(the very short version)
In September 1891, Pasadena philanthropist Amos Throop rented the Wooster Block building in Pasadena for the purpose of establishing Throop University, the forerunner of Caltech. In November of that year, Throop University opened its doors to 31 students and a six-member faculty. Throop might have remained just a good local school had it not been for the arrival in Pasadena of astronomer George Ellery Hale. The first director of the Mount Wilson Observatory, Hale became a member of Throop’s board of trustees in 1907, and envisioned molding it into a first-class institution for engineering and scientific research and education. Under his leadership Throop’s transformation began.
By 1921, Hale had been joined by chemist Arthur A. Noyes and physicist Robert A. Millikan. These three men set the school, which by then had been renamed the California Institute of Technology, firmly on its new course.
For the next 85 years, Millikan and his successors—Lee DuBridge, Harold Brown, Marvin Goldberger, Thomas Everhart, and David Baltimore—led the Institute as it achieved preeminence in the scientific community. During this time programs were added in geology, biology, aeronautics, astronomy, astrophysics, the social sciences, computer science, and computation and neural systems.
Most recently, Dr. Jean-Lou Chameau served as president of the Institute from September 2006 to June 2013. Dr. Chameau came to Caltech from Georgia Tech, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs, Hightower Professor, and a Georgia Research Alliance Eminent Scholar. He previously served as dean of Georgia Tech's college of engineering, the largest in the nation. Dr. Chameau places strong emphasis on improving the educational experience of students, increasing diversity, and fostering research, entrepreneurial, and international opportunities for faculty and students. His research interests include sustainable technology; environmental geotechnology; soil dynamics; earthquake engineering; liquefaction of soils; and soil-structure interaction problems.
You may have run into the work of past Caltech scientists without even knowing it.
If your mom ever told you to take Vitamin C to fend off a cold, you can thank Linus Pauling, the Caltech chemist who discovered the nature of the chemical bond in 1930 (his ideas about vitamins came later). His chemical-bond research won him the 1954 Nobel Prize for chemistry. (Pauling also won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1962.)
After an earthquake, news anchors can tell us how relatively shaken up we were, courtesy of the formula that geophysicist Charles Richter devised in the 1920s for measuring the size of Southern California earthquakes. (Later, Richter and fellow Caltech geophysicist Beno Gutenberg would apply the formula to earthquakes throughout the world.)
And if anyone's ever told you to stop acting so "left brain," it's because of the pioneering brain-hemisphere research done by Caltech psychobiologist Roger Sperry (another Nobelist).
Other luminaries in our past include Carl Anderson (discoverer of the positron); Clair Patterson (whose work on lead pollution spurred the federal government to impose pollution controls on the auto industry); Henry Borsook (who formulated the Recommended Daily Requirements for Human Nutrition); Theodore von Kármán (father of modern aviation, jet flight, and, indirectly, JPL); and Richard Feynman (the theoretical physicist/Renaissance man whose name was for years practically synonymous with Caltech's).
You can read about these and other scientists in more detail in Scientific Milestones.