Hubert Alyea’s Spectacular Chemistry

One of Princeton’s most popular faculty members of the mid-20th century was chemistry professor Hubert Newcombe Alyea ’25 (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).

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