A Geophysical Laboratory is Born

Andrew Carnegie had an idea. Made rich beyond any man’s wildest dreams through wise investments and the booming steel industry, he sought to share his wealth to advance knowledge and education. Over his lifetime, Carnegie had contributed to just causes associated with literature, education, and the arts. In 1901, he became interested in science.

Initially, Carnegie planned to fund a great new American university for science, but after a meeting with Daniel C. Gilman, the soon to be named President of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, and John S. Billings on November 16, 1901, he changed his emphasis from education to research and post graduate training.

The original Geophysical Laboratory under construction in 1906 on Upton Street, NW in Washington, D.C. Photograph by E. S. Shepherd.



Despite the events of November 16th, it wasn’t until December 2nd that Carnegie formally announced the future gift of ten million dollars for a scientific institution in Washington, D.C. America’s top minds immediately sprung into action, bombarding Carnegie with hundreds of different opinions about how to donate his money.

Cartoon by Clifford Berryman. Published in the Washington Evening Star, January 1911.



It took the earth-scientists only two weeks to respond. On Dec. 16th, George F. Becker, the then director of the physical laboratory at the U. S. Geological Survey, submitted an outline for a geophysical laboratory entitled “Concerning the Geophysical Laboratory” to Charles D. Walcott, who was soon to be appointed Secretary of the Carnegie Institution's Board of Trustees. More detailed proposals were submitted the following year by the Advisory Committee on Geophysics for the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the "Committee of Eight."

By the end of 1903, the Advisory Committee on Geophysics agreed on and published a set of specific plans for staff, building design, budget, and organization for the proposed laboratory. With almost every detail arranged and accounted for, the Trustees officially approved and established the Carnegie Institution of Washington Geophysical Laboratory on December 12, 1905.

From 1906 to 1907, architects, designers, and construction workers labored tirelessly until the laboratory was finished at 2801 Upton Street in northwest Washington, D.C. in June of 1907. The total cost exceeded $300,000.  Writing in his photo album in 1906, Earnest Shepherd called it "A House of Dreams Untold." 


Upton Street remained the Geophysical Laboratory's home for eight decades. In 1990, the Laboratory moved to its present site a mile to the north, co-locating with Carnegie's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism on the Broad Branch Road campus. The historic Upton Street lab was subsequently acquired by the Levine School of Music and now serves as their flagship Sallie Mae Hall.

  • Huntress, Wesley T., Overview of research, in Carnegie Institution of Washington, Geophysical Laboratory (department booklet), 4 - 6, Washington, D.C., 1999.
  • Trefil, James and Margaret Hindle Hazen, Good Seeing: A Century of Science at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1902-2002, Joseph Henry Press, Washington, D.C., 2002.
  • Yoder, Hatten S., Jr. Centennial History of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Volume III, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004.
Further Reading:
  • Servos, John W., To explore the borderland: the foundation of the Geophysical Laboratory of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 14, 147-185, 1983.
  • Yochelson, E. L., and H. S. Yoder, Jr., Founding the Geophysical Laboratory, 1901-1905: a scientific bonanza from perception and persistence, Geological Society of America Bulletin, 106, 338-350, 1994.
  • Yoder, H. S., Jr., Development and promotion of the initial scientific program of the Geophysical Laboratory, in The Earth, the Heavens and the Carnegie Institution of Washington, G. A. Good, ed., American Geophysical Union, Washington, D.C., 21-28, 1994.