Hubert Alyea’s Spectacular Chemistry

One of Princeton’s most popular faculty members of the mid-20th century was chemistry professor Hubert Newcombe Alyea ’24 (1903-1996), known for his colorful and explosive chemistry demonstrations that sometimes burned his suits. Alyea taught at Princeton between 1930-1972, but gave lectures around the country and the world and worked to make teaching science by demonstration with simple means more feasible in developing nations. Walt Disney’s inspiration for the film ‘The Absent-Minded Professor’ (1961) occurred while attending one of Alyea’s lectures, and he invited Alyea to Hollywood, where actor Fred MacMurray copied his mannerisms for the film. Two of Alyea’s most famous demonstration lectures are featured here.

Alyea developed his two-hour lecture, “Atomic Energy: Weapon for Peace,” in 1945, when the horrors and power of the atomic bomb had just been impressed in people’s minds. He presented the lecture some 2,800 times in many different countries. In it, Alyea explains the principles of the atomic bomb and atomic energy, using a variety of chemistry demonstrations, interspersed with whimsical comments and ending with his personal views about world peace. Featured here is a shortened version of the lecture for a television program that was part of the series “Princeton ’55, an Exploration into Education through Television.” The series was broadcast by NBC in cooperation with Princeton University.

During the last week of his class ‘Chemistry 104’ Hubert Alyea applied the lessons from chemical research to a philosophy of life. He ended with a spectacular final lecture that was famous throughout his career. After his retirement in 1972, Alyea continued to present “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind” as a guest lecturer across the country.  He was also a popular fixture at Princeton Reunions. The film featured here was created around 1985 by the Alumni Council, using excerpts of the lecture from a recording at Louisiana State University. The lecture ends with Alyea singing “The Orange and the Black,” while mixing solutions that show the colors of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton (23:13).

These films (a 16 mm film and a VHS video) are part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (items no. 0099 and 1296).

The 1962 Orange Key Society film: please tell us more!

Since it was posted on Princeton’s Campus Life channel, “An Undergraduate View of Princeton University,” produced by the Orange Key Society in 1962, has received unexpected attention. In the film, which is staged as an instructional meeting for Orange Key guides, Charles W. Greenleaf ’63, vice-president of the Keycept Program, discusses what distinguishes Princeton from other universities, with emphasis on teacher-student relationships and opportunities for individual growth. Created several years before rebellion and reforms swept the campus, the well-scripted film is an interesting artifact.

The film includes extensive footage of faculty and campus. Subjects discussed are: faculty and the preceptorial system (with professors John Turkevich (chemistry) and Eric Goldman (history) 3:30); independent research projects (with Professor D.C. Hazen (aeronautical engineering) 6:52); research at Firestone Library (9:13); freshman advisers (11:29 and 13:44); the honor system (15:33); financial aid (17:23); dormitories (18:02); extracurricular activities and sports (19:30).

Documents within the University Archives reveal very little about the context in which the film was produced. We therefore are calling on alumni who participated. Can you tell us anything about the making of the film? Who wrote the script? What was the audience, and how long was the film in use? We look forward to your comments!

This 16mm film is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (item no. 0091).