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Thomson, Joseph John (1856-1940) knight, scientist and physicist

  • Person

Joseph John Thomson was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester on 18 December 1856. His father, Joseph James Thomson, was an antiquarian bookseller and publisher and his mother Emma Thomson (nèe Swindells) came from a branch of the local Vernon family who owned a cotton spinning company. Thomson was originally intended for an engineering apprenticeship. However, because of a long waiting list, he enrolled at Owens College in Manchester in 1871 (later University of Manchester) where he studied engineering, mathematics, physics and chemistry. Thomson had given up any thought of a career in engineering by the time he left Owens College in 1876. His ambition was to carry out original research.

In 1876 Thomson was awarded an Entrance Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1880 he graduated from the Mathematical Tripos as Second Wrangler. After graduation Thomson stayed in Cambridge. He was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1880. It was at this stage that he decided to concentrate on physics and began experimental work at the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rayleigh. In 1881 Thomson published his first major paper in the Philosophical Magazine showing that an electrified sphere, by acting as a current when it moves, would have an extra mass as a result of its charge. This theory was the first hint of a connection between mass and energy.

Thomson was appointed a Lecturer at Trinity College in 1883 and in 1884 he succeeded Lord Rayleigh as Professor of Experimental Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. Under his direction the Cavendish Laboratory entered an era of new scientific discovery and became the leading experimental laboratory of physics in the scientific world. Thomson's fame attracted a succession of brilliant young men including E. Rutherford, J.S.E. Townsend and J.A. McClelland. Thomson held this post for 34 years.

Thomson continued research work on electric discharge through gases; he retained an interest in this line of experimentation for the rest of his life. However, it was overshadowed by his discovery of the electron. On 30 April 1897 Thomson gave the first public announcement of his discovery of the electron in a lecture at the Royal Institution. Thomson's discovery was based on the theory that a cathode ray particle is more than one thousand times lighter than the lightest chemical atom and a universal constituent of matter. This ground-breaking discovery opened up the field of subatomic physics to experimental investigation.

In 1905 Thomson turned his attention away from cathode rays towards positive rays and in 1912 Thomson and his research assistant F.W. Aston discovered isotopes of neon, the first nonradioactive isotopes to be identified.

During the First World War Thomson was advisor to various government departments. He was also a member of the Board of Invention and Research, which was set up in July 1915 by Arthur Balfour, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, to organise the science of the country for war.

In 1918 Thomson was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He resigned from the Cavendish Professorship and was succeeded by Rutherford. However he was appointed to an honorary professorship by the University, which enabled him to continue his researches in the Cavendish Laboratory. He held the Mastership until his death in 1940.

Thomson became a leading spokesman for science in this period and was a member of the University Grants Committee (1919-1923) and the Committee on Science in the Educational System of Great Britain. He also played an important part in the formation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which was set up in 1919. Thomson remained on its advisory council until 1927.

During his career Thomson was President of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 1894, and President of Section A of the British Association, 1896 and 1931. In 1909 Thomson also acted as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at its annual meeting which was held in Winnipeg, Canada.

In 1884 Thomson was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. He received all the Royal Society medals for which he was eligible (Royal 1894, Hughes 1902, Copley 1914, Albert 1915), and served as President between 1915 and 1920. In 1906 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his theoretical and experimental investigations of the passage of electricity through gases. He received a Knighthood in 1908 and the Order of Merit in 1912. Thomson received many other honours for his contribution to science. He was honorary member of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, 1919, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1922, Institution of Civil Engineers, 1925. He was also President of the Junior Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1910, and Honorary Professor of Physics at the Royal Institution. He also received many honorary degrees including those from Oxford, Göttingen, Oslo, Dublin, St. Andrews, Athens and Baltimore.

Thomson married Rose Paget, daughter of Sir George Paget, Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge, in 1890. They had two children, George Paget Thomson and Joan Paget Thomson. G.P. Thomson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1937.

Thomson died 30 August 1940.

McIlwraith, Archibald Kennedy (1902–1955), Canadian literary scholar

  • Person
  • 1902–1955

Archibald Kennedy McIlwraith was the son of Dr and Mrs Kennedy McIlwraith of Toronto, Canada. He contributed several articles and reviews to the Review of English Studies, the last in 1953, and edited three anthologies of plays for the Oxford World’s Classics series: Five Elizabethan Comedies (1934), Five Elizabethan Tragedies (1938), and Five Stuart Tragedies (1953). In 1931 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Professor R. H. Case of Liverpool University (The Times, 24 Apr. 1931, p. 17), but she died only four years later (The Times, 23 Mar. 1935, p. 1).

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