The history of Van der Waals has been chronicled by Frans Snik, secretary of the board of 1999/2000 “Evolutie: tempora mutantur”. It was first compiled as a contribution to lustrum book “Attractie” to celebrate the eighth lustrum of SVTN “J.D. van der Waals”. In June 2013 Jo Kobussen (a member during the first years of the association) send an email containing some amendments to this article. His updates can be found here.

In the beginning there was no physics, at least not at the THE. The physics and mathematics courses were organised by the department Algemene Wetenschappen (General Sciences), which was housed in the Paviljoen building. These courses were part of the curricula of Chemical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering, and Electrical Engineering. However in 1958, only one year after the THE was founded, this mistake was recognised. The THE decided to offer a separate study programme in Applied Physics, which started in September 1960.

Every study is unequivocally connected to a study association. These associations already existed for the three previously mentioned studies. A group of first generation physics students, most of whom switched to Applied Physics from Electrical Engineering, decided that the new Applied Physics programme also deserved its own association. They established a founding committee, which consisted of Piet van Dalen, Johan van der Heide, Piet Janssen, and Hans Papenhuysen. After a short period of preparations, all Applied Physics student were gathered in the hexagonal room in the Paviljoen building for the foundation of the study association on the 6th of October 1960. The association was named Studievereniging voor Technische Natuurkunde “Johannes Diderik van der Waals”, or Study Association for Applied Physics “Johannes Diderik van der Waals” in English. With the hit of an ashtray on a table, the foundation of the association was concluded (see photo). Thereafter the provisory statutes were recited and the members of the first board were inaugurated. The yearly contribution was established to be ƒ7,- (€ 3,18). Apart from all new physics students (Thor lost some members, and Simon Stevin lost one), also a couple of interns from Philips became members. These were a valuable asset to the young association, because on average they were a bit older (and wiser).

The first letter the new association ever received contained the congratulations of J.D. van der Waals Jr., professor of physics at the University of Amsterdam. A bit later on the dean helped in sending a request for some replicas of Van der Waals’ Nobel Prize medal to Van der Waals Jr. He agreed and provided the association with five medals. These replicas are worn by board members on official occasions (see picture). 

Once the association was properly founded, the members of the new board started to give shape to the association. Because there was not yet a board room available to the new association, the board members used to work mostly in the offices of several professors. It is self-explanatory that the ties with the faculty were very strong. But members of Van der Waals did not only hang around often in the offices of the professors, but also in the offices of their secretaries. There they could use the telephone free of charge, in exchange for some chocolates. However, it did not stay that innocent for long. It was no exception that a secretary got asked out for dinner, which has even led to some marriages between ex-board members and secretaries.

One of the tasks of the board was to have an advisory role in designing the curriculum of the new study programme Applied Physics. They gladly did this, whether their help was requested or not. Especially the first year students seemed to experience quite some problems. Therefore Van der Waals successfully lobbied to revise the first year curriculum. Later on the faculty requested Van der Waals to aid the younger students in their studies, which caused the roughly 200 physics students from all ages to intermingle and to become a tight-knit association. At the time this was quite unusual, because study associations used to be quite business-like. Relaxation and pleasure was provided by the corpora, or student organisations. However, Van der Waals quickly developed a friendly atmosphere, which resulted in Van der Waals lunches, coffee breaks, Christmas dinners, and eventually the formation of the first fraternity. Most of the physics students took part in these activities, although Van der Waals did not sell books at the time, because all students used to be Van der Waals members.

However the main focus of Van der Waals was still on study-oriented activities, such as organizing guest lectures and scientific movie nights. In 1963 the Buitenlandse Excursie (BuEx for short: the foreign excursion) was organised for the first time. The Binnenlandse Excursie (BiEx, a study trip within The Netherlands) already existed somewhat longer, and usually visited a high-tech company such as Philips.

Financially Van der Waals entirely depended on donations from the faculty and other benefactors. All lecturers as well as prime minister De Quay used to contribute to the association. The then prime minister had already pledged his support when he was still working at the regional government of the province Noord-Brabant. Since then the association has always had benefactors and contributors. Later on, in the ‘90’s, the possibility was created to become “benefactor for life” for ƒ150,-. Because some faculty members thought this sum was too little, also the possibility to become “benefactor for life and thereafter” was created.

In 1961 it was decided that Van der Waals would start to publish its own magazine. Adri Verhoeven became the first editor-in-chief, and possibly because of his background in journalism, the magazine was named the “Koerier”. The function of editor-in-chief quickly became as important as being a member of the board. The Koerier was published eight times in its first year and quickly became loved and widely read by all physics students. At first the entire magazine was stencilled in black-and-white, but in its second year a cover was added in colour. In 1965 the editors of the Koerier produced the first lustrum book.

But while the first years of the association were marked by growth and enthusiasm, it soon went downhill. Already in 1962 the board stopped wearing tail-coats, although that was mainly caused by a big change in Dutch culture that happened around that time: the so-called democratisation. The official character of the association became a point of discussion, and the number of General Member Meetings (GMM’s) declined. During the occupation of the THE in 1964 Van der Waals received a letter that their support was not desired. The lustrum book of 1965 first mentions a decrease in members, and even a shortage of active members. In 1967 it all went wrong...

The board of 1967-1968 was not chosen by the ALV (GMM), but by a special committee. The year after they could not find any successors, so out of necessity this board had to continue for another year as a board ‘ad interim’. However, this was not because the board members carried the association this close to their hearts. One of those board members, now a respected professor, once declared he “didn’t do anything” in those years. He also still wonders how the association was able to form a new board after the interim year. Only the duties of the treasurer were performed with any care, for instance the first parties were given around that time with any access money the association had.

The low opinion the board had of the association at the time is illustrated by the fact that all five replicas of Van der Waals Nobel prize disappeared around that time. They were probably claimed as personal property by some board members. In 1969 also the move from the Paviljoen to the new N-laag building took place. The university used to have plans for an N-hoog building as well somewhere in between the W-hoog and N-laag buildings. But these plans were later cancelled because of disappointing numbers of new students. During this move most of the Van der Waals archive was lost.

The only two things that kept Van der Waals alive were the BuEx (foreign excursion) and the Koerier. However, the Koerier had lost its meaning as a magazine for the association, but became a voice of protest and rebellion. Already in 1962 Jo Kobussen started to spread Marxist messages in the heartland of the Catholic province of Noord-Brabant. Around this time that message clearly resonated amongst the active members of Van der Waals, especially the board. In the Koerier articles were published about the conflict between social classes within the faculty. One article once found the title of professor meaningless, and even proposed to start addressing the lunch ladies with that title.

The break between Van der Waals and the faculty was partly caused by the introduction of the WUB (‘Wet Universitaire Bestuurshervorming’, or in English ‘Law of University Management Reform’). This channelled the student participation in university matters, to suppress further turmoil amongst the students. Communication about education became more difficult, therefore a new Education Committee was started in 1967. From 1976 on Van der Waals even had an education commissioner, however the students were not completely satisfied with that. In 1981 STOOR, the STudenten Onderwijs ORganisatie (students and education organisation) was founded. This organisation was independent from Van der Waals, but the two organisations used to work together closely. After two years STOOR went on to handle all education related matters, and therefore Van der Waals no longer appointed am education commissioner. STOOR also started publishing its own paper, the STOORzender, which later merged with the Koerier.

In the middle of the seventies Van der Waals became more active again, however still with a strong social character. For example a special committee was installed to make sure all paper was recycled and delivered to a homeless shelter. And on a field trip to a nuclear power plant the participants wore anti-nuclear energy pins clearly in sight on their clothes. This was all in a sharp contrast to Thor, which always strived to remain their corporal character. In 1968 a motion was passed that allowed Thor members to become members of Van der Waals as well for only ƒ2,50, if they felt like their interests were not represented properly by Thor. However, when several Thor members tried to appeal to that right, it was denied by the board of Van der Waals. Also a collaboration with the VvTP (association for applied physics) in Delft was attempted, but never really saw the daylight.

From 1978 on also the Koerier was published again. It contained loads of drawings by Dick Sterenborgh, and also the articles had a more positive tone than before. Until 1983 the Koerier was printed using the stencil machine from the faculty. However, because this machine tended to break quite often after, it was decided that the Koerier was to be printed more professionally.

The founding of the Borrel (weekly faculty drinks) started a new era for Van der Waals.

Despite the fact that it was not uncommon at the time for female students to get pregnant during their studies, Van der Waals started to become more popular again amongst students and faculty. The board aimed to organise more activities, despite the fact that one had to study and be a member of the board at the same time. In this era Van der Waals started to organise a lot of games and sports tournaments. The association also was actively involved in the introduction for first  year students, which resulted in many new members. As a follow-up on the introduction the Magdeburg Hemisphere event were organised from 1980 on. Students had to design and build a construction which used sound waves to increase the pressure inside the hemispheres. The goal was to disconnect the hemispheres as fast as possible. The event was once even broadcasted on national television by the TROS. Later fraternity PerpeTUE Mobile took over this tradition. And now the Magdeburg Hemispheres are used by the Natuurkundecircus (Physics Circus).

Another big event that originated around this time is the annual Sinterwaals celebration. The board used to start preparations for this event right after their inauguration. Sinterwaals made fun of faculty members and students alike, before giving them a little present. Therefore Sinterwaals was infamous, and even slightly feared. Many times Van-der-Waals members tried to prevent Sinterwaals from putting on his costume or from even arriving at all. But if he managed to arrive in N-laag the entire cafeteria was usually completely filled with students as well as faculty members. Sinterwaals had a habit of entering the cafeteria in spectacular ways: with a ladder through the window, on a bike, or with a bottle of beer in one hand and his staff in the other.

Students could also buy study books, rubberbijbels (reference books for physics and chemistry) and logarithmic graph paper through Van der Waals. A certain member of the practicum staff even liked to fool the students by telling them that Van der Waals sold double logarithmic paper with a 0-axis.

In 1985 the lustrum was celebrated extensively for the first time. A massive lustrum book was compiled on an even more massive mainframe computer. An extension on this book containing scientific publications was edited by Professor Sarlemijn, which is why it got assigned an ISBN number. Fun fact: this book was even mentioned in J.D. Van der Waals’ biography. As a part of this lustrum also a reunion was organised, where the first board performed a sketch. This board even had prepared another surprise: the association received seven new replicas of Van der Waals’ Nobel prize medal. Later three more were commissioned, because according to the statutes Van der Waals can officially have a maximum of nine board members.

Since the end of the eighties Van der Waals is once again a stable organisation, and almost all physics students were members. Regularly ALV’s (GMMs) and BLV’s (Bijzondere LedenVergaderingen, or in English Extraordinary Member Meetings) were organised. The statutes and code of conduct were completely examined and revised in 1982. On request from the faculty Van der Waals also started promoting studying physics at high school.