Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988).

Autograph diagram signed (‘Richard P. Feynman’), a ‘Feynman diagram’, n.p., n.d.

One page, 73 x 117mm, the card bearing the typed legend ‘AUTOGRAPH OF: DR. RICHARD P. FEYNMAN’, and a printed photograph of Feynman at the Nobel Prize presentation with a sticker reading ‘1965 NOBEL PRIZE PHYSICS’ (laid down).

The first signed ‘Feynman diagram’ to appear at international auction: Feynman's most brilliantly simple contribution to theoretical physics. Feynman first introduced his ground-breaking diagrammatic tool for visualising the interactions between sub-atomic particles at the 1948 Pocono Conference in Pennsylvania, the second in a series of three post-war conferences convened by Robert Oppenheimer on behalf of the American National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Pocono was attended by 28 of the world’s leading physicists, including Niels and Aage Bohr, Paul Dirac, Julian Schwinger and Eugene Wigner, who listened as Feynman explained the promise his diagrams offered for simplifying the conceptualisation of quantum electrodynamics (QED) and drew an example on the blackboard. Unfortunately for Feynman, his talk followed directly Julian Schwinger’s presentation of his own version of QED, which held the audience rapt for most of the day – in contrast, rushed and less well-organised, Feynman struggled to make his colleagues understand his radical new conception of particle physics. Spurred on by this underwhelming reception, Feynman returned to Cornell to write up his work and publish it: the resulting article appeared in the Physical Review the following year [‘The theory of positrons’, Vol. 76 (1949), pp. 749-59]. Soon after, Feynman’s diagrams began to gain adherents in the field of nuclear and particle physics, thanks largely to the work of his discussion partner at Cornell, the physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, who published a paper later that year constructing a bridge between the QED theories of Schwinger and Feynman: widespread acceptance followed, and Feynman diagrams went on to assume their role as a central calculational aid for theoretical physicists. Feynman’s 1949 article featured an iteration of the diagram he drew for his colleagues on the blackboard in 1948; that same diagram, which illustrates the exchange of a virtual photon between two electrons, is reprised almost exactly here.

Feynman autograph material is rare on the market. Before the publication of his autobiographical work Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he reportedly assured his editor ‘I’m not going to go on TV and I’m not going to sign any books!’; requests for his signature were referred routinely to his secretary, who returned a printed card stating that ‘Professor Feynman has found it necessary to refuse all requests for autographs’. We understand that as few as six signed Feynman diagrams exist in private hands.

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