American science prior to the twentieth century was customarily discounted in Europe. Except for a few, such as Willard Gibbs, most American men of science were inventors, clever but not really profound. Then came the turn of the century and Robert A. Millikan emerged as one prototype of the new American scientist - a first rate physicist who made singular advances in experimental physics.
During his childhood in Illnois, Millikan had very few hints that he was destined to study physics. Later he did recall his first brush with Newton's third law of motion when at five years of age he tried to jump from his father's rowboat to the dock. The boat moved backward, Robert fell in the water, and nearly drowned. His high school physics course even lacked spirit since the teacher was in the habit of spending his summers locating water with a divining rod. Millikan graduated fron Maquoketa High and went on to Oberlin College. After his sophomore year his Greek professor asked him to teach the elementary course in physics. Robert claimed he knew nothing about physics, but his professor insisted that "Anyone who can do well in my Greek can teach physics." Thus began Millikan's career in physics.
In 1893, Millikan was the only graduate student in physics at Columbia University. From there he journeyed to Germany to study under Planck among other. Then came an offer from Albert Michelson to join the physics faculty at the University of Chicago. Millikan immediately came back to America to take up teaching duties. Soon he was totally disillusioned with lecture; he felt physics could only be learned by doing problems and laboratory work. Consequently he spent long hours at Chicago writing better physics textbooks. In fact, he spent the morning of his wedding day reading proofs of his textbook.
Robert Millikan's twelve hour work days included six hours of research. This research reached its peak in 1909 when he constructed the first oil drop apparatus for determining the charge on the electron. With his careful experiments, he definitely established the unitary nature of electricity; the European scientists began to take notice. A few years later, Millikan turned his brilliance to the photoelectric effect. In short time he verified that the energy of the emitted electrons varied directly with the frequency of incident light. Einstein's quanta theory seemed proven. These two experiments more than any others marked the entrance of American Scientists into the mainstream of physics, and earned Millikan the Nobel Prize in 1923.
Millikan was also an adept organizer. Before 1917 he recognized the impending danger of war and organized a group of scientists to work for the government's war effort. Later in 1921 he was lured away from Chicago to become president of Caltech. The success of that fine institution was primarily due to the dedication of Robert Millikan.