Tag Archives: Caltech

Connected in time and space…part 9

the end of the beginnings…….

In the spring of 1964, George and his brother, Lemuel Joseph Downs (my father) and their older sister Evelyn Downs Piper were reunited at our home – the last time the three surviving siblings would be in the same space… the last time we would see George.


Arriving in his white Bentley, with his ever-present bow tie, and charming demeanor, he told us of his plan to take a pied-a-terre in London – to divide his time between it and his home in Pasadena.  Always interested in my education (I was just finishing my junior year of high school), he and I talked of college and his promise to send me to the school of my choice – although he made his desires known!  Then there was the tantalizing promise of a trip ‘around the world’ upon graduation that I had been hearing about since I was a small child.

I was shy; he a bit awkward with his 17 year old niece….how I wish now for more time with him (see part 1)


Although we heard nothing of the prelude, we learned in late summer of 1964 that George and Rosalyn had married in London…



…on November 8, 1964 George Wallingford Downs, Jr. died at the age of 53.


George was in Pasadena, dining with friends…

Rosalyn was in London, about to embark on a concert tour…


Rosalyn briefly re-appeared in our lives in 1970 to play at the dedication of the Downs Laboratory of Physics (see part 1) on the Caltech campus.





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Connected in time and space…part 8


The marriage – Rosalyn Tureck to James Hainds – was soon dissolved.


Life went on in Pasadena…for a time.  George, serving on boards of several companies, maintaining his affiliation with Caltech and several professional societies; with Beatrice, enjoying the cultural life offered by their chosen community.


The Independent Star-News noted their attendance at a Coleman Chamber Music Association event


a post-concert reception for Rosalyn Tureck.



Beatrice Olney Watson Downs died in August of 1963 at the age of 75



Again, reported in the Independent Star-News in October of 1963, Rosalyn was featured in two concerts for the Coleman Chamber Music Association. George was in attendance.



life went on………….

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Connected in time and space…part 6

The Manhattan Project came to fruition, the war ended;  George W Downs with wife Beatrice, made their home in Altadena on Rubio Canyon Drive in a lovely David A. Ogilvie-designed Spanish Colonial Revival home, perched on the edge of the Arroyo Seco.



Uncle George’s pine-paneled den smelled exotically (to my young nose) of pipe smoke, leather and cognac when I visited as a child with my mother and father:

Theresa Catherine Cresto Downs and Lemuel Joseph Downs – George’s younger brother,



 and my grandmother… George’s and Lemuel’s mother, Lena Miller Downs,


George taking photos with his latest equipment, developing them in his darkroom – the door visible at bottom right

Aunt Bea’s art studio overlooking the arroyo fascinated me, but was off-limits…


Even the house has a Caltech connection…acquired by George and Beatrice in 1949, the property was later sold to a Caltech professor of physics, and then to a member of the aeronautics faculty at Caltech – in 2000 his wife was kind enough to allow us inside and on the grounds  to take photos, reminisce, gather a stray brick from the yard, an empty glass bottle from the darkroom…


Sharing history and stories about the house, she mentioned that Rosalyn Tureck had once played there……………………..

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Connected in time and space…part 5


Beatrice Olney Watson…

…first wife of George W Downs, born in Rock, Trelawny, Jamaica in 1888, the youngest of five children, to a British mariner, Captain John Watson and his wife.  At age four, she appears on a ship’s manifest in transit between Scotland and Jamaica with her parents and two older sisters.

The year 1915 finds her with sister Mabel Margaret on the ship Zacapa, sailing from Kingston, Jamaica, through the port of New York,


to their final destination, Halifax, Nova Scotia.



In 1922 she immigrated to the US, coming to California in 1923.  Pasadena became home, she worked as a nurse, met my uncle, they married in 1940…she was 52, he was 29.


– attending my parent’s wedding in 1946 –




Aunt Bea was tall, stern, formidable…from my perspective as a child.  The adage ‘children are to be seen and not heard’ was the law of her land.  I spent many hours sitting near the hearth in her home, cutting out paper dolls  –  listening to adult conversation.  She played the piano and painted in oils – giving this piece to my father as a remembrance of our days in Monterey.


Even now I find it hard to reconcile her persona, her age, with that of the man to whom she was married for 23 years, until her death in 1963.  Described by his colleagues as a ‘charming personality whose famous parties and bon vivant tastes drew to him a varied circle of fascinating friends’…always wearing a bow tie, always with a twinkle in his eye………


Some years ago an article appeared in our local newspaper featuring a man who had worked at Caltech at the time of the Manhattan Project.  I wrote to him, asking if he had known my uncle…an excerpt from his response:  “if it hadn’t been for George, Enrico (Fermi), and other’s sense of humor, we would have suffered greatly.  We knew that the atomic bomb would be used indiscriminately on the civil population.  George had the right suggestion…if I well remember, that the bomb be used as a torpedo and delivered by plane on the wharfs and other military targets…but it was not to be.  I will never forget the chubby charmer and his fabulous stories.  I’m sure that he is still telling his stories and making the angels laugh.”


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Connected in time and space…part 3

Rosalyn Tureck

Unless you are a Bach enthusiast of a certain age, or she was married to your uncle (as she was to mine), you probably won’t be familiar with the name.


(picture above from the Oberlin College Yearbook where she performed in 1939)

Not falling into the first category, and being quite young at the time of their marriage, I was interested in, but not impressed by her persona.  Unfolding gradually over the following years, the story of their connection, beginning at Caltech in the late 1930’s, became an exotic thread woven into the fabric of my family history.

You have met ‘Uncle George’ – George Wallingford Downs, Jr*

(*posts:  Connected in time and space….parts 1 and 2)

The first encounter between musician and physicist was to be at the Stammtisch** – a casual monthly gathering of faculty at Caltech.   To each meeting a notable person from outside their ranks was invited to share in the meal during which he or she was asked one question, the answer to which would be delivered after dinner in the form of a lecture.  Rosalyn had debuted at Carnegie Hall and was – in her own words –  “fabulous and an overnight success”.  Invited, she traveled from New York to Pasadena in 1938, and was asked the question: ‘is piano music qualitative or quantitative’.

(**German:   regular’s table; an informal group meeting or gathering held on a regular basis; the Stammtisch at Caltech met sometimes at a private home and often at the Athenaeum.)


Recognized as ‘The High Priestess if Bach”,  Rosalyn performed worldwide, recorded, wrote, and dedicated her life to perfecting a specific style of playing his music, reflecting the vision of the composer.

Meanwhile, George continued his affiliation with Caltech, worked on the development of ‘sonar’ at UCSD, the Caltech Torpedo Project, and, working with the Manhattan Project, had a hand in developing the trigger for the atomic bomb.  He also worked for, participated in the formation of, and served on the Board of Directors of several companies in related fields.


Twenty-five years would pass before they married in England in September of 1964.


Rosalyn and I would not meet until 31 years after my uncle’s death.


Of course, I find the story line fascinating…..perhaps, as it unfolds, you will too………

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Connected in time and space…part 2

I like to imagine my uncle, George W Downs, as an undergraduate in physics at Caltech, walking past the campus buildings (part 1)…

 entering the Athenaeum,


enjoying the warm colors of the vaulted ceiling with trompe l’oeil coffers and rosettes,


or the entrance to the Gates Laboratory of Chemistry,


looking for a quiet place to study,



 catching a glimpse of a familiar countenance,


(source unknown)

perhaps enjoying a pipe together


in a quiet alcove……..


lovely design inspiration from the 1930’s.

Although his tenure as a student was cut short, Caltech was to remain a part of my uncle’s life until his death.


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Connected in time and space……part 1

Once, asked which historical figure I would most like to spend time with, I answered Albert Einstein (1879-1955) or Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965), both on my short list.  If asked again, my choice would be


George Wallingford Downs (1911 – 1964). 

Granted, the name recognition is not there, but he was a contemporary of both Churchill and Einstein, and he was my uncle.  The three were connected by the events of the Second World War –  Einstein and Uncle George were further connected by place and field of interest:  both arrived at the California Institute of Technology in the year 1931 – Einstein as a researcher, Downs as a first year student – both in physics. Only seventeen when he died,  I was much more interested in who was taking me to the Homecoming Dance, than my uncle’s views on people, science, and world events.  I would love a second chance………….

So many levels of common interest to explore here:

  Caltech – its architecture and history, accomplishments and philosophical stances of the three men, WWII, the Manhattan project…









 this building, a victim of the insipid architecture of the late 1960’s, constructed with funds from the Downs’ estate and a matching grant from the National Science Foundation,


still, a cherished memorial.


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