Papers of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, 1869-1959, Nobel Prize winner and Professor of Natural Philosophy, University of Cambridge

Scope and Content

The collection comprises:

  • Notebooks, publications and printed matter 1897-1963;
  • Photographs of particle trails inside cloud chambers c1937;
  • Photographs of potential gradient recordings c1920-1929;
  • Photographic portraits c1940-1949;
  • Glass photographic plates with positive and negative images of particle trails, potential gradient recordings and diagrams 1919-1932.

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson was born on 14 February  1869  at the farmhouse of Crosshouse in the Pentland Hills. Following the death of his father four years later, the family moved to Manchester where Wilson later attended Owens College. There he studied biology with the intention of pursuing a career in medicine. Upon graduating he obtained an entrance scholarship to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, although he had in fact applied for a scholarship at Christ's College. Wilson graduated with distinction in 1892 and after a brief spell teaching in a Midlands grammar school, he returned to the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, becoming a Clerk Maxwell Scholar in 1895.

Following observations made in 1894 at the meteorological observatory in the summit of Ben Nevis, he began experimenting to produce clouds artificially. In 1896 he used an X-ray tube developed by Everrett in the Cavendish Laboratory to show conclusively the condensation occurring in dust-free air sufficiently expanded was the result of charged atoms, later called ions. He considered that it should be possible to reveal the tracks of ionising particles and after years of experimental work he produced in  1911  the cloud chamber, described by Lord Rutherford as "the most original apparatus in the whole history of physics". In this instrument the tracking of atoms, or sub-atomic particles, were shown as trails of tiny water drops. The pictures he produced using the cloud chamber were of the highest quality and the cloud chamber itself went on to play a key role in the development of nuclear physics.

Following his discovery during early cloud chamber experiments that ions were continually being produced in the atmosphere, Wilson started research into atmospheric electricity. His interest was further stimulated by an experience on the summit of Ben Nevis when the sensation of his hair standing on end gave him warning of an imminent lightening stroke. This alerted his mind to the magnitude of electric fields within thunderclouds and the suddenness with which they changed. Wilson developed several types of electrometers for measuring the surface density of the earth's charge and electric field and field changes which took place during thunderstorms. As a result of his experiments in this area, he developed his theory of the mechanism of the generation of electrical charge in a thunderstorm. His last paper on the subject was published in theProceedings of the Royal Society in 1956 . In 1900 Wilson was an elected member of the Royal Society and a Fellow of his College. The following year he became a lecturer and in 1925 became Vacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy. During the course of his career, many honours were conferred on Professor Wilson by Universities and scientific societies, including the Nobel Prize for Physics, which was awarded in 1927 in conjunction with A H Compton. In 1956 he was made a Companion of Honour following his retirement. Professor Wilson died on 15 November 1959  in the village of Carlops in the Pentlands, close to his birthplace.

Sources: Biographical notes from the introduction to the collection.


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Donated by Miss Jessie Wilson, June 1995

Other Finding Aids


Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Archivist.

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 248 procedures

Custodial History



None expected

Related Material

Papers of Philip Ivor Dee, Professor of Natural Philosophy 1943-1972 and Director of Physical Laboratories, Synchrotron 1946-1972 (GB 248 DC 134)

Notebooks and papers in the library of the Royal Society, London

Location of Originals

This material is original


No known publications using this material

Additional Information

Fonds level compiled by Virginia Russell, Archives Assistant, 13 Nov 2000. Catalogued by members of Glasgow University Archive Services staff. Fonds level converted to Encoded Archival Description by Andrew Thomson, Hub Project Archivist, 12 March 2004. Lower levels EAD edited by Alma Topen, Assistant Archivist (Cataloguing) and Gemma Tougher, Assistant Archivist (Cataloguing), October 2012.