- 1836–1958 (Creation)
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Name of creator
Joseph John Thomson was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester on 18 December 1856, the son of James John Thomson, bookseller and publisher and his wife Emma. In 1871 Thomson was admitted to Owens College Manchester and studied there until 1876, when he was awarded an entrance scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1880 he graduated as Second Wrangler, was 2nd Smith's Prizeman and was made a fellow in the same year. He became a college lecturer at Trinity in 1883 and the following year succeeded Lord Rayleigh as Professor of Experimental Physics.
Thomson's research concerned the passage of electricity through gases. In 1897 he announced his discovery of the electron to an audience at the Royal Institution and in 1912, assisted by F W Aston, he discovered isotopes of neon. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1906
In 1918 Thomson became Master of Trinity, resigning from his chair in favour of Rutherford. However, a personal chair was created to enable him to continue his researches. He died in 1940.
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
The papers were received from Mr David Paget Thomson, grandson, in August 1997 and December 1999.
Content and structure area
Scope and content
The material in this collection covers the period 1836-1958. It is presented in eight sections.
Section A, Biographical, covers the period 1874-1958. The material includes biographical profiles, certificates, press cuttings, photographs and invitations. Correspondence and papers used by Lord Rayleigh in the preparation of his biography of Thomson The Life of Sir J. J. Thomson O.M. sometime master of Trinity College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1942) can be found at A/23-A31. A/110-A/143 include press cuttings on Thomson's lectures and reviews of his publications. Certificates are at A/72-A/103
Section B, Family and personal, is the largest in the collection and spans the period 1836-1952. The bulk of the material consists of family and personal correspondence sent to members of the Thomson and Paget families between 1872 and 1952. This correspondence has been arranged by recipient, thus for example, letters from Thomson to his wife are to be found in Lady Thomson's correspondence at B/45-B/53 rather than in that of Thomson himself (B/1-B/6). There is significant correspondence sent to Thomson, 1873-1940, but the largest component of the section, at B/45-B/639, is correspondence and papers of Lady Thomson covering the period 1872-1950. This includes family and personal correspondence received by Lady Thomson, notebooks and diaries, and correspondence from societies and organisations. At B/640-B/679 is correspondence received by other family members including G.P. Thomson, J.P. Thomson, F.V. Thomson and G.E. Paget. The section also includes photographs, household accounts and a little miscellaneous material.
Section C, Trinity College, Cambridge, consists chiefly of incoming correspondence sent to Thomson as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and covers the period 1918-1944. The bulk relates to College matters including students, Fellows, meetings etc., but there is also business and personal correspondence including letters of congratulations on Thomson's installation as Master in 1918. The correspondence includes letters from Cambridge colleagues such as E. Rutherford, R.T. Glazebrook, J.G. Frazer and A. Schuster. The section also includes invitations to social occasions received by the Thomsons and replies to invitations to social events hosted by the Thomsons between 1918 and 1938. There are also a small number of Trinity College entrance examination papers and scripts.
Section D, Research, is very slight. It consists of a few research notes and photographs for the period 1893 to 1934.
Section E, Societies and organisations, is also slight. It has been arranged in alphabetical order and covers the period 1886-1930. The most significant material is that at E/10-E/28: reports and minutes of the Committee on Science in the Educational System of Great Britain, which Thomson chaired between 1902 and 1920. There is also a small amount of Royal Society material.
Section F, Lectures, speeches and publications, covers the period 1876-1938. There is material on a number of Thomson's public lectures and speeches including lectures given at the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Winnipeg, Canada, 1909. A notebook at F/27 has typescript notes on lectures delivered at Cambridge by Thomson. Publications material includes manuscript drafts of the first edition of Conduction of Electricity through Gases (Cambridge 1903) and Rays of Positive Electricity (London 1913). Press cuttings on Thomson's lectures and publications can be found at A/110-A/143.
Section G, Visits and conferences, is not extensive. The material has been arranged in chronological order 1896-1938. It includes brief correspondence on the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, 1909.
Section H, Correspondence, is presented in two sequences, scientific and general. The scientific sequence includes letters from G.G. Stokes, Lord Rayleigh (4th Baron) and Lord Kelvin. The general sequence is arranged in chronological order covering the period 1888-1938. A file of 'Letters to JJ from distinguished people and others' is at H/32-H/35, which includes correspondence from Arthur Balfour, Stanley Baldwin and Austen Chamberlain.
Appraisal, destruction and scheduling
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Conditions governing access
Not all the material in this collection may yet be available for consultation. Enquiries should be addressed in the first instance to:
Trinity College Library
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Allied materials area
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Compiled by Nicola Ashbridge, Adrian Nardone and Peter Harper
The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:
The Biochemical Society
The British Crystallographic Association
The Geological Society
The Higher Education Funding Council for England
The Institute of Physics
The Royal Society
Trinity College Cambridge
The Wellcome Trust
We are very grateful to Mr D.P. Thomson for making the material available and for his advice and information.
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The current record was created using the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists finding aid, and was edited by Rebecca Hughes in 2021