Dr. Arnold Romberg Endowed Chair in Physics
Following graduation Romberg was offered a full professorship at the University of Hawaii, where he was asked to develop the department at the new university. While there Dr. Romberg was active in astronomy and in the use and design of seismographic devices. In 1916 Romberg joined forces with Frank E. Midkiff, science instructor at Punahou School, to make observations of Mars at its close opposition. They moved the superior Punahou telescope to the Kaimuki Observatory, and there it stayed for the next forty years. It was used periodically by persons from the College of Hawaii, and others as well. In 1922 he visited the Eötvös Institute in Budapest Hungary where he studied the use of the torsion balance for gravity measurements.
According to Dezsö Pekär, the Institute Director, he stayed several months. This information provided by Zoltán Szabo. California Passenger list show him sailing from Honolulu alone February 1, 1922 on the Wilhemina and arriving San Francisco on February 7. His return, with family, from San Francisco on the Manoa, was Aug 16, arriving Honolulu Aug. 23, 1922. Eötvös had promoted the use of precise gravity measurements for mineral prospecting. Eötvös died in 1919 so Romberg would not have met him, however they might have corresponded.
In the fall of 1932, Romberg gave each student in a graduate mechanics class a different technical problem to solve. One of his students, Luciendean Baptiste
To attain a zero-length spring, it would be necessary to increase the force between the turns of the unstretched spring.
After deciding to use that type of spring, the two men needed only a few hours to build a crude seismograph, the first of many instruments they would make together. It did not, of course, have an infinite period because of elastic imperfections in the metal, but it did have a longer period than any vertical seismograph that the experienced seismologist Romberg had ever seen. Two days later, they built a more sophisticated version which had a natural period of one minute, an order of magnitude greater than anything else around.
At the time, the seismograph meant nothing more to its inventors than the conclusion of an interesting experiment. It was an elegant solution to a challenging problem. No attempt was made to commercialize it because both assumed the market would absorb only a handful of them, “an error we made,”
Written by his grandson, Frederick Arnold Romberg, in 2010, mostly from memory. My Grandfather was the youngest of the five children of Bernhard Ludwig Eckhard Romberg and Caroline Perlitz. Both of his parents came to Texas from Germany as young children. He had only two names – as did three of his four siblings. I was named after him and my father, and throughout my
His last hour was a long time coming: he died 36 days before his 92nd birthday. His grandfather, Johannes Christlieb Nathanael Romberg, was educated in Germany to be a minister of the gospel, but a serious case of measles as a youth impaired his eyesight, making study very difficult, so he was apprenticed to a merchant. He married his employer’s daughter. In 1847, a time of much political unrest in Europe, they brought their family to Texas seeking freedom and opportunity. Farming offered the best chance of a living, so they, like many well-educated German immigrants, became farmers. Arnold and all his siblings were born on the family farm in Fayette County, Texas.
The family brought numerous books with them, and maintained their intellectual bent in Texas, farming by day and reading and studying by night. Caroline educated all her children at home. Her father-in-law Johannes had established an informal literary society called the Prairieblume (prairie flower) that operated for a few short years before the start of “the late unpleasantness” in 1861. Most of the members– including Arnold’s father Bernhard — were teenagers from families of similar circumstances – little cash but much erudition.
This tradition lasted through Arnold’s childhood. The family traditions also included expert handiwork and craftsmanship, which was certainly a help in farming and earning a living in rural Texas. Bernhard became a respected furniture maker, using a wood lathe, saws, and other tools driven by a large windmill. As a youth, Arnold provided the community with home-made ink of good quality, delivering supplies on demand over a wide area. Around 1900, Arnold left home to support himself. He worked for a time as a railroad telegraph agent in Bay City, and probably at other stations, too. Somewhere he met Margaret Harriet King, a schoolteacher from Cuero who was teaching school in or near a community where Arnold worked.
Arnold was apparently slow to broach the subject of matrimony, probably because of limited financial resources.
At some time in the
After Suzy and I were engaged in 1954, but before our wedding, Alma Doubek gave Suzy an identical cut glass vase that she said had been given to her by Arnold Romberg on a Valentine’s Day, with a single red rose in
In the late summer of 1911, Arnold took his wife and son to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They traveled by train from Austin to New Orleans, thence by ship to New York, and then again by train to Boston. He earned the A. M. degree in 1913, and the Ph.D. in 1915. They came back for at least one summer (1914) to the family farm in Fayette County, where my Aunt Helen was born. My father liked to recall when his father came out of the house and told him, “Du hast
Until the United States entered the World War, Grandfather spoke mostly German to the children, while Grandmother spoke English. The children also grew up at home in either language. In 1918 Grandfather was offered a full professorship and the challenge of organizing a physics department at the new College of Hawaii in Honolulu. Grandmother’s book says that his experience teaching at Harvard was an attraction for the College, so perhaps they remained in Cambridge between 1915 and 1918. While in Hawaii, Grandfather did volcanology research with Thomas. A. Jaggar at the Kilauea Observatory on the big island, Hawaii. The family spent two summers there, living at four thousand feet above the sea on the side of the volcano. At the College, Arnold taught, did research, and was co-inventor of the McComb-Romberg seismograph.
During the summers he used it to make observations of earth tremors with the instrument set up in a cave. I don’t remember Grandfather talking much about the time in Hawaii, but Grandmother reminisced about it all her life, and loved recalling how she lived in a very comfortable house with any number of servants – see her memoir. (My Father recalled it fondly for his whole life – it was there that he built his first sailboat, at the age of about 12, and sailed it in Pearl Harbor.) In 1922, the family came back to the family farm again for the summer. Dr. Kuehne came from Austin for a day-long visit to the farm, and offered Grandfather a position as an assistant professor in the Physics Department at the University of Texas. Grandfather said he wanted a tenured position, which involved an associate professorship. Dr. Kuehne said he couldn’t offer that, and Grandfather turned him down. (Perhaps he had or was offered such a position in Hawaii.) When the time came to return to Hawaii at the end of the summer. Bernhard drove his son and family to Schulenburg to catch the train to San Francisco and the boat trip to Hawaii. Grandmother recalled saying of my father, whose only memories were of Hawaii, “That wretch is happy to be leaving Texas!”
Sometime during the 1922-23 school year, Dr. Kuehne wrote to Grandfather agreeing to give him the position he wanted, so in 1923 the family packed up and traveled home to Texas. They took a ship to San Francisco, where Grandfather bought a lightly used Buick touring car. They spent several months driving from California to Texas in a (necessarily) leisurely fashion, by way of as many national parks as they could visit, camping out most of the time. My father told me they had an average of two flats a day, which meant jacking up the wheel, putting on the spare (they probably carried at least two), and then daily fixing the flats by removing the tire from the rim, patching the inner tube, reassembling it, and re-inflating it. Most, perhaps all, of the roads were gravel.
My father recalled the whole trip as a huge adventure. Grandmother says in her memoir that they had two months before Grandfather had to assume his duties in Austin. She also mentions that they were in Nevada when President Harding died on August 2, 1923, having already visited Yosemite and Lake Tahoe. After that they visited Yellowstone, the Little Big Horn battlefield, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.
In Texas they visited relatives. Grandfather and Daddy had typhoid fever, probably while they were staying with Grandmother’s relatives in Cuero. In Austin, Grandfather settled in to teaching physics and doing research. He taught, among others, a course called Physics for Non-Physic Majors. He was a good teacher (all his life, as I know from personal experience) and a good-looking man. The course was very popular with the young ladies. My mother took his course around 1932 and enjoyed it greatly. We have a photograph of Grandfather at the head of one of his physics classes. During my college and graduate school days (1951-1958)
I regularly encountered women who had taken Grandfather’s course in the twenties and thirties and remembered him well and with pleasure. In January, 1925, the Standard Oil Company hired Grandfather to go to Europe, to learn all about the Eötvös torsion balance and bring one back to the United States. The job required several months in Budapest, Hungary, so the family went, too. On the way to Hungary, they visited France and Switzerland. Grandfather took the opportunity, after his work in Budapest was completed, to visit other scientific centers in Europe. From Budapest, the family moved to Vienna and stayed there while he made other visits. He left from there to come back to Texas, but Grandmother seized the opportunity to give her children, Fred and Helen, a Grand Tour. They stayed another month in Vienna, perhaps a month in the major cities of Italy and the lake district, then six weeks in Paris, and finally several weeks in England, where they renewed acquaintance with Grandmother’s numerous relatives there. The whole trip took about eight months. I heard occasional stories about the European odyssey from Grandmother, most notably about the time in Paris when she took the children out on Bastille Day (July 14) to see the Bastille — which had been torn down in 1789!
My father told some stories, too. I remember him talking about watching the chess players in the public areas of the cities. The onlookers would be silent until a player made a move, when they would babble loudly about the merits of the move, and then subside to let the other player plan his next move. I only remember one European story from Grandfather. He had taken a taxi in Germany during a visit to Berlin, and made some small error in instructing the taxi driver. The driver immediately quoted Goethe: Es irrt der Mensch so lang er strebt. (Man errs as long as he strives.) Grandfather was much impressed that in Germany the taxi drivers knew their classical literature. Grandmother and Grandfather built a comfortable two-story brown stucco house in Austin, at 402 East 32nd Street, not far from the University.
My father built the garage mostly by himself, which suggests that this was after the return from Europe. Grandfather had a hall clock that was driven by electrical pulses from a long pendulum in the basement – I still have the clock, though not the pendulum. The house was flanked by vacant lots (probably part of the property) that Grandmother carefully landscaped and enjoyed showing off. There was a birdbath and a sundial. Grandmother’s memoir tells of their debating what inscription to put on it, with Grandfather finally settling on “Pereunt et imputantur,” usually translated as “they (the hours) perish and are reckoned to our account”, referring to the hours that we spend, wisely or not. In the middle 1930s, Grandfather had a brilliant graduate student, Lucien LaCoste, who collaborated with him in inventing the LaCoste-Romberg gravity meter.
This instrument measures the pull of gravity directly (instead of the gradient and curvature). It is much faster to use and the readings require much less calculation than the torsion balance. Grandmother told me that Grandfather came home one day and asked, “Margie, is there anything at all that you would really like to have?” After some thought, she replied, “Well, it would be nice to have a washing machine.” He said, “Well, go out and buy one. We have sold some gravity meters.” The washing machine was probably a tub with an agitator and a wringer. Grandfather and Dr. LaCoste set up a gravity meter manufacturing facility in the basement of the Romberg house. The four small rooms accommodated machine tools, an assembly bench, and a testing facility with a large block of concrete to provide a steady platform for mounting the delicate instruments.
I got my first instruction in using a lathe from Grandfather in his basement. He showed me how to turn a top from a heavy piece of hardwood – probably mesquite – and then to machine a metal point for it. Then he taught me how to wind a string around it and throw it on the ground. It was a very good top and would spin long time. Grandfather was a good teacher. I have in my garage a lathe that came out of that basement – when the gravity meter production moved into bigger quarters, my father got one of the lathes, and much later he passed it on to me. It still works well. Maybe it is the one I used to make my top! The first gravity meters were housed in wooden boxes perhaps 2 feet by 3 feet by 2 feet.
The mechanism itself was not very large, but the box had to house insulation and a small thermostated heater to keep the works at a constant temperature, a more or less shockproof mounting to keep it from responding to local disturbances, and leveling screws. Field testing of the completed instruments was done using a car from which the floor had been removed in front of the passenger seat. The technician could drive to a spot where the correct gravity value was known, and set the instrument on a tripod extended through the floor. After leveling, controlling the temperature, and letting the vibrations die out, a reading could be made. My father was hired in 1941 to manage the gravity meter production facilities.
We moved to Austin and settled down for the first time in my life. My father had been on a seismograph exploration crew since I was born in 1934, and we had lived in perhaps two dozen locations all over the western United Stated in that period, living in rent houses, and moving our own furniture whenever the crew went to a new prospect. LaCoste & Romberg hired two German machinists who had fled the trouble in Europe before the start of WWII. My father enjoyed praising their skills by telling of the time he asked Mr. Brandt to machine something to a given dimension “plus or minus two ten thousandths” (of an inch). Mr. Brandt replied, “Well, Fred, do you want it PLUS two ten-thousandths or MINUS two ten=thousandths?”
The gravity meter business prospered, with its expert machinists, dedicated assemblers and testers, and the guidance and sales efforts of Drs. Romberg and LaCoste. In 1940 (before Daddy joined them) we were living in Los Angeles, and the grandparents drove out for an extended visit in a new blue Lincoln Zephyr. I remember being much impressed with the car. About that time, Grandfather and Grandmother acquired two pieces of property that played a large part in my growing up. They bought 700 acres in the cedar hill country just west of Austin, near Bee Caves. A comfortable native stone house was built on it, with a nice workshop and a windmill. It was always called simply “the Ranch”, although Grandmother gave it the formal name of San Cristobal because both roads to it crossed the waters of Barton Creek.
I spent many weekends there with the grandparents, and loved the place almost as much as they did. My father taught me to play chess in the shop at the Ranch. He gave me instruction while working on various projects there. He would never actually play chess with me – I believe it was because he thought I would be discouraged by never winning, which I am sure I never would have. The grandparents bought a tract on the Colorado River west of town, on what was shortly to be Lake Travis. This property was 240 acres, of which 160 were subject to a flooding easement by the LCRA. As soon as Mansfield Dam was completed that part of the property belonged to the lake. The Grandparents soon gave this to my parents, who christened it Canaan, because they had wandered for thirty (not forty) years before coming to it.
In the summer of 1945, the Grandparents took me on a month’s trip to Mexico. They visited Mexico on a number of trips – Grandfather had appendicitis and an appendectomy in Mexico on one of their other trips, and Grandmother was involved in a train wreck in Mexico on another occasion. We flew from Austin to Monterrey on a DC3, and then traveled overland (probably by train) to San Miguel de Allende, where we stayed for ten days or more. Shortly after we got there, Grandmother commissioned a local woodcarver of some note to carve a wooden statue of Saint Christopher to go to San Cristobal.
I remember visiting the woodcarver every day to see how the work was progressing. It was very interesting to see the statue being liberated from the surrounding wood. Not long after our arrival, Grandfather bought a wooden chess set. For the rest of the trip we had a nightly game of chess. He didn’t give me any handicap, and I didn’t win a single game, but it was a very pleasurable experience, and I cherish the memory very much. Presumably my chess game improved slowly, probably with some tips from him. He certainly gave me an affection for the game, which still persists. About my junior year in high school, Grandfather gave me a 1933 Chevrolet coupe which I believe he had obtained from one of the caretakers he hired for the Ranch. It had little eye-appeal, being black and much used, but it ran very well. We called it the Puddlejumper. I don’t remember having any mechanical problems with it during the two years I had it.
From time to time when the family car was in the shop, Mother would drive it as a replacement. The package shelf behind the set was loose and could be pushed down into the trunk, which allowed my two younger brothers to stand in the trunk behind the seat with their heads and shoulders showing. With Lucia and me in the passenger seat and Mother driving, we could all get in, although it was a bit snug. When we moved to Houston, after I graduated from high school, we took the car with us, but I sold it at the end of the summer because I was going off to college. Grandmother was an inveterate traveler. Grandfather was much less interested in travel, though he accompanied her on a good many trips. Starting probably in the late 1930s after the gravity meter business made it financially feasible, they fled the hot Texas summers to Mexico a number of times. At least once they took Helen with them. Grandfather often taught at the University during the summer, and Grandmother made a number of trips on her own. They visited Europe again, I think at least twice, probably in the late 1950s.
Not long after that Grandmother wanted to go abroad again, and Grandfather didn’t, so she recruited my Mother to go with her. The two of them made at least two trips to Spain. Grandmother also made at least one trip to India, but Grandfather never went abroad again. On one of their trips to Europe, they visited a science museum in Paris and discovered that there was a LaCoste-Romberg gravity meter on display. Grandmother enjoyed recalling that she excitedly told the surrounding museum goers that her husband, “this very man,” was the man who invented that marvelous instrument. I never heard Grandfather’s version of the story, but I expect he was modestly embarrassed.
On the later trips, when Grandfather didn’t go, he enjoyed numerous invitations to dinner and other events around the Austin social and university scene. My mother told me that he was regarded by the hostesses as a very desirable and delightful guest, being charming, intelligent, good-looking, and an excellent conversationalist. Apparently he had lost none of his social skills since he first started practicing them forty years before. When I went back to Cambridge for another year of graduate work in 1957, I asked Grandfather to lend me enough money to cover all travel, school and living expenses for my family of three for the school year. I proposed to pay him back at a steady rate, with suitable interest, beginning when I became employed, and he readily granted my request.
The following spring it became clear to me that it would take at least several more years to earn the doctor’s degree I had wanted to pursue, so Suzy and I decided to give that up and I went to work for Shell Oil Company in Midland. I made monthly payments against the debt I owed Grandfather. When we saw him at Christmas time, he said that since it was obvious that I was willing and able to pay the whole loan back on the agreed schedule, we should consider the outstanding balance cancelled. The grandparents also provided a considerable amount of money for my undergraduate education, through gifts to my parents, and they always made it clear that they valued education extremely highly.
During the European trip in 1925, both Fred and Helen had regular lessons, often with regularly hired tutors, enhanced by their visits to so many historic sites and their contact with foreign languages. Throughout the 1950s, my parents lived in Houston, but spent many weekends each year and some vacation weeks at Canaan on Lake Travis. The grandparents often came out from Austin, and Suzy and I visited whenever we could. Grandfather frequently played Scrabble with me and my mother. We liberalized the rules to allow German words as well as English. As with chess, Grandfather was a very skillful player, usually beating all comers. Grandfather was interested in politics, both theoretical and practical. He engaged with my father in many discussions of social and political matters.
Any visit of some length would invariably involve serious conversations, which were often continued through exchanges of letters, particularly during the years when Daddy was living in Houston and Dallas, after he left the employ of LaCoste & Romberg in 1951. I also corresponded with Grandfather some while we were living in Cambridge and Midland. A few of these letters have survived. Although difficult to categorize, his political and social views were what we would describe today as a bit left of center. An idea which he particular liked was Henry George’s single tax, where the major part of government revenue would be provided through a tax on transfers on real property. I have a few short essays he wrote on these subjects. Although Grandfather was an accomplished academic, and a lover of all kinds of knowledge, he was also a very realistic and practical man. I remember asking him sometime early in my graduate work whether I should pursue a doctor’s degree or leave school and go to work.
At the time, I had several years’ part time and full time summer experience with Shell, and knew I could easily get on with them full time. He told me that he thought I would be very glad that I had pursued an advanced degree, but that if I really wanted to maximize my earnings, I should quit school immediately, not even finishing the degree I was working on, and develop some product or service that would be in high demand. This advice, coming from a university professor, made a strong impression on me. He was also very skillful with his hands. I have mentioned his ink-making endeavors during his youth, and his teaching me to use a lathe. He taught me a number of other skills during the years that I was living in Austin.
For a while in the late 1940s he and Mother occupied themselves with learning how to bind books, and with woodcarving. This led to involvement with gold-leafing, and making marbled endpapers. Grandfather also made furniture. Grandmother had a bedroom suite in French Empire style, but it lacked a bedside table. Grandfather made a matching one from mahogany, carved and painted to match the other pieces in the set. He made a small wall display cabinet for me to display the chess set I brought back from Europe. It now holds that set as well as the one my father got in Vienna in 1925. We still use the large decorated lazy susan Grandfather made for my parents’ dining room table.
From 1960 on, our contact with the grandparents was limited to vacation time visits. They moved out of the house on 32nd Street into a smaller house on Meadowbrook Drive. This involved a considerable contraction in material goods, simply for lack of space. After LaCoste & Romberg had moved out of the basement at the old house, Grandfather had used the basement rooms for his workshop – for furniture making, bookbinding, wood carving and what all else. In the smaller house there was no shop and not much bookcase space. Many of Grandfather’s books were stored two and three rows deep behind the doors of somewhat inaccessible cabinets.
On several occasions on visits, I would help him exhume some volume wanted to elucidate a point in our discussions. About 1970 Grandfather suffered a stroke which left him incapacitated and unable to communicate. He was moved into a nursing home, and spent the remainder of his life there. When I visited, I would tell him of the news of my family and his grandchildren. He seemed interested, but never responded in a very meaningful way. It was a blessing when his earthly sufferings came to an end. He was a gentleman of the old school, much loved by all who knew him.
He was a Renaissance man, interested in almost any subject, knowledgeable on many, and much skilled. He is an example that I have tried to follow throughout my life, and deserves credit for much of what I am and what I have accomplished. I wish all of his descendants could have known him. This story was provided courtesy of Professor Emeritus Mel Oakes and The University of Texas at Austin Physics Department History.