Professor Charles L. Norton

Photo of Norton (c.1923) Charles L. Norton received his S.B. degree from the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Physics in 1893, and was immediately appointed as an assistant in the Physics department. In 1895, he became an instructor, working in the Heat Measurements Laboratory. He was energetic, and the reports of his department in the following years make a number of references to his efforts to develop and expand the lab. He became an Assistant Professor of Heat Measurements, in the Physics Department, in 1900, Associate Professor in 1905, and Professor in 1910. In 1917, he changed his title to Professor of Industrial Physics.

Norton was Head of the Physics department from 1922 to 1930, and Chairman of the Faculty from 1928 to 1930. He also served as the Director of the Division of Industrial Cooperation (later called the Division of Sponsored Research) from 1921 until his death on September 8, 1939.

Norton was a pioneer in fire prevention practices. He invented processes used in the manufacture of asbestos wood and asbestos shingles. This invention became the foundation for much of the asbestos industry. Norton himself was President of the Asbestos Wood Company and the Asbestos Shingle Company, and involved in a company called Norton Laboratories. Norton was among the first to advocate the use of Portland Cement for fireproof construction. He held more than 100 US and foreign patents related to these and other technologies.

Throughout his teaching career, Norton carried on a great variety of experimental researches for the Factory Mutual Insurance Company of New England, and for other parties upon such subjects as materials used for steam pipe covering, the diffusive effect upon light of ribbed and striated window glass, upon the corrosion of iron and steel and means of preventing same, upon the fuel value of peat or marsh-mud, and upon the development of commercial apparatus for testing the thermal efficiency of fuels.

Norton made many other contributions. Together with colleagues in the MIT Physics Department, he was among the first to exploit x-rays as a medical diagnostic tool. These ideas were the subject of his first published paper (of 50) in 1896. When there was a demand for metallic magnesium during the war, Norton devised a process and constructed a plant for producing this necessary mineral, for which the U.S. had been almost wholly dependent on Germany. Norton was a consultant on acoustics during the construction of the New England Conservatory of Music, and on problems of illumination in the building of the Museum of Fine Arts. And, as if all this weren't enough of a legacy, two of Norton's sons went on to become professors at MIT: John, a Professor of Physics and Metallurgy; and Charles, a Professor of Metallurgy.

A contemporary account of Norton's career is given in the following article.

From the Proceedings of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 74, No. 6, 1940.
Author: Robert S. Williams

Fellow in Class I, Section 2, 1907

Charles Ladd Norton was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, December 11, 1870. His father, Francis Norton, was Treasurer of the city of Springfield but as an avocation was interested in making jewelry, becoming a skilled craftsman in the art. It was in helping his father in metal work that Norton began to develop the unusual manual skill that was characteristic of him throughout his life. Only a few months before his death, he was actively engaged in the development of a machine for the manufacture of synthetic textile fibre, doing much of the delicate instrumental work with his own hands.

Although his family had hoped that he would become a minister, his interest in mechanics and electricity was compelling and, after his graduation from high school and a period of service as clerk in his father's office, he went to Technology graduating in 1893 in the Department of Electrical Engineering. His only job as electrical engineer was during a short period of employment with the Boston Edison Company. In the fall, after his graduation, he returned to Technology as Assistant in Physics under Silas Holman. He advanced through the grades, finally becoming Head of the Physics Department.

Shortly after Roentgen's discovery of the X-ray, Dr. Francis Williams of the Boston City Hospital realized its potential importance in surgical diagnosis. Norton, with Professors Cross and R.R. Lawrence, became associated with Dr. Williams in the development of the X-ray technique, using an old Crooke's tube as the only available instrument. These men carried out their teaching assignments during the day, but at night they and their homemade equipment were transported to the City Hospital to spend the night taking X-ray pictures of patients from the accident ward.

In 1898 Norton met Edward Atkinson and with him started a long series of studies in Fire Prevention and was actively concerned for many years in the development of fireproof and fire-resisting materials. This led to his design of testing devices of many kinds for high temperature measurements and heat transmission and later to the establishment of the Heat Measurements Laboratory, now an important unit in the Technology's instructional and research program. Coordinated with this testing work was Norton's development of asbestos board and asbestos shingles, a field in which he was a pioneer. Later he became interested in refractory materials in general and held a number of patents relating to the manufacture of asbestos wood and refractory bricks of various kinds. He was the author of numerous papers on fire prevention, temperature measurement and refractory material.

In 1930 [sic], he became Director of the Institute's Division of Industrial Cooperation and Research, a position which he filled with distinction up to the time of his death.

In spite of his many activities and responsibilities, Norton would always find time to listen sympathetically to the problems of the younger members of the staff and his sound advice helped them over many a hard spot. His intimate knowledge of all phases of Technology's activities has made his passing a most serious loss.

Sources: MIT Museum documents, MIT President's Reports, Proc. AAAS
Photograph: Courtesy of the MIT Museum

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