The Physical Revue, by Tom Lehrer
Performance notes and stories

In the fall of 1951, the physics course for potential physics concentrators at Harvard, Physics 11A, was taught by Dr. Lewis Branscomb. He told his students that the last class would be a review session for the final exam. Imagine their surprise when they walked into the lecture hall and saw a piano there! (This was Tom Lehrer's upright piano, which he and friends had wheeled down the street from the graduate dormitory, Conant Hall.) Tom Lehrer (then a graduate student in math at Harvard), Dr. Branscomb, and several of Tom's other friends then proceeded to put on a show of songs about physics, math, science, and life at Harvard.

As Dr. Branscomb puts it, the students "were, of course,both surprised and very pleased....after the thunderous applause died down I wished the students good luck on the exam, hoped they would take Physics 11B ... and then sprayed the audience with a CO2 fire extinguisher which made great snow flakes."

He also writes, "Word got around the physics department that day and the faculty demanded a repeat performance", which took place nine days later. This second performance was recorded on a wire recorder by physics professor Norman Ramsey, then thirty-six years old. As detailed here, Prof. Ramsey carefully preserved this recording over the years; portions of it are posted as part of this web display.

This is the first recorded performance by Tom Lehrer. (He recorded his first commercial album in January 1953. See the definitive discography here.)

Perfomance history:
First performance: Jan. 13, 1951 in Jeffereson Hall (the main physics building at Harvard), room 250 (the biggest lecture hall in the building)
Second Performance: Jan. 22, 1951, 4:45 pm in Jeff 250
Final Performance (with somewhat different cast, and slightly different song lineup): May 26, 1952, in Allston Burr Lecture Hall

In the final performance (1952), Munro S. Edmonson took over the role of the professor (originally played by Branscomb), while Richard N. Schwab played the role of "History major" (originally played as "Anthropology Major" by Edmonson). This version included two additional songs: a parody of “Trees,” and “We’re Dodging the Draft at Harvard,” to the tune of “Oh How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning”.

Program from the Second Perfomance (click to enlarge):
Some of the cast (photo taken during an Arbor Day performance, click to enlarge):


Back to Physical Revue main page

Return to main page

Background image