Papers and correspondence of Sir George Paget Thomson, 1892-1975

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers are extensive and cover many aspects of Thomson's career and research. They include his unpublished autobiography, school and undergraduate notebooks, notebooks, drafts and photographs documenting his work on electron diffraction, manuscript notes and drafts on thermonuclear research, extensive notes and drafts for talks and writings on the history and social aspects of science, and also material relating to Thomson's involvement with the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Unfortunately the full range of his correspondence (including that on electron diffraction) has not survived.

Administrative / Biographical History

Thomson was born into a family of great scientific distinction. His father, Sir Joseph Thomson, 'J.J.', was one of the foremost physicists of the day and a great influence on him. Thomson, 'G.P.' as he was always known, was educated at the Perse School and Trinity College, Cambridge where he read mathematics and physics. He then began research at the Cavendish Laboratory under his father's supervision, and was elected Fellow and Mathematical Lecturer at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in 1914. After a period of service in France with The Queen's Regiment he was attached to the Royal Flying Corps at the Royal Aircraft Factory (later Establishment), 1915-1919.

After the First World War he returned to Cambridge to continue his research 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. He was Professor of Physics at Imperial College, London, 1930-1952, with secondment during the Second World War on various official duties including the Chairmanship of the Maud Committee which reported on the feasibility of an atomic weapon. Later, he made significant contributions to research on thermonuclear reactions. In 1952 Thomson returned to Corpus Christi College as Master. He remained there until 1962 and spent his retirement in Cambridge. He was elected FRS in 1930 (Bakerian Lecture 1948, Rutherford Memorial Lecture 1964, Hughes Medal 1939, Royal Medal 1949) and was awarded the 1937 Nobel Prize for Physics (jointly with C.J. Davisson) for their experimental discovery of the diffraction of electrons by crystals. He was knighted in 1943.


By section as follows: Biographical and autobiographical, Early notebooks and research, Electron diffraction, Nuclear Physics and the Second World War, Thermonuclear research, Scientific lectures and writings, History of physics and physicists, Science-related interests, Correspondence, Plates, slides and photographs. Index of correspondents.

Conditions Governing Access

By appointment only.

Other Finding Aids

Printed catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Sir George Paget Thomson (1892-1975) by J. Alton and J. Latham-Jackson, CSAC catalogue no. 75/5/80, 167 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Separated Material

Thomson's original electron diffraction camera was deposited in the Science Museum, London in 1948.

Material relating to the Maud Committee was deposited at Churchill College, Cambridge at the request of J.D. Cockcroft in 1966.

Custodial History

Received in 1979 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from the Thomson family via Trinity College, Cambridge. Deposited in Trinity College Library in 1980.