Jakob Kunz

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Jakob Kunz was born in Brittnau, Switzerland, on November 3rd, 1874. He was educated in the public schools there until he attended Zurich Polytechnikum, where he gained both his BS and PhD.

Department portrait of Jakob Kunz, signed by him, University of Illinois, date unknown.

After serving in various universities and laboratories abroad, Kunz came to United States in 1908. He worked at the University of Michigan for one year before being offered the role of assistant professor of mathematical physics at Illinois, where he remained for the rest of his life, working up from associate professor to professor.

For years, Kunz was almost solely responsible for the whole of graduate courses in mathematical physics. However, he never taught undergraduate courses, with friends noting that he probably did not like the “immature and almost passive attitude” of American undergraduate students.

Kunz was renown for his clear and thorough lectures on classical theoretical physics, but he never reconciled to more “modern” notions as could be found in relativity and quantum mechanics. Indeed, a colleague noted “as he was himself thoroughly familiar with the mathematical structure of these theories, his objections and criticisms were occasionally very penetrating; and indeed troublesome to any who had a tendency to accept them on faith or authority.” However, Kunz is most famous for his work with photoelectric cells.The photovoltaic cell absorbs solar radiation or light and then converts the energy into voltage that can be used to power electronic devices or to measure the magnitude of celestial bodies (stars). Kunz was enthusiastic about many subjects, and often attended seminars conducted in the fields of chemistry, mathematics, and engineering. Though often in poor health during the last part of his life, he maintained an active presence in both teaching and research up until a few weeks before his death on July 18th, 1938.

– Materials Science and Engineering Building. Formerly the Physics Building, this is where Kunz’s office was located.

– Loomis Laboratory. The current physics laboratory.


– Photoelectric Cell Patents are located in the University of Illinois Archives. Improvements in Photoelectric Cells & Methods & Means for making, sensitizing, & stabilizing the same. Record Series 11/10/26, Box 2, Folder Photoelectric Cell Patents, 1938, 1941. University of Illinois Archives.


Jakob Kunz Portrait, signed. (n.d.). Jakob Kunz Papers, 1908-1938. Record Series 11/10/ 26, Box 2, Folder Portrait & Dept. Faculty Photos. University of Illinois Archives

Loomis, F. W. (1938). “Jakob Kunz”. Obituary Draft. Record Series 11/10/ 26, Box 2. University of Illinois Archives

Professor Jakob Kunz. (1909, August). Alumni and Faculty Biographical (Alumni News Morgue) File, 1882-1995. Record Series 26/4/1, Folder “Kunz, Jakob”. University of Illinois Archives.