At a time when scientific research in the United States was still in its infancy, George Ellery Hale, a solar astronomer from the University of Chicago, founded the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904. He joined Throop's board of trustees the same year, and soon began developing it and the whole of Pasadena into a major scientific and cultural destination. He engineered the appointment of James A. B. Scherer, a literary scholar untutored in science but a capable administrator and fundraiser, to Throop's presidency in 1908. Scherer persuaded retired businessman and trustee Charles W. Gates to donate $25,000 in seed money to build Gates Laboratory, the first science building on campus. The promise of the lab attracted physical chemist Arthur Amos Noyes to commit to developing the institution. Arther Fleming, Caltech's primary benefactor, who had donated the land for the permanent campus site at California and Wilson, later donated $100,000 to establish a physics facility, the Norman Bridge Laboratory, which succeeded in attracting experimental physicist Robert Andrews Millikan to join the faculty and assist in establishing the college as a center for science and technology.
The vocational school was disbanded, and the preparatory program was split off into an independent Polytechnic School in 1910. In 1911, a bill was introduced in the California Legislature calling for the establishment of a publicly funded "California Institute of Technology," with an initial budget of a million dollars, ten times the budget of Throop at the time. The board of trustees offered to turn Throop over to the state, but the presidents of Stanford and the University of California successfully lobbied to defeat the bill, which allowed Throop to develop as the only scientific research-oriented education institute in Southern California, public or private, until the onset of the Second World War necessitated the broader development of research-based science education.
In 1917 Hale hired architect Bertram Goodhue to produce a master plan for the 22 acre (89,000 m²) campus. Goodhue conceived the overall layout of the campus and designed the physics building, Dabney Hall, and several other structures, in which he sought to be consistent with the local climate, the character of the school, and Hale's educational philosophy. Goodhue's designs for Caltech were also influenced by the traditional Spanish mission architecture of Southern California.
Under the leadership of Hale, Noyes, and Millikan (and aided by the booming economy of Southern California), Caltech grew to national prominence in the 1920s. In 1923, Millikan was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics. In 1925, the school established a department of geology and hired William Bennett Munro, then chairman of the division of History, Government, and Economics at Harvard University, to create a division of humanities and social sciences at Caltech. In 1928, a division of biology was established under the leadership of Thomas Hunt Morgan, the most distinguished biologist in the United States at the time, and discoverer of the role of genes and the chromosome in heredity. In 1930, Kerckhoff marine laboratory was established in Corona del Mar under the care of Professor George MacGinitie. In 1926, a graduate school of aeronautics was created, which eventually attracted Theodore von Kármán. Kármán later helped create the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and played an integral part in establishing Caltech as one of the world's centers for rocket science. In 1928, construction of the Palomar Observatory began.
Millikan served as "chairman of the executive council" (effectively Caltech's president) from 1921 to 1945, and his influence was such that the Institute was occasionally referred to as "Millikan's School." In the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, Caltech was the home of Murray Gell-Mann and Richard Feynman, whose work was central to the establishment of the so-called "Standard Model" of particle physics. Feynman was also widely known outside the physics community as an exceptional teacher and colorful, unconventional character.
In 1971 a magnitude-6.5 earthquake in San Fernando caused some damage to the Caltech campus. Engineers who evaluated the damage found that two historic buildings dating from the early days of the Institute — Throop Hall and the Goodhue-designed Culbertson Auditorium — had cracked. These were some of the first reinforced concrete buildings, and their plans did not contain enough details (such as how much reinforcing bar had been embedded in the concrete) to be sure they were safe, so the engineers recommended demolition. However, demolishing these historic structures required considerably more effort than would have been necessary had they been in real danger of collapse. A large wrecking ball was used to demolish Throop Hall, and smashing the concrete revealed massive amounts of rebar, far in excess of safety requirements. The rebar had to be cut up before the pieces could be hauled away, and the process took much longer than expected.
Caltech remains, to this day, a small and highly focused university, with approximately 900 undergraduates, 1300 graduate students, and over 1000 faculty members (including 293 professors, 104 emeritus professors, 66 permanent research faculty, 87 visiting faculty, and over 500 postdoctoral scholars). A private institution, Caltech is governed by its Board of Trustees.
As of 2006, Caltech has 31 Nobel laureates to its name. This figure includes 17 alumni, 14 non-alumni professors, and 4 professors who were also alumni (Carl D. Anderson, Linus Pauling, William A. Fowler, and Edward B. Lewis). The number of awards is 32, because Pauling received prizes in both Chemistry and Peace. With fewer than 25,000 alumni in total, more than one in 1,400 have received the Nobel Prize — a ratio unmatched by any other university. Five faculty and alumni have received a Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, while 49 have been awarded the U.S. National Medal of Science, and 10 have received the National Medal of Technology. Other distinguished researchers have been affiliated with Caltech as postdoctoral scholars (e.g., Barbara McClintock, James D. Watson, and Sheldon Glashow) or visiting professors (e.g., Albert Einstein and Edward Witten).
The Spitzer Science Center (SSC), located on the Caltech campus, is the data analysis and community support center for NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The SSC, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC), works in collaboration with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Academics at Caltech emphasize quality over size, concentrating on a core of academic disciplines of very high caliber. Caltech is also known for interdisciplinary programs facilitated by the small physical size of the Caltech campus.
Conversely, as a small school, Caltech cannot and does not offer the breadth of academic programs possible at larger universities. It does, however, offer co-operative programs with other schools, such as the Pasadena Art Center College of Design, Occidental College, UCLA, and Scripps College.
Caltech is ranked as the sixth-best "National University", tied with Penn, behind #4 Stanford and MIT and head of #8 Columbia University, in the 2009 U.S. News & World Report survey; in 2007, the same ranking put it at #4, tied with MIT and Stanford. Caltech is ranked seventh in the world in the 2007 THES - QS World University Rankings, and sixth in the world in the 2006 Academic Ranking of World Universities.
Caltech is divided into six divisions, each of which offer several degree programs, plus a number of interdisciplinary programs. The six divisions are:
Caltech is on the quarter system, meaning that students have one quarter before winter break and two quarters after winter break; since there is no summer quarter, Caltech quarters are usually called "terms". Because of its schedule, Caltech's school year starts relatively late, in late September, and ends in early June rather than May as at the more common semester-system colleges. Also, Caltech is unusual in that students normally take five classes every term rather than four, as at most colleges. Instead of majors, Caltech has "options", and until 2006 offered only one minor: in Control and Dynamical Systems (CDS). During the spring term of 2006 the Humanities and Social Sciences division announced its plans to introduce four more minors in English, History, Philosophy and HPS (History and Philosophy of Science). Approximately 10% of students double-major. This is achievable since the humanities and social sciences majors have been designed to be done in conjunction with a science major. Although choosing two options in the same division is discouraged, it is still possible.
For the core curriculum, students are required to take five terms of math, including differential equations and probability and statistics, five terms of physics including quantum mechanics, special relativity, and statistical mechanics, two terms of chemistry, and a term of biology, as well as two terms of laboratory classes.
Few students fail classes or fail out of the school as a whole. This is due to several cushions that help students survive. First of all, the first two terms of freshman year are on a pass/fail grading scheme, easing the transition to college and reducing academic stress. During the second term, "shadow grades" are given to help students gauge their own progress; during the first term, there are no grades at all. Second, there is little competition; collaboration on homework is encouraged (and often necessary for success) in almost every class. This allows even students who are not doing as well as others to learn the material from their peers and not get behind in their studies. Another helpful factor is the Honor System; this system encourages take-home tests, flexible homework schedules, and other freedoms, alleviating some of the practical burdens associated with a five-to-seven course workload.
Caltech has a relatively low four-year graduation rate, compared to most leading US universities. This rate is currently about 80%, despite the fact that entering students have consistently higher average test scores (on the SAT 1 and 2) than any other university or college, as indicated by the major college rankings. On the other hand, almost all students major in science or engineering, fields that traditionally suffer low graduation rates. In any case, the situation has improved recently; approximately 90% of entering students graduate in six years or less, compared to a substantially smaller fraction in the 1960s and 70s.
Undergraduates at Caltech are also encouraged to participate in research. About half of students do research through the annual Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) program at least once during their stay, and many continue it during the school year. Students write and submit SURF proposals for research projects in collaboration with professors, and about 70% of applicants are awarded SURFs. The program is open to both Caltech and non-Caltech undergraduate students. It serves as preparation for graduate school and helps to explain why Caltech has one of the highest percentages of alumni who go on to receive a PhD of all the major universities.
On January 6, 2007, the Beavers' men's basketball team snapped a 207-game losing streak to Division III schools, beating Bard College 81-52. It was their first Division III victory since 1996. They still carry a 245-game losing streak in conference play. The documentary film Quantum Hoops concerns the events of the Beavers' 2006-7 season.
On January 13, 2007, the Caltech women's basketball team snapped a 50-game losing streak, defeating the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens 55-53. The women's program, which entered the SCIAC in 2002, garnered their first conference win. On the bench as honorary coach for the evening was Dr. Robert Grubbs, 2005 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. The team went on to beat Whittier College on February 10th, for its second SCIAC win, and placed its first member on the All Conference team. The 2006-2007 season is the most successful season in the history of the program.
In early 2007, the women's table tennis team (a club team) competed in nationals. The women's Ultimate club team, known as "Snatch", has also been very successful in recent years, ranking 44 of over 200 college teams in the Ultimate Player's Association.
During the early 20th century, a Caltech committee visited several universities and decided to transform the undergraduate housing system from regular fraternities to a House System, similar to the residential college system at Oxford, Harvard University, Yale, Rice University and Cambridge. Four south houses (or hovses, so named for the inscription on the gates thereof) were built: Blacker House, Dabney House, Fleming House, and Ricketts House. In the 1960s, three north houses were built: Lloyd House, Page House, and Ruddock House. During the 1990s, an additional house, Avery House, was built to accommodate those who felt the original seven houses were not suitable for them. The four south houses closed for renovation in 2005 and reopened on December 15, 2006.
Every Halloween, Dabney House conducts the infamous "Millikan pumpkin-drop experiment" from the top of Millikan Library, the highest point on campus. According to tradition, a claim was once made that the shattering of a pumpkin frozen in liquid nitrogen and dropped from a sufficient height would produce a triboluminescent spark. This yearly event involves a crowd of observers, who try to spot the elusive spark. The title of the event is an oblique reference to the famous Millikan oil-drop experiment which measured e, the elemental unit of electrical charge.
On Ditch Day the seniors ditch school, leaving behind elaborately designed tasks and traps at the doors of their rooms to prevent underclassmen from entering. Over the years this has evolved to the point where many seniors spend months designing mechanical, electrical, and software obstacles to confound the underclassmen. Each group of seniors designs a "stack" to be solved by a handful of underclassmen. The faculty have been drawn into the event as well, and cancel all classes on Ditch Day so the underclassmen can participate in what has become a highlight of the academic year. In 2007, Ditch Day fell on May 15. In 2008, on May 21.
Another long-standing tradition is the playing of Wagner's ominous Ride of the Valkyries at 7:00 each morning during finals week with the largest, loudest speakers available. The playing of that piece is not allowed at any other time (except if one happens to be listening to the entire fifteen hours of The Ring Cycle), and any offender is dragged into the showers to be drenched in cold water fully dressed. The playing of the Ride is such a strong tradition that the music was used during Apollo 17 to awaken Astronaut Harrison Schmitt, a Caltech alumnus. (Unfortunately, the tradition arose at different times in different Houses, so Schmitt did not react as expected. Instead, he just became confused.)
The two most famous are the changing of the Hollywood Sign to read Caltech, by judiciously covering up certain parts of the letters, and the changing of the Rose Bowl scoreboard to an imaginary game where Caltech beat MIT. During the 1961 Rose Bowl Game, Caltech students altered the flip-cards that were raised by the stadium attendees to display "Caltech." This event is now referred to as the Great Rose Bowl Hoax.
Recently, a group of Caltech students pulled a string of pranks during MIT's Campus Preview Weekend for admitted students. These include covering up the word Massachusetts in the "Massachusetts Institute of Technology" engraving on the main building façade with a banner so that it read "That Other Institute of Technology". A group of MIT hackers responded by altering the banner so that the inscription read "The Only Institute of Technology". Caltech students also passed out T-shirts to MIT's incoming freshman class, with MIT on the front and "... because not everyone can go to Caltech" along with an image of a palm tree on the back.
MIT retaliated in April 2006, when students posing as the Howe & Ser Moving Company stole the 130 year old, 1.7 ton Fleming House cannon and moved it to their campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts for their 2006 Campus Preview Weekend, repeating a similar prank performed by nearby Harvey Mudd College in 1986. (The name "Howe & Ser", if said rapidly, and if read recognizing that the & symbol is a ligature of the Latin word "et", sounds like howitzer; it could also mean "how we answer", since the latest prank was an answer to the 2005 prank on MIT.) Thirty members of Fleming House traveled to MIT and reclaimed their cannon on April 10, 2006.
On April 13, 2007 (Friday the 13th), a group of students from The California Tech, Caltech's campus newspaper, arrived and distributed fake copies of The Tech, MIT's campus newspaper, while prospective students were visiting for their Campus Preview Weekend. Articles included "MIT Invents the Interweb", "Architects Deem Campus 'Unfortunate'", and "Infinite Corridor Not Actually Infinite."
In July 2008, Caltech graduate student Virgil Griffith released an online tool that traced back Wikipedia edits from individual MIT buildings.
In recent years, pranking has been officially encouraged by Tom Mannion, Caltech's assistant VP for campus life. "The grand old days of pranking have gone away at Caltech, and that's what we are trying to bring back," reported the Boston Globe, which noted that "security has orders not to intervene in a prank unless officers get Mannion's approval beforehand.
Life in the Caltech community is governed by the Honor Code, which simply states: "No member of the Caltech community shall take unfair advantage of any other member of the Caltech community." This is enforced by a Board of Control, which consists of undergraduate students, and by a similar body at the graduate level, called the Graduate Review Board.
The Honor Code aims at promoting an atmosphere of respect and trust that allows Caltech students to enjoy privileges that make for a more relaxed atmosphere. For example, the Honor Code allows professors to make the majority of exams as take-home, allowing students to take them on their own schedule and in their preferred environment.
Through the late 1990s, the only exception to the Honor Code, implemented earlier in the decade in response to changes in federal regulations, concerned the sexual harassment policy. Today, there are a myriad of exceptions to the Honor Code in the form of new institute policies such as the Fire Policy, and Alcohol Policy. Though both policies are presented in the Honor Code Handbook given to new members of the Caltech Community, large portions of the undergraduate population regard them as a slight against the Honor Code and the implicit trust and respect it represents within the community.
Since Throop College of Technology became Caltech in 1920, it has been led by the following individuals: