Since the founding of the college, the study of science has been a part of the curriculum. In 1838, that included courses in chemistry, natural philosophy, mineralogy, geology, and astronomy. The college elected its first physics professor, Clement Daniel Fishburne, on August 23, 1854 and appointed him chair of Natural Philosophy and Astronomy. By 1900, the number of course offerings in physics had expanded, and all freshmen were required to take one full year of physics.
Laboratory work did not become the focus until the junior and senior years. The 1899-1900 college catalogue states that the junior class physics course is "confined to the department of Electricity [with a great supply of] Voltmeters, Ammeters, Wheatstone's Bridges, Wireless Telegraphy Apparatus, and the largest X-Ray outfit in the State... all these are used by the members of the class, and explained by numerous lectures." The senior physics class, meanwhile, focused on the "use of maps, charts, globes, apparatus for the projection of astronomical phenomena, sextant, and a Clark & Sons' Refracting Telescope."
The X-Ray photograph referenced in the catalogue was an exciting development at Davidson. Prof. Henry Louis Smith, a native of Greensboro, North Carolina, accepted a position as professor of physics in 1887 and subsequently performed one of the first X-Ray experiments in the United States, here on campus. In February 1896, he published an X-Ray photograph of a bullet in the hand of a cadaver in the Charlotte Observer.
Smith must've demonstrated the X-Ray to his classes sometime prior to publishing the photograph. Because on the night of January 12, 1896, three students bribed a janitor to let them into the medical laboratory on campus. Using the X-Ray proved irresistible—after three hours of experimenting, they produced an X-Ray photograph of two .22 caliber rifle cartridges, two rings and a pin inside a pillbox, and of a human finger they had sliced from a cadaver with a pocketknife. "We kept our picture and escapade a secret and it was not until later that we realized we were making history for the college instead of just breaking the rules," one of the students wrote years later.
Smith eventually became President of Davidson College in 1901.
In 1919-1920, the Physics Department consisted of one full-time professor. By 1929-1930, the college had hired two additional professors, bringing the total number up to three. Today, the department consists of five full professors, one associate professor, one visiting assistant professor, and one professor emeritus.