Francis Eugene Nipher, physicist of world-wide reputation, educator and author in the field of his chosen science, was born at Port Byron, New York, December 10, 1847, his parents being Peter and Roxalana P. (Tilden) Nipher. In the paternal line he is descended from Michael Niver, who came from the kingdom of Wurtemberg, Germany, in 1756 and settled on Livingston Manor in New York. On his mother’s side he traces his ancestry to Nathaniel Tilden, who came from Truterden, Kent, England, in 1634 and settled in Plymouth colony. His collegiate course was pursued in the State University of Iowa, from which he was graduated with the Ph. B. degree in 1870. Three years later his alma mater conferred upon him the Master of Arts degree and in 1905 he received from Washington University of St. Louis the degree of Doctor of Laws. Three years after his graduation from the State University of Iowa he was married on the 1st of July, 1873, to Miss Matilda Aikins, of Atalissa, Iowa, and they have become parents of a son and four daughters, the family home being maintained in Kirkwood.
Dr. Nipher has devoted his entire life to physics, largely along the line of research work, although as an educator and as a contributor to scientific literature his name is widely known. From 1870 until 1874 he was instructor in the physical laboratory of the State University of Iowa and in the latter year became professor of physics in Washington University of St. Louis, occupying that position until 1914 when he was made professor emeritus. In 1885 he was chosen president of the Academy of Science of St. Louis and continued to occupy the position for five years. He was also president of the Engineers Club of St. Louis in 1890 and became a member of the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia, also has membership with the American Philosophical Society, the Society Francaise de Physique, the Royal Society of Arts and the Authors Club of London.
During the five years from 1878 until 1882 Dr. Nipher made a magnetic survey of Missouri and sections of adjoining states. During the decade ending in 1887 he organized and conducted a state weather service, one of the results of his labors being to show that the total rainfall in cubic feet on the state of Missouri during the ten years was about two per cent greater than the total discharge of the Mississippi river at St. Louis during that interval. The drainage area of the river above St. Louis is more than ten times the area of Missouri. In 1886 he deduced the general equation for surfaces containing points which at any instant have equal effect in changing the motion of the compound pendulum. About this time he also deduced the equation giving the record speed of the trotting horse as a function of time. Later he showed that the same equation which thus represents the evolution of the horse also represents the change in speed during the active life of individual horses. In 1898 he devised and tested on railroad trains a method of measuring the pressure due to wind at any point on any structure. With the same apparatus he showed how to eliminate velocity effects in pressure measurements of gasses flowing through tubes.
In 1903 he deduced the equation for the gravitational contraction of a gaseous nebula, treating it as a form of heat engine, in which the piston face is any concentric spherical surface. About the same time he showed that over-exposed photographic plates which are to develop as positives should in all cases be developed in the light instead of the darkroom. He published reproductions of perfect photographic pictures, in which the most sensitive plates were used, that had been developed immediately in front of a south window Into which the sun was shining. He thus obtained a series of pictures whose exposure ranged from normal to over ten million times the normal exposure and which could not be distinguished from normal prints from ordinary negatives.
In 1904. in a paper entitled “Present Problems in Physics,” which Dr. Nipher read before a section of the International Congress of Science and Arts he outlined a field of study of the nature of the electric current. He entered upon an experimental study of the subject and in 1910-11 he published three papers on the nature of electric discharge, containing the results of five years’ work. In this labor over five thousand photographic plates were used. All of this work was done in air at ordinary pressure. He concluded that the positive streamers in electric discharge in a high potential line are an inflow of negative corpuscles from the surrounding air to the exhaust or positive terminal. This conclusion enabled him to find a rational explanation of several long known phenomena, such as the differences between positive and negative Lichtenberg figures, striae in the positive column and the rumbling sound heard in thunder, the dash of large drops of rain following an overhead peal of thunder, the Faraday dark-space, the Crookes dark-space, the arc-like form of discharges shorter than the critical spark length, the phenomena of the Hittorf tube, canal rays, thermo-electric and Thomson effects. All of this work has been published in the transactions of the Academy of Science of St. Louis. He has made an extensive study of the nature of electric discharge, and concludes that the positive discharge is an inflow of electricity from the negative terminal and that there is no positive current. This is essentially the one-fluid theory of Franklin. He has shown that daily and annual variations in the magnetic needle and magnetic storms are due to solar radiation, modified by the earth’s shadow, cloud shadows, and wind storms and rain. His contributions to science have indeed been of a most valuable character. He has written largely for scientific journals and societies and has prepared many articles and reports on physics, magnetic measurements, photography and other topics, while his published volumes, as previously indicated, are: Theory of Magnetic Measurements, brought out in 1886; Electricity and Magnetism, in 1895; Introduction to Graphical Algebra, in 1898; Experimental Studies in Electricity and Magnetism, 1914. He has converted gravitational attraction between small masses into a repulsion and his experiments have attracted world-wide attention.
Dr. Nipher came into prominence in another connection during the two national campaigns involving the silver question, in which he was actively engaged as a speaker and writer. He prepared a paper discussing the gold question as a scientific question but the subject was presented in a way to make it intelligible to the voters and was given a wide circulation by the banking interests of New York. Other interesting papers which he has recently published are “The Elements of Circular Motion,” “The Traditions of Our Schools,” “The Machine with Friction,” “Simple Lessons from Common Things,” “The Man of Science and his Duties” and “An Optical Phenomenon.” As a teacher he does not seek for oratorical ability but his remarks are always original and interesting and ofttimes manifest a keen sense of humor. That his interests extend to grave problems concerning the destiny of man is indicated in a pamphlet which he has published on the “Evolution of the Divine Character in Man,” which is now being distributed in the third thousand. He has also been several times called upon to occupy the pulpit. His writings have indeed covered a wide scope and an article on the “Wireless Transmissions of Messages in the Olden Time,” read before the Academy of Science of Illinois, has recently attracted wide attention.