It’s arguably the world’s most prestigious award, and in 1937, Bloomington residents were surprised (and more than a little befuddled) when hometown-boy-made-good Clinton J. Davisson won the Nobel Prize in physics.
Born in Bloomington in 1881, Davisson’s father Joseph was a housepainter who worked for A.T. Fagerburg, a longtime Bloomington paint and wallpaper store. Joseph Davisson died a few years after his son finished high school, though his wife Mary lived into her 90s.
Davisson’s interest in science and experimentation manifested itself at an early age. “When he was a youngster in grade school, he used the upper part of my ice box to store his wet batteries,” said his mother. “He used to spend hours winding coils with wire as fine as sewing thread.”
She also recalled her son making two telegraph instruments and installing one at his friend Roy Burger’s house. “They strung up wires, studied the Morse code and Clint would send messages to him. Sometimes Roy would come running across the street to ask what Clint had said.”
Davisson attended Bloomington High School, working evenings as a night operator for the McLean County Telephone Co. (whether he was saving money for college, helping his family make ends meet, or simply enjoyed the work is unknown).
Mary Davisson said her son “abhorred” the spotlight, and once, when his picture was published in the newspapers for winning a school scholarship, he walked home by way of alleyways in order to avoid seeing anyone. “And oh!” she said the week of the Nobel Prize announcement. “How he dislikes to give speeches!”
Davisson graduated from BHS in 1902, and then spent a year at the University of Chicago, thanks to a first-year college scholarship. At Chicago, he studied under R.A. Millikan, the first physicist to measure the electron. Once his money ran out, Davisson returned to Bloomington to work for the phone company.
Fortunately, Millikan intervened and secured an assistantship for Davisson at Purdue University, and there he worked for a short time before returning to Chicago to continue his studies.
A part-time teaching position and eventual fellowship at Princeton University helped his situation financially, and in between teaching duties he completed a Ph.D. in physics.
In 1911, Davisson married Charlotte Richardson of Yorkshire, England, the sister of Owen W. Richardson, a Princeton colleague and future Nobel winner himself (1928). Clint and Charlotte Davisson would have four children.
Clinton Davisson was fond of chess, bridge and the piano, though he was said to prefer outdoor activities like walking, ice skating and golf. The family would spend part of each year at their summer cottage in Maine.
During World War I, Davisson joined Western Electric Co.’s engineering department, which would later become the famed Bell Telephone Laboratories. It was there that “Davy” (as coworkers called him) conducted groundbreaking research on the wave nature of electrons.
The announcement for the 1937 Nobel Prize in physics came on Nov. 11. Davisson shared the prize with George Thomson, the two having worked independently (Thomson at Aberdeen University in Scotland) using different experimental methods. Their work on the wave-like nature of particles helped open the door into the spooky world of quantum mechanics.
According to Mary Davisson, news her son’s Nobel Prize was first missed by the local press. The Pantagraph ran a “late bulletin” wire story announcing the prize, though it appears no one made the connection that one of the recipients had been born and raised in Bloomington. An unsuspecting Mary spent half an hour that evening reading The Pantagraph before she stumbled across the brief notice on her son!
Soon thereafter, a short-but-sweet telegraph arrived at the Davisson house. “Am sharing Nobel prize with Thomson of London. Love, Clint.” It was the first (and so far only) time that someone with local roots received a Nobel Prize.
In 1946, Davisson retired from Bell Labs, having put in 29 years. He taught for a while at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, passing away on Feb. 1, 1958, at the age of 76.
Davisson may soon receive some long-overdue attention in his hometown. Gabriel Spalding, Illinois Wesleyan University professor of physics, is drumming up interest in the Twin Cities for several projects to pay tribute to the Nobel laureate.
“To me,” says Spalding, “the real message of his life story is that, when young people act upon their interests, showing a bit of initiative, then they are going to be supported, in ways that might surprise them.”