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AIP Fact Sheet

A Short History of the American Institute of Physics

The American Institute of Physics (AIP) was founded in 1931 in response to funding problems brought on by the Great Depression. At the urging of the Chemical Foundation, which provided initial funding, leaders of American physics formed a corporation for the “advancement and diffusion of knowledge of the science of physics and its application to human welfare,” especially by achieving economies in the publishing of journals and the maintenance of membership lists. Broader concerns also argued for cooperation. With the advent of esoteric theory in quantum, nuclear, and relativity physics, the worlds of academic and industrial physics seemed to be drifting apart. Meanwhile the public found physics increasingly hard to comprehend, and some blamed science-based technology for the perils of modern warfare and economic collapse. Thus while the bulk of AIP’s efforts would always be devoted to publishing and membership services, from the outset the Institute also worked to foster cooperation among different segments of the physics community and to improve public understanding of science.

At the time of its formal incorporation in 1932, the AIP comprised five societies with a total membership of some 4,000 individuals: The American Physical Society, the Optical Society of America, the Acoustical Society of America, the Society of Rheology, and the American Association of Physics Teachers. A new set of Member Societies was added beginning in the mid 1960s: the American Crystallographic Association (1966), American Astronomical Society (1966), American Association of Physicists in Medicine (1973), American Vacuum Society (1976), and American Geophysical Union (1986). Today the total non-overlapping membership of the ten Member Societies is over 100,000. Meanwhile AIP’s staff grew steadily to a peak of over 500 people in 2004, then dropped back slightly.

From the outset the AIP published journals on behalf of its member societies, for example, the Physical Review for the American Physical Society. It also acquired or developed scientific journals of its own in fields where no single society had a mandate, notably the regions between disciplines and between applied and academic physics. Almost from its foundation, AIP published the Review of Scientific Instruments, Journal of Applied Physics, and Journal of Chemical Physics; starting in the late 1950s it added a number of others. Its most widely read publication, the broad-interest, professional, unifying magazine Physics Today, was inaugurated in 1948. Physics Today is distributed as a membership benefit to all individual members of the ten Member Societies and the Society of Physics Students. In 1955 AIP began to publish English-language translations of Russian-language physics journals, and much of this continued through 2005. In 1995, AIP started a new magazine, The Industrial Physicist which was published for 10 years. AIP’s first electronic online journal in physics, Applied Physics Letters Online appeared in 1995. All AIP journals were made available to subscribers online in 1997. Starting in 2000, AIP jointly with The American Physical Society created a series of Virtual Journals, online collections of papers from a broad range of journals in the physical sciences. 

From the 1960s on AIP increasingly developed other services, from the publication of conference proceedings to computerized abstracts of journal articles. The establishment of a book program in 1984, which was renamed AIP Press in 1993, marked a drive to publish books, ranging from specialized monographs through handbooks to general interest works. Starting in 1997, AIP Press books have been published and distributed by Springer-Verlag (now Springer Science + Business Media). Meanwhile the advent of intensively computerized publishing and membership services in the 1980s slowed the growth of AIP’s staff. Some Member Societies began to do for themselves things previously asked of AIP, such as copy editing and membership list maintenance. In 2004, pressure from commercial vendors required AIP to re-engineer its publishing services, reduce costs, and offer more automated services. 

As the AIP-owned publications grew, the revenue enabled the Institute to hire staff dedicated to broader ways of serving the Member Societies, individual physicists, and the public at large: from 1947, career placement services; from the mid 1950s, programs for media and public information, the compilation of educational and employment statistics, and support of physics education; from the early 1960s, the Center for History of Physics including the Niels Bohr Librarywith collections of books, manuscripts, and audiovisual materials. Meanwhile the AIP continued to foster communication and common effort among physicists of all kinds, for example through meetings of its Corporate Associates and its Assembly of Society Officers.
Originally located entirely in New York City, AIP moved most of its publishing operations to Woodbury, Long Island, NY in 1979. Beginning in the 1980s the Institute transferred some of its education and public information operations to the Washington, DC area to be closer to the Federal government as well as the Member Societies in the DC area. In 1993 the headquarters, magazines and other physics programs moved to College Park, Maryland; publishing and some other services continue to be centered in Long Island, relocating in 1998 from Woodbury to Melville.
General control is exercised by a 42-member Governing Board, 37 of whom are appointed by the Member Societies apportioned according to the size of their memberships. Operations are overseen by a smaller Executive Committee of Member Society representatives, Governing Board Chair, Secretary, and Executive Director. This confederate structure is unique among scientific organizations. The Institute has given physicists an unusual ability to coordinate their affairs and exert influence, well beyond what  would otherwise be possible for a community of such modest size and great diversity.

For further information

The AIP’s records are preserved in the archives of its Niels Bohr Library, including manuscript histories and oral history interviews. Its “Annual Report” is distributed as part of the June issue of Physics Today, and is online here. See also Henry J. Barton, "The Story of AIP," Physics Today 9, no. 1 (Jan. 1956): 56-66.


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