- 1905-77 (Creation)
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Thomson was born in Cambridge in 1892, into a family of scientific distinction on both sides. His father, Sir Joseph Thomson (always known as `J.J.'), was one of the foremost physicists of the day, Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, and in 1906 awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of the electron. His son George was much guided and influenced by his father, conducting early collaborative research with him and having access through him to current work on the frontiers of knowledge, as his later historical writings frequently testify. Thomson's collaboration with his father continued for many years and included joint work on the Third (1928) Edition of Conduction of Electricity through Gases.
After education at the Perse School and Trinity College, Cambridge, Thomson began research in 1913 at the Cavendish Laboratory under his father's supervision, and was elected a Fellow of Corpus Christi College in 1914. During the First World War he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps at the Royal Aircraft Factory (later Establishment) at Farnborough, where he was a member of the famous `Chudleigh Mess' and formed lasting friendships with F.W. Aston, W.S. Farren, B.M. Jones, F.A. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), G.I. Taylor and others.
At the end of the War he returned to Cambridge, and in 1922 was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. Here his most famous work was done, on electron diffraction by thin films (1926-28), for which he shared with C.J. Davisson the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1937.
In 1930, after a visit to America lecturing and working at Cornell, Thomson, now a Fellow of the Royal Society, moved to London as Professor of Physics at Imperial College. He continued work on electron diffraction and tried to develop it as a research tool for the study of surfaces, and also encouraged electron microscopy. A protracted illness which declared itself early in 1936 seriously interrupted his experimental work and marked the effective end of his work on electrons. Instead, he pursued the interest in nuclear physics begun a few years earlier, and in 1939 was quick to see the possible military implications of current work in nuclear fission. His professional knowledge, and his personal acquaintance with leading scientists and government advisers enabled him to initiate investigations, especially as (from April 1940) Chairman of the MAUD Committee which reported on the feasibility of an atomic weapon.
During the Second World War, subsequent to his work on the MAUD Committee, and after two years at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough, Thomson was sent as Scientific Liaison Officer to Canada. At this time, his wife Kathleen was seriously ill in America; her death at the end of 1941 was a great blow to him. He remained in Canada until summer 1942 after which he returned to Britain to become Deputy Chairman of the Radio Board (1942-43) and Scientific Adviser to the Air Ministry (1943-44). He resigned this post in December 1944 to resume work at Imperial College. He was knighted in 1943.
His scientific interests now centred on the study of cosmic rays and mesons, and on nuclear fusion - itself a development of a theory of an electrodeless discharge put forward by `J.J.'. Under Thomson's guidance, work on an electrodeless torus proceeded at Imperial College and was provisionally patented in 1946; the team subsequently transferred to the A.E.I. laboratories at Aldermaston, while similar work was also in progress at Harwell. Both groups produced an apparatus - SCEPTRE at A.E.I., ZETA at Harwell - which attracted much attention when they were brought to the notice of the general public in 1958.
In 1952 Thomson returned to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, as Master; he remained there until 1962 and spent his retirement in Cambridge, where he died in 1975.
Immediate source of acquisition or transfer
Most of the material was received from the Thomson family
The bound volumes of Thomson's autobiography (A.14), of his published papers (A.51, A.52), and of his own selection of letters from his wife Kathleen (A.14A), are included by courtesy of Mr. D.P. Thomson.
The photocopy of the letter by Thomson at J.119 has kindly been made available by the Right Reverend the Bishop of Ely.
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The material includes notebooks, manuscript notes and drafts, drafts for lectures and papers (many unpublished or additional to those listed in the Bibliography compiled for the Royal Society Memoir of Thomson), photographs and slides of experimental results, and correspondence.
Of considerable interest are the drafts and text of Thomson's autobiography covering his career to 1966; this document, which he had written primarily for his family, is included at A.2 - A.14 and has, with permission, been drawn upon in compiling some of the catalogue entries. It is an important source of information for some of the `gaps' in the surviving manuscripts, particularly for such matters as Thomson's activities in the Second World War (other than the MAUD Committee), his many foreign visits and his public commitments. In his introduction to the autobiography, Thomson mentions his inability to write adequately of his wife Kathleen, and of his hope to compile a selection of her letters to him; bound copies of the autobiography, and of the letters, have been made available by Mr. D.P. Thomson and appear at A.14, A.14A respectively.
Thomson's scientific research on electron diffraction is well documented by notebooks, lectures and slides; his contribution to thermonuclear research, on which he was able to publish very little because of the demands of security, survives mainly in the form of manuscript notes and drafts (see Section E). Unfortunately, it is clear that much has been lost of the early correspondence on electron diffraction.
Thomson's service to the Royal Society, The Institute of Physics, the British Association and many other learned societies, is also very scantily documented.
Thomson's own distinguished contribution to scientific knowledge, together with his admiration for his father and early acquaintance with eminent men of science, made him always aware of the history of science and its practitioners. He wrote and lectured widely on these subjects, often for anniversary celebrations of various kinds, and also contributed many obituary tributes for individual scientists, many of them his personal friends. He frequently assembled information and recollections additional to those which appeared in the final publication, but which survive in the collection. Material relating to his historical and biographical writings on `J.J.' can be found in the collection of papers of J.J. Thomson (CSAC no. 74/4/80) in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge.
In addition to an historical awareness, Thomson was also conscious of the impact of science on many aspects of life and thought. Section H groups together his lectures and writings on science-related topics of this kind; it includes inter alia material on his work for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society which occupied much of his interest in his later years.
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Compiled by: Jeannine Alton
Catalogue edited by Jonathan Smith, 2021
The help of Dr. M.J. Whelan, FRS, Reader in the Physical Examination of Materials in the University of Oxford, in identifying material relating to electron diffraction, is gratefully acknowledged.