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View of West Point Parade Ground (looking south), by George Catlin, Oil Painting on canvas, 1827

This exhibit highlights primary source material pertaining to physics from the Archives and Special Collections of the USMA Library. The Special Collections holds rare books, diaries, letters, maps, photographs, and other unique items. The Archives consist of the Academy records since 1802, with staff records (demerits, grades, regulations).

Early Cadet Life

When Sylvanus Thayer became Superintendent in the summer of 1817, he made it a priority to regularize every aspect of the Academy. The daily schedule covered every hour from dawn to dusk, and the course of study, shown here in the Regulations for 1825, was rigorous.


Distribution of Studies, and Employment of Time, during the Day

The Corps of Cadets was approximately 250 cadets when Colonel Thayer became Superintendent. Due to the smaller size, the Plain and cadet area look quite different than they do now. 

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A Map of West Point, by Cadet W. Chapman, 1830.

Cadet William Chapman (USMA 1831) hand drew this map of the Plain as an assignment for drawing class. Drawing and drafting were required skills taught at West Point during the 1800s. 

This Chapman Map is part of the Chapman Family Papers, Chapman Family, 1827-1973.

Here is a selection of cadet letters and diary entries describing their experiences studying Physics. 


Letter of Cadet George Cullum, USMA 1833, (September 9,1831)

September 9, 1831

I am now studying the power of all kinds of forces. I cannot find one sufficiently powerful to prevent my eyes from closing. The next mornings dawn finds me hovering over Chemistry. I wish very much that we had more time to devote to both Philosophy and Chemistry. They are beautiful studies, but become disagreeable and wearisome by the quantity we have to recite every day. I have studied so much for two weeks that I feel nearly exhausted, consequently not in a very enviable situation for letter writing.

This cadet letter is part of the George W. Cullum papers.


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Cadet Letter of Ulysses H. Grant, July 18, 1840

In this letter, Cadet Grant mentions the inverse square law of light. This letter is part of the Ulysses S. Grant papers.

July 18, 1840

Find upon the line which joins two lights, A and B, of different intensities, the point which is equally illuminated; admitting the following principle of physics, viz.: The intensity of the same light of two different distances is in the invers [sic] ratio of the squares of these distances. That is, the intensity of a light at any distance as 4 feet from the luminous body must be 64 stronger than the same light at a farther distance (as 8 feet for example) as the square of the first distance (which is 16 because 4 multiplied by 4 makes 16) divided into the square of the second distance which is 64. 64 divided by 16 gives 4. Then the intensity of  the light of a candle at 4 feet distance is 4 times as strong as at 8 feet. We will now procede [sic] to the solution of the problem.


Except of diary entry by Charles H. Barth, October 3, 1879

October 3, 1879

Have a hard lesson in Phil for tomorrow. It is about the trajectory of a projectile; considering the opposition of the air.



Five Year Cadet Diary of Richard S. Von Schriltz, USMA 1941, c.1937-1941

Diary entries describing Cadet Von Schriltz's experiences with his studies in Physics during 1938.

This cadet diary is part of the Von Schriltz Family Papers. 1934-1970.


Diary entry for October 20, 1938

October 20, 1938

I have the swellest Physics P. He helps us a lot by doing work that we’ll be able to use after we get to the board. Lt. Ward (W.A. or A.W.) is his name. I like him.  He’s a teacher as well as an instructor. He told us to set up the problem first and get the slide rule answer later if we had time...I’m a little tired now but so comforting to know that spec will be sufficient to pass under Lt. Ward. He is really interested in our getting the work and is an aid rather than a liability. I guess I’ve about reached the place where going proficient so as not to be found is my ambition in Math and Physics. I rather doubt if doing real well will make a great deal of difference when I get out.


Diary entry for October 22, 1938

October 22, 1938

A little bit of bragging, I did very well in physics today not only because of my spec and because of the swellness of Lt. Ward but also because (stung by Brewer’s inadvertent remark that I was specing rather than studying) I did try (with fair success) to understand it.


Here is what a Physics class would have looked like for these cadets. 

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Photograph of the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy by William H. Stockbridge.

Cadets performing experiments with an Atwood Machine.

This photograph is part of the Photographs of West Point - William H. Stockbridge Collection, Stockbridge, William H., d. 1933. 

[Miscellaneous Lab apparatus - Dept. of Natural and Experimental Philosophy].jpg

Photograph of the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy by William H. Stockbridge.

Various science equipment and lab apparatus that would have been used by cadets and faculty in the Department of Natural and Experimental Philosophy.

This photograph is part of the Photographs of West Point - William H. Stockbridge Collection, Stockbridge, William H., d. 1933. 

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