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July 16, 2015
Particle Physics and the IET Archives

A group of four letters recently came to light in the IET Archives which were written from the physicist Sir Oliver Lodge to the Professor of Physics Silvanus P Thompson between 1900 and 1906. The two letters from 1906 were particularly interesting because they were discussing J J Thomson and the electron – Thomson was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in the same year that the letters were written (1906) for the discovery of the electron and for his work on the conduction of electricity in gases.

It is fascinating to see how two contemporary physicists view and absorb a new discovery/theory concerning particle physics in 1906 and perhaps compare it with how modern particle physicists have reacted to the discoveries/theories resulting from the work at the Large Hadron Collider beneath the Franco-Swiss border.

Extract from Letter of 6 March 1906

“My dear SPT, ashamed of delay, but I am lazy. J. J. T. [J J Thomson] atom is not a hollow shell of pos. [positive] E. [energy] it is a solid uniform mass (or sphere) or jelly of it in the substance of which the electrons are embedded. This is to get at law of direct distance, and therefore, the equal periodicity of orbits independent of varying amplitude, shape etc…… I like it much. Of course the treatment of + E [positive energy] is excessively provisional. That is the real outstanding puzzle, and until + E can be tackled the whole theory is vague.”

Extract from Letter of 17 October 1906

“Dear Silvanus Thompson, I am bringing out a new edition of ‘Modern Views of Electricity’. I don’t want to change it much less to reopen it. I shall not be dealing with the electron business: that occurs in another volume; but the old book is often enquired for, and I think would still be useful to elementary students who should not lose sight of the old facts in attending to electrons and new facts…..”

Who Were These Individuals?

Sir Oliver Lodge, FRS (1851-1940), the writer of the letters, was a British physicist and writer involved in the development of, and holder for key patents for, radio. He identified electromagnetic radiation independent of Hertz’ proof and at his 1894 Royal Institution lectures, Lodge demonstrated an early radio wave detector he named the ‘coherer’. Lodge was Principal of the University of Birmingham from 1900 to 1920 and was awarded the IEE’s Faraday Medal in 1932.



Silvanus Phillips Thompson, FRS (1851-1916), the recipient of the letters, was a professor of physics at the City and Guilds Technical College in Finsbury, and was known for his work as an electrical engineer and as an author. S P Thompson was the President of the IEE in 1899.



Sir Joseph John Thomson, OM, FRS (1856-1940) was an English physicist who was appointed to the Cavendish Professorship of Experimental Physics at the Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory in 1884. In 1897 Thomson showed that cathode rays were composed of previously unknown negatively charged particles, which he calculated must have bodies much smaller than atoms and a very large value for their charge-to-mass ratio. He is therefore credited with the discovery and identification of the electron and with the discovery of the first subatomic particle. Sir J J Thomson was awarded the IEE’s Faraday Medal in 1925.

Where Did the Letters Come From?

S P Thompson’s large scientific library and pamphlet collection came to the IEE in the early 20th century some years after his death. Thompson had a habit of enclosing his correspondence with authors and scientists and engineers amongst those books and pamphlets.

In the case of the books any letters discovered inside were subsequently extracted for their own protection and now form a separate collection within the IET Archives. However not all the letters were found at the outset and further ones have emerged since that time. These four letters between Lodge and Thompson probably come from within the pages of those books and pamphlets and had been put to one side at some point over later decades. The letters have been catalogued as collection SC MSS 265 and can be consulted in the IET Archives.

Jon Cable
Assistant Archivist
The Institution of Engineering and Technology

Edited: 24 September 2015 at 04:50 PM by Jonathan Cable


    Posted By: Jonathan Cable @ 16 July 2015 03:47 PM     Archives  

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