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J. J. Thomson and the emergence of the Cavendish School, 1885–1990

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Dong-Won Kim
Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, 373–1, Kusung-dong, Yusung-ku, Taejon 305–701, Korea.


The history of the Cavendish Laboratory is a fascinating subject to study, not just because this famous centre of experimental physics produced a large number of Nobel Laureates but also because it gives us an insight into the unique milieu of the Cambridge physics community. The evolution of the Cavendish Laboratory, however, was not as smooth as might be expected, and the prestige and reputation of its first directors – James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Rayleigh, Joseph John Thomson and Ernest Rutherford – did not automatically guarantee a rosy future. Like other British physics laboratories in the late nineteenth century, the Cavendish Laboratory was a new species to meet the pressure and demand from society. Since it propagated new values and modes of doing science, a struggle with old traditions could not be avoided, and the early history of the Cavendish Laboratory illustrates how the ‘old’ and ‘new’ values fought and negotiated each other in late Victorian Cambridge.

Research Article
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1995

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1 Thomson, J. J. et al. , A History of the Cavendish Laboratory, 1871–1910, London, 1910Google Scholar, which was issued to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of J. J. Thomson's professorship. For more information about those who worked in the Cavendish Laboratory between 1874 and 1895, see Price, M., Hughes, J. A. and Schaffer, S., The Cavendish Laboratory: Introduction to Prosopography (unpublished typescript, Whipple Museum for the History of Science, Cambridge, 1991)Google Scholar. Other histories are: Wood, A., The Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, 1946Google Scholar; Larsen, E., The Cavendish Laboratory: Nursery of Genius, London, 1962Google Scholar; Thomson, G. P., J. J. Thomson and the Cavendish Laboratory, London, 1964Google Scholar; Crowther, J. G., The Cavendish Laboratory, 1874–1974, London, 1974CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Hendry, J. (ed.), Cambridge Physics in the Thirties, Bristol, 1984.Google Scholar

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25 Cambridge University had paid £100 for salary and £50 for stipend to Glazebrook and Shaw since 1884.

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65 Falconer, Isobel, ‘J. J. Thomson and “Cavendish Physics”’, in The Development of the Laboratory (ed. James, Frank A. J. L.), London, 1989, 116Google Scholar. Falconer commented that among the ‘FRSs educated under Thomson’, Chree, Threlfall, Callendar, Newall and Searle were ‘little influenced’ while Schott and Whetham were ‘strongly influenced’. I do not know the criteria used for her assessment, but it is another indication of Thomson's more limited ‘authority’ with the researchers of his age group in the Cavendish Laboratory.

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67 Strutt, , op. cit. (9), 53–4.Google Scholar

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73 During the 1890s, Thomson received the following honours: Honorary Doctorate, Dublin University (1892); Royal Medal, Royal Society (1894); President of Cambridge Philosophical Society (1894); Honorary Member of Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (1895); Rede Lecture (1896); President of Section A of the British Association at Liverpool (1896); Honorary Doctor of Laws, Princeton University (1896); Foreign Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences of Turin (1896). For a complete list of honours Thomson received, see Sttutt, , op. cit. (9), 288–91.Google Scholar

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107 Wilson, , op. cit. (104), 168.Google Scholar

108 Struct, , op. cit. (9), 50Google Scholar. Thomson got continuous help from these confidants: Rutherford, H. A. Wilson, R. Strutt, and later N. R. Campbell and F. Horton.

109 Strutt, , op. cit. (9), 58.Google Scholar

110 Strutt, , op. cit. (9), 58–9.Google Scholar

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112 The first photograph which had the caption ‘Physics Research Students’ was taken in 06 1897Google Scholar. All photographs since 1897 are hung on a wall of the new building of the Cavendish Laboratory.

113 Strutt, , op. cit. (9), 64.Google Scholar

114 CUL MSS, Add. 7653 M3, M4, M7, M8.

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