Dave Wenner's Retirement Hobby

Dave Wenner

Dave Wenner’s Collection at his Florida home before relocation to the AIP

When Dave Wenner retired in 2003 from a 30-year career in management consulting with McKinsey & Company, the first item on his bucket list was to learn about “the mysteries of the universe, from the largest scales (astrophysics and cosmology) to the smallest (quantum theory).” This was the delayed fulfillment of a childhood dream Dave had as a boy growing up near Cape Canaveral, Florida.

When we read Dave’s account of his lifelong love affair with physics, we had one question: Why did he pass up Cal Tech and go to Yale instead? Here’s what he said:

I attended a 6-week mathematics camp the summer after my junior year in high school because I scored well on the Society of Actuaries math test and this was the prize I won. I quickly realized that the others at the camp were not like I was – some were much smarter and all of them were more nerdy/eccentric. I liked science, but also played football, participated in civic activities, wrote a column for the local paper, etc., and spent more time thinking about girls than I did about science. These guys were only interested in math and science and spent all their time thinking about it. I worried that this was the sort of person who would be sitting next to me at Caltech, and that gave me pause.

Then, after I returned home, I dropped in to a party my mom was giving to say hi to her friends, and was asked what I was planning for college. When I told them, one lady asked “Have you ever considered a liberal education?” I responded “What’s that?” The rest is history.

Dave started by consuming dozens of nontechnical books on the history of physics, astrophysics and cosmology, but soon decided to hire a post-doc to tutor him in physics, while collecting and reading first editions of important historical scientific documents and writing short descriptions of their role in the history of physics.

“Shortly after I began collecting, I started writing about the concepts and history of physics because it helped me better understand what I was learning, and also imposed a greater discipline on my collecting,” Dave said. “Every year I would self-publish a book containing these writings. The book went through more than a dozen drafts over the years as my understanding improved and my collection increased in breadth and depth.”

In 2018, fifteen years after he retired, Dave’s book, History of Physics: The Wenner Collection, had grown into an 800-page encyclopedia of the history of physics.

Writing was only a part of it. Most of Dave’s time was spent in the other aspects of collecting such as searching the Internet daily for newly listed documents and collections and developing relationships with dealers all over the world. Dave also emphasized the importance of working closely with a skilled bookbinder, because “scientific documents are heavily used and almost every one of the 3,500 documents I bought required some form of repair, rebinding, or preservation in a box.”

“I was really lucky that my timing coincided with the expansion of the Internet and the deaccessioning of hard copy documents by libraries, both of which were instrumental in building the collection, Dave says. “I could probably not have created the collection before these two things occurred, or duplicate it beginning now.”

A couple of years ago, Dave realized that his collection was nearing completion and began looking for a new home for it. “I loved the process of creating the collection,” Dave said, “but it had outgrown my house to also fill two climate-controlled storage rooms, and I had neither the means nor the energy to make it accessible to historians of science or the public.”

History of Physics

As a result, The Wenner Collection now resides in a temperature-and humidity-controlled vault at the Niels Bohr Library & Archives of the American Institute of Physics (AIP), in College Park, MD. AIP is an independent nonprofit organization funded by the American Physical Society and nine other scientific societies to conduct research in social science, policy, and history that advances the discipline of the physical sciences.

In an article in Physics World, science historian Robert P. Crease compared The Wenner Collection to the more famous science collections of Stillman Drake and Bern Dibner, saying, “Wenner may have failed retirement, but historians of physics should rejoice.”