

On August 24, 1898 he married Ida, then in 1899 he returned to the University of Michigan to work as an instructor and finish his doctorate. He completed his PhD in physics in 1902, and immediately took a position on the faculty of the University, where he remained for the next 38 years.

In 1910 Randall moved abroad to work under Professor Friedrich Paschen at the University of Tubingen—55 years before Tubingen and Ann Arbor would become sister cities. This was shortly after Paschen had discovered what is now called the Paschen series in the spectrum of hydrogen, and about 20 years after the discovery of what is now called Paschen’s Law of electrical discharges. Randall said that he knew nothing about spectroscopy at the time and Paschen simply handed him a spectrometer and expected him to get to work—which he ultimately did. Even to the end of his life Randall considered Paschen his greatest mentor.

When Randall arrived at Michigan, the focus of the department was primarily on precision metrology. Quantum mechanics did not yet exist as a field, and the study of atomic spectra was largely ad hoc experimentation with very little theoretical underpinning. This was also the training Randall received as a young physicist. But Randall came home from his 1910 sabbatical at Tubingen with new ideas (as well as some new equipment Paschen had helped him develop), and went on to lead a radical overhaul of physics research at Michigan. In 1918 he became Chair of the Physics Department, and by the 1930s the University of Michigan was one of the leading universities in nuclear and atomic physics research, including a cyclotron that had the highest energy of any in the world at the time it was built.

At that time Walter Colby was Michigan’s only theoretical physicist; on Randall’s recommendation Colby recruited Oscar Klein, and later Otto Laporte, Samuel Goudsmit, George Uhlenbeck, and David Dennison. Colby and Randall were also responsible for founding the Michigan Summer Symposia in Theoretical Physics, which provided short courses from some of the world’s leading physicists, including Neils Bohr, Paul Dirac, Enrico Fermi, Werner Heisenberg, Ernest Lawrence (after whom Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is named), and Wolfgang Pauli. Lectures were often given to 100 students or more at a time. The Symposia were initially funded $5,000 per year, which is about $70,000 in today’s money.

One of Randall’s central changes was to spend more resources on theorists as well as experimentalists, including a controversial program in which theoretical physicists would get a sabbatical every two years to work with theoretical physicists in Europe. At the time most of the best theoretical physics was being done in Europe, and it was partly through Randall’s leadership that top-notch theoretical physics came to the United States.

Another advantage Europe had at the time was a much stronger system of vocational education; when assembling a team of machinists to build equipment for physics research, Randall hired several individuals from Germany, greatly expanding the Physics Scientific Instrument Shop into something more like what it is today.

Randall was very persuasive when it came to securing funding; despite resistance from deans and presidents he managed to add on several new faculty as well as commission the construction of the East Physics Building (which is now named Randall Laboratory in his honor). The University refused to fund the high salaries necessary for renowned researchers, but Randall’s strategy was to start with lesser-known researchers and help them develop into top researchers later on.

From 1917 to 1919 Randall was a researcher at the National Bureau of Standards. In 1925 Randall became vice-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Randall was President of the American Physical Society in 1937, and remained Chair of the Physics Department at the same time, until he “retired” in 1941—only to go on and extend his previous work in infrared spectroscopy to biophysics. In 1956 he received an honorary degree from Ohio State University and in 1966 he received an honorary Doctor of Law degree from the University of Michigan as well.

Harrison Randall died on November 10, 1969 at the age of 98.

In interviews, Randall displayed a complex mix of humility—often downplaying his own substantial accomplishments—and bitterness over what he felt were his ideas stolen by other researchers, particularly his students who went on to publish more prominently than he ever did.

Despite his skills in leadership and many acquaintances (some of them world-renowned physicists), Randall had a difficult time making close friends. He considered his wife Ida to be his closest friend and most important source of emotional support.


University of Michigan. 2011. “Harrison McAllister Randall.” Faculty History Project. http://um2017.org/faculty-history/faculty/harrison-mcallister-randall

Dennison, David and King, W. James. 1964. “Oral History Transcript: Dr. Harrison M. Randall.” American Institute of Physics. http://www.aip.org/history/ohilist/4840_1.html

Optical Society, The. 2015. “Harrison McAllister Randall.” History: Biographies. http://www.osa.org/en-us/history/biographies/harrison-mcallister-randall/

American Institute of Physics. “Harrison Randall.” Array of Contemporary American Physicists.  http://www.aip.org/history/acap/biographies/bio.jsp?randallh

Papers by Randall

H. M. Randall and W. A. Markey. 1896. “An Apparatus for Illustrating the Laws of Falling Bodies.” Physical Review 4:64. http://journals.aps.org/pri/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevSeriesI.4.64

Randall, Harrison M. 1905. “On the Coefficient of the Expansion of Quartz.” Physical Review 20:10.  http://journals.aps.org/pri/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevSeriesI.20.10

H. M. Randall. 1905. “The Coefficient of Expansion of Nickel at its Critical Temperature.” Physical Review 20:85. http://journals.aps.org/pri/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevSeriesI.20.85

H. M. Randall. 1910. “The Expansion of Fused Quartz at High Temperatures.” Physical Review 30:216. http://journals.aps.org/pri/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevSeriesI.30.216

H. M. Randall and Norman Wright. 1931. “The Infrared Spectrum of Sn I.” Physical Review 38:457. http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.38.457

Louis Russell Weber and H. M. Randall. 1932. The Absorption Spectrum of Water Vapor Beyond 10μ.” Physical Review 40:835. http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.40.835

Norman Wright and H. M. Randall. 1933. “The Far Infrared Absorption Spectra of Ammonia and Phosphine Gases under High Resolving Power.” Physical Review 44:391. http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.44.391

Randall, Harrison M., Dennison, David M., Ginsburg, Nathan and Weber, Louis R. 1937. “The Far Infrared Spectrum of Water Vapor.” Physical Review 52:160.  http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.52.160

H. M. Randall. 1938. “The Spectroscopy of the Far Infra-Red.” Review of Modern Physics 10:72. http://journals.aps.org/rmp/abstract/10.1103/RevModPhys.10.72

Nelson Fuson, H. M. Randall, and D. M. Dennison. 1939. “The Far Infra-Red Absorption Spectrum and the Rotational Structure of the Heavy Water Vapor Molecule.” Physical Review 56:982. http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.56.982

Randall, Harrison M. 1939. “Infra-Red Spectra — Observation and Uses.” Journal of Applied Physics 10:768.  http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/journal/jap/10/11/10.1063/1.1707265

H. M. Foley and H. M. Randall. 1941. “Fine Structure in the Far Infra-Red Spectrum of NH3.” Physical Review 59:171.  http://journals.aps.org/pr/abstract/10.1103/PhysRev.59.171

Oetjen, R.A. and Randall, H.M. 1944. “The Infra-Red Spectra of the Isomeric Octanes in the Vapor Phase.” Review of Modern Physics 16:265. http://journals.aps.org/rmp/abstract/10.1103/RevModPhys.16.265

Randall, H.M. and Smith, D.W. 1953. “Infrared Spectroscopy in Bacteriological Research.” Journal of the Optical Society of America  43(11):1086-1092. http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/JOSA.43.001086

Randall, H.M. 1954. “Infrared Spectroscopy at the University of Michigan.” Journal of the Optical Society of America 44(2):97.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1364/JOSA.44.000097

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