Although founded as a preparatory and vocational school by Amos G. Throop in 1891, the college attracted influential scientists such as George Ellery Hale, Arthur Amos Noyes and Robert Andrews Millikan in the early 20th century. The vocational and preparatory schools were disbanded and spun off in 1910 and the college assumed its present name in 1921. In 1934, Caltech was elected to the Association of American Universities and the antecedents of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which Caltech continues to manage and operate, were established between 1936 and 1943 under Theodore von Kármán. The university is one among a small group of institutes of technology in the United States which is primarily devoted to the instruction of pure and applied sciences.
Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphasis on science and engineering, managing $332 million in 2011 in sponsored research. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. First-year students are required to live on campus and 95% of undergraduates remain in the on-campus House System at Caltech. Although Caltech has a strong tradition of practical jokes and pranks, student life is governed by an honor code which allows faculty to assign take-home examinations. The Caltech Beavers compete in 13 intercollegiate sports in the NCAA Division III's Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
As of March 2018, Caltech alumni, faculty and researchers include 72 Nobel Laureates (Linus Pauling being the only individual in history to win two unshared prizes), 4 Fields Medalist, and 6 Turing Award winners. In addition, there are 53 non-emeritus faculty members (as well as many emeritus faculty members) who have been elected to one of the United States National Academies, 4 Chief Scientists of the U.S. Air Force and 71 have won the United States National Medal of Science or Technology. Numerous faculty members are associated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as well as NASA. According to a 2015 Pomona College study, Caltech ranked number one in the U.S. for the percentage of its graduates who go on to earn a PhD.
Caltech started as a vocational school founded in Pasadena in 1891 by local businessman and politician Amos G. Throop. The school was known successively as Throop University, Throop Polytechnic Institute (and Manual Training School) and Throop College of Technology before acquiring its current name in 1920. The vocational school was disbanded and the preparatory program was split off to form an independent Polytechnic School in 1907.
At a time when scientific research in the United States was still in its infancy, George Ellery Hale, a solar astronomer from the University of Chicago, founded the Mount Wilson Observatory in 1904. He joined Throop's board of trustees in 1907, and soon began developing it and the whole of Pasadena into a major scientific and cultural destination. He engineered the appointment of James A. B. Scherer, a literary scholar untutored in science but a capable administrator and fund raiser, to Throop's presidency in 1908. Scherer persuaded retired businessman and trustee Charles W. Gates to donate $25,000 in seed money to build Gates Laboratory, the first science building on campus.