The history of physics, in 4000 manuscripts

Collector David Wenner’s private library holds original works from Copernicus, Maxwell, Einstein, and more.

Melinda Baldwin

A single-story ranch house on the eastern coast of Florida has a room that would make any physicist or historian momentarily lose her breath. It’s a home library about the size of a college seminar room, lined with dark wood bookshelves that are filled from floor to ceiling with titles by Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman, Ptolemy, and more. This room is home to David Wenner’s collection of more than 4000 major physics articles and books, covering discoveries and innovations from the 15th century to the 21st.

I recently had the opportunity to see Wenner’s collection when I tagged along with two archivists from the Niels Bohr Library and Archives, which is in the process of acquiring the collection. (The Niels Bohr Library is part of the American Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics Today.) In my first 10 minutes in the library, I pulled down copies of James Chadwick’s papers on the discovery of the neutron, Galileo Galilei’s controversial Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo (Dialog of the Two Chief World Systems), and the first publication of Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic system of elements.

Wenner, a retired partner at management consultants McKinsey & Company, has had a long-standing interest in science. He grew up in Cocoa, Florida, less than 25 kilometers from Cape Canaveral. By the time he entered high school in the 1960s, the Mercury space program had begun. Wenner recalls watching missile launches with friends in Cocoa.

That proximity to the space program, combined with an excellent science curriculum at Cocoa’s high school, spurred Wenner’s interest in physics. He went on to earn an engineering degree from Yale University and a master’s degree in computer science from Purdue University before finding his professional home at McKinsey. During a three-decade consulting career, Wenner lived in (among other places) Georgia, California, Florida, and Denmark. “What I liked the most about consulting was going into a new situation or a new company I knew nothing about, learning something new, and then solving the problems there,” he says. “I worked in almost every industry.”

Wenner also sought out challenges outside the workplace. Shortly after he and his wife, Marilyn, purchased their first home, Wenner bought what would become the first piece in a large collection of vintage audio equipment. He eventually sold that collection and moved into wine collecting—though he’s quick to point out that his wine cellar was “never about those prestige items that you put on the mantle and admire. I was buying ones that I planned to drink someday.”

After retiring from McKinsey, Wenner was on the lookout for a new challenge. “I made a bucket list,” he recalls. “And one of the top two things on the bucket list was to learn the mysteries of the universe—how did the universe come about, how does quantum mechanics work, that sort of thing.” As he began to rekindle his interest in physics, he says, he found himself wanting something tangible to connect the concepts he was learning to the papers and books that had first described those theories. “And so I thought,” he says, “maybe I ought to try to collect the documents.”

Building a collection

Wenner was not content to focus on books by obvious names like Galileo and James Clerk Maxwell; he wanted a collection that would represent the entire history of physics. That ambition meant further mastering his subject matter. He hired a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara, to teach him about physics; they would meet every week to discuss the major advances that had shaped the field. Wenner kept a wish list of papers and books that he felt were significant enough to include in his library.

The more he learned about physics, the more his list grew. Collecting the items on that list was no easy prospect. Galileo’s 1632 Dialogo, for example, can sell for more than $100 000 depending on the book’s condition. And although many booksellers can find works by Nicolaus Copernicus or Galileo, Wenner says, “what’s difficult to find are the ones that are not famous.” Acquiring, say, a copy of C. V. Raman’s original paper on the Raman effect from the Indian Journal of Physics (which Wenner has) is not as simple as logging on to eBay or the used books website AbeBooks.com.

Galileo’s Dialogues (1632)

To add to his collection, Wenner cultivated ties with dealers in rare books, who often had unexplored stacks of older science books and journals in storage. “You have to build relationships with people and convince them to go back in their stashes and look for specific things,” he explains. “And then, once you’ve formed that relationship, they start suggesting books to you when they find them.”

Also crucial to collecting, he says, is “just being a hawk on the internet” and keeping active searches on various websites. He snagged some papers by purchasing a large run of journal issues; others he acquired as individual documents. Items have come from places as far-flung as China, Japan, Russia, and South Africa. He’s now well known among booksellers for his expertise in physics books and papers; those with clients looking for a rare physics text know a call to Wenner can help them track down the right document references.

Preserving and cataloging

Once he found titles, Wenner had to deal with storing the physical objects. For many years he’s worked with a bookbinder in Nebraska to preserve and display the documents. Collections of important papers are gathered into attractive, book-size clamshells with subject headings and authors printed on the spine. Wenner inserts into each clamshell an acid-free paper that lists every document contained in the box and explains why they are of historical significance. He also preserves some things, such as advertisements, that are often removed in library bindings—a habit that is sure to delight historians of scientific publishing.

Choosing what to read in Wenner’s library can be a challenging task. So many famous names from the history of physics leap off the shelves. Should you look through Einstein’s first papers on relativity, or should Emmy Noether’s work on algebraic invariants be your pick? The collection also rewards adventurous reading: During my browsing, Wenner handed me a clamshell containing a 1676 Dutch printing of the French Journal des sçavans. He’d acquired it for his library because it contained the first published attempt to estimate the speed of light. The small volume almost fit in the palm of my hand, and I could easily imagine a 17th-century reader tucking it away in a bag or a pocket.

As his library developed, Wenner decided to write a book that would help him keep track of the texts he had collected—not just a list of the books and papers he owned, but a comprehensive encyclopedia that would explain their significance. The result is History of Physics: The Wenner Collection, a 600-page guide to thousands of books and articles that span the history of physics from the early celestial mechanics of Copernicus through recent discoveries such as the Higgs boson and exoplanets. Important papers that aren’t in the Wenner collection are included in the outline with a note—“Not yet in this collection”—but that phrase appears only a handful of times.

With his history of physics collection nearly complete, Wenner began looking to sell the books and papers to a library that would make them available for use by scholars and physicists. AIP is raising the funds needed to move the Wenner collection to the Niels Bohr Library. Meanwhile, Wenner is already moving on to a new mission: collecting science fiction about the planet Mars. He’s begun acquiring first-edition paperbacks and issues of old pulp magazines. The fictional works await their place on Wenner’s shelves once the history of physics collection moves to its new home.

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