This Week in Princeton History for May 7-13

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, Albert Einstein lectures on the Theory of Relativity, the track team competes in the first relay race, and more.

May 7, 1875—The Chicago Tribune editorializes in a comparison between Rutgers College and the College of New Jersey (Princeton), “Princeton is much better known. It is the only college in the country the President of which writes a book a week and thinks nothing of it.”

May 9, 1921—Albert Einstein accepts an honorary Doctor of Science and lectures on his theory of relativity in his native German in McCosh 50. Afterward, Professor E. P. Adams provides an English summary of the talk.

Ticket to lecture on the Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein, May 9, 1921. Historical Subject Files (AC109), Box 310, Folder 4.

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Dear Mr. Mudd: Which School Is Older, Penn or Princeton?

By Spencer Shen ’16

Q: Dear Mr. Mudd,

I have a friend at Penn who claims that his school is older than Princeton. Is he right?

A: The answer to this question depends on what you mean by “older”, but institutional pride can result in tenuous claims for precedence. The University of Pennsylvania currently asserts that it is the fourth oldest college in the United States, placing Princeton in fifth place after Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, and Penn. Its basis for this claim is that it is an outgrowth of a “charity school” founded in 1740, but the school was never operational. Its building was used for religious services until 1749, when it was acquired by Benjamin Franklin and his associates for the purposes of establishing an “academy”, including an agreement to operate a charity school. “We have bought for the Academy,” Franklin wrote on February 13, 1750, “the house that was built for itinerant preaching, which stands on a large lot of ground capable of receiving more buildings.” The charter for Franklin’s Academy incorporated the text of the previous charity school’s trust verbatim. This adoption of the exact wording of the trust lies at the heart of Penn’s claim to precedence. However, it was not until 1751 that instruction actually commenced and not until 1753 that the “College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia in the Province of Pennsylvania” was chartered.

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Click to enlarge graphic.

Penn celebrated its centennial in 1849, and its trustees did not formally accept 1740 as the year of the institution’s founding until 1899. By contrast, Princeton was chartered in 1746 as the College of New Jersey, began to offer instruction in 1747, and moved to Newark later that year. To the south, in Philadelphia, no such signs of higher educational life existed.

This post was originally written by John Weeren (2001) as an FAQ page on our old website. It has been revised and expanded here by Spencer Shen ’16 as part of the launch of our new website.

This Week in Princeton History for February 9-15

In this week’s installment of our ongoing series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, underclassmen get a chance to read more books, the College of New Jersey changes its name, and more.

February 9, 1999—Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winner Wendy Wasserstein speaks on the experiences of a female Jewish playwright and public reaction to her award-winning 1989 play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” in McCormick Hall. Wasserstein’s best-known work is probably the 1998 screenplay The Object of My Affection, starring Jennifer Aniston.

February 10, 1890—The Princetonian announces that freshmen and sophomores may now take three books out of the library at once, a privilege previously reserved for upperclassmen.

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Some of the books students might have checked out of the Princeton University library in 1890. (Photo taken in 1947.) Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112), Box MP4, Item No. 66.

February 12, 1970—Princeton mathematics professor Gerard Washnitzer *50 is delivering a lecture at a seminar at the University of Pennsylvania when Robert H. Cantor opens fire on two Penn professors before turning the gun on himself. One of the Penn professors, Walter Koppelman, will die of his injuries two weeks later.

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Gerard Washnitzer, ca. 1970s. Office of Communications Records (AC168), Box 116.

February 13, 1896—The Board of Trustees officially change the name of the College of New Jersey to Princeton University.

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Board of Trustees Minutes (AC102), February 13, 1896.

For last week’s installment in this series, click here.

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