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History of the Caltech Associates

A photo of Albert Einstein looking at a book with a colleague

An Enduring Legacy

Not far from the Caltech campus, lights blazed from the windows of the home of Henry E. Huntington, retired railroad magnate and art collector. That night of March 9, 1926 marked the first formal meeting of a new organization: the Associates of the California Institute of Technology.

One hundred of Southern California's most influential men and women banded together to "aid and advance the welfare of the California Institute of Technology." Caltech was emerging as a scientific world leader, with a commitment to educate a small number of students in an atmosphere of research conducted by scientists of the highest distinction.

Period of Expansion

At the time, Caltech comprised five buildings, part of a master plan by one of the nation's foremost architects, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue. The orange groves, symbol of the early campus, were fast disappearing as new structures were built. The growing physical plant and increasing research commitments were of constant concern to Robert Andrews Millikan, director of physical research, chairman of the executive council, and Caltech's first Nobel laureate. The stage was set for the founding of the Associates.

The First Hundred

News clipping from the Pasadena Post, March 10, 1926, listing the first 100 members of the Caltech Associates.
News clipping from the Pasadena Post, March 10, 1926, listing the first 100 members of the Caltech Associates.

Millikan and Huntington, with the help of trustee Henry Robinson, decided to find a hundred founding members in southern California who "would be both able and eager to annually invest $1,000 for a period of ten years." Trustees Allan Balch, Henry O'Melveny, Norman Bridge, Harry Chandler, and Henry Robinson pledged to promote the idea of the Associates of the California Institute of Technology. When the Associates membership met the initial goal of 100 members, Henry Huntington extended the gracious invitation to hold the first formal meeting in his home.

Invitation from Henry E. Huntington to the inaugural meeting of the California Institute Associates
Invitation from Henry E. Huntington to the inaugural meeting of the California Institute Associates, held March 9, 1926, at his home in San Marino, California.

Later, Millikan said that "there is no date in the history of the California Institute of Technology more significant than March 9, 1926, the first meeting of the California Institute Associates." This event signalized the recognition by a large and exceedingly influential body of southern California citizens of the importance of the service which the Institute was rendering."

The Athenaeum

Group photograph made at the first formal dinner of the Associates, including Robert Millikan and Albert Einstein
Photograph made at the first formal dinner of the Associates. Seated, left to right: Millikan, Einstein, Michelson, Campbell. Standing, left to right: St. John, Mayer, Hubble, Munro, Tolman, Balch, Adams and Ballard.

Caltech's growing intellectual community needed a place to gather, as faculty were being hired and the Associates had outgrown the Huntington living room. Associates Mr. and Mrs. Allan Balch provided the funds to build the sumptuous Athenaeum for use by the Institute faculty, the Associates, and the staffs of the Mount Wilson Observatory and the Huntington Library. Designed by Gordon Kaufmann, it is said to be one of the finest buildings of its kind in the country.

The Athenaeum was built during the very lean years of the Great Depression. In 1931, at the Associates' first formal dinner, many Associates welcomed visiting professor Albert Einstein as their inaugural speaker in the back meeting room of the Athenaeum, which is still called the Hall of the Associates.

Drawing of the Caltech Athenaeum's western elevation by architect Gordon Kaufmann
Drawing of the Athenaeum's western elevation by architect Gordon Kaufmann, known for his work on the Hoover Dam and The Los Angeles Times' headquarters.

Proud Past, Exciting Future

Nearly a century later, members of the Associates continue to provide the type of valuable unrestricted support that fuels the early stages of innovative research projects, a hallmark of the Institute. Their continued support allows Caltech to explore new frontiers and to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Man and women smiling at the camera while holding a model of a planet

The ‘town and gown' organization the founders put in place almost 100 years ago is unique. It has no parallel in higher education. It has been extraordinarily successful in fulfilling the mission "to aid and advance the welfare of the California Institute of Technology." It has been a privilege to be an Associate.

Thomas J. Tyson (BS '54 and PhD '67)
Associates President 2001–2002