John Henry Poynting, Papers of (University of Birmingham Staff Papers)

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Personal and official papers of John Henry Poynting, Professor of Physics at Mason Science College and later University of Birmingham from 1880 to 1914, together with family papers. These comprise:

Official papers of John Henry Poynting including his Cambridge examination results, handwritten lecture entitled 'How the weather is foretold' delivered at Mason College February 1886, together with a short article on the lecture written by Robert W. Whitworth in 2015; and testimonials and letters, 1875-1910. Correspondents include mathematicians and physicists such as Edward Routh, William Ramsay, Arthur Rucker, John Joly, W. Hittorf, H. A. Lorentz, Charles Boys, and Arthur Schuster

Family and other personal letters and papers of John Henry Poynting including letters from his brothers and grandmother and a letter to an aunt, various 'in memoriam' cards for family members and friends, letters from and relating to Rev John Cropper, a family friend, a letter from Arthur Chamberlain on the engagement of his son and Poynting's daughter, and several letters to his daughter, Hilda, 1857-1952

Papers of his father, T. Elford Poynting, including letters to him, drawings, verses and a copy of a curriculum vitae, 1833-c1870

Various miscellaneous items, photographs and letterheads including a photograph of Professor Poynting with his gravity balance and a symbolic sketch of the 'earth weighing process', showing the earth outweighed by scholarly scientific activity, with attached card addressed to Poynting

Administrative / Biographical History

John Henry Poynting (1852-1914), was born at Monton, near Manchester on 9 September 1852, the son of T. Elford Poynting, a Unitarian Minister. He was educated at his father's private school, then Owens College and Trinity College, Cambridge becoming a Fellow of Trinity in 1878. He became the first Mason Professor of Physics at the Mason Science College, Birmingham (later the University of Birmingham) in 1880 until his death in 1914. He was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1888. While at Mason College he carried out an experiment known as 'measuring the gravitational constant'; what he was actually doing was weighing the earth for the first time, using a balance which is now in the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington. The weight, he announced, was approximately 12,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds.

His publications include papers in the 'Philosophical Transactions' on electrical theory, on gravitation and on radiation; the Adams Prize Essay (1893), 'On the Mean Density of the Earth'; 'A Text-Book of Physics' (with Sir J. J. Thomson); 'The Pressure of Light'; 'The Earth'; and various physical papers. His most important contributions to physics were two Royal Society papers on advanced knowledge of pressure of light which revolutionised ideas about motion of energy in the electric field. His Collected Scientific Papers were published in 1920. He received various awards including the Adams Prize, 1891, Hopkins Prize, 1903 and Royal Medal of Royal Society, 1905.

He married Maria Adney, daughter of Rev. J. Cropper, late of Stand, near Manchester 1880, and had one son and two daughters. He died on 30 March 1914

References: The Dictionary of National Biography: The Concise Dictionary, Part II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961); The University of Birmingham Research Libraries Bulletin, No 7, Spring 2000.

Conditions Governing Access

Access to all registered researchers

Acquisition Information

This collection was presented by a member of the family in October 1998; additions were made in February 2001 and February 2015

Other Finding Aids

Please see the full catalogue for further details

Conditions Governing Use

Permission to make any published use of any material from the collection must be sought in advance in writing from the Director of Special Collections (email: Identification of copyright holders of unpublished material is often difficult. Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections will assist where possible with identifying copyright owners, but responsibility for ensuring copyright clearance rests with the user of the material.


Further deposits are not expected

Related Material

Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections holds the archives of Mason Science College (Reference: UB/MC) and the University of Birmingham which contain material relating to Professor Poynting's appointment and employment. Miscellaneous items can be found in our Letters Additional Collection (Reference: LAdd/58 and LAdd/5140)

Poynting's telescope was deposited with this collection. This is now in the care of Research and Cultural Collections at the University of Birmingham