Physics, then known as 'natural philosophy', was taught at Owens College from the 1850s,originally as part of the maths syllabus. However, with the appointment of Robert Bellamy Clifton(1836-1921) to a chair in natural philosophy in 1860, the subject was recognized as a discipline inits own right.
Clifton stayed at Owens for a relatively short period before taking up a chair at Oxford in 1866.He was succeeded by William Jack (1834-1924), who in turn was replaced by Balfour Stewart in 1870.An additional chair in physics was created in the same year for T H Core (1836-1910). BalfourStewart (1828-1887) had been a meteorologist at Kew Observatory, and his main research interestswere in the areas of radiation and geomagnetism. Initially Stewart's energies at Manchester weredirected to building up physics as a taught discipline. He designed a new physics laboratory at theOxford Road site, which opened in 1872. This laboratory became the heart of the department; it waswell equipped with facilities for optical, electrical and radiant heat measurement. Stewart insistedthat experimental work was a key part of the emerging physics syllabus, and physics students wererequired to attend up to two practical classes a week, with the option of undertaking further labwork of their own.
In 1881, an appointment of major significance was made, when Arthur Schuster became professor ofapplied mathematics (J.J. Thomson, another former Owens student, and Oliver Lodge were unsuccessfulcandidates). Although Schuster was officially in the maths department, he worked closely withcolleagues in physics (he also had close connections to the chemistry department). Schuster hadresearch interests in a number of areas of physics, including spectroscopy, cosmic physics,meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, and electricity. In 1887 he succeeded Balfour Stewart asLangworthy professor of physics, and head of the Physical laboratories.
Schuster was very keen to promote research; he introduced a physics colloquium so that staff andstudents could discuss new projects. He recruited able researchers and teachers such as C H Lees,Robert Beattie, and Albert Griffiths. Schuster was also alive to the increasing importance ofphysics to industry, particularly electricity and magnetism, and he built up teaching and researchin these areas. As a result of his initiatives, by the early 1890s over a hundred students werestudying physics. Honours and masters degrees in physics were introduced, and some of theDepartment's students went on to become notable physicists, including Arthur Eddington, G AHemsalech, Walter Makower and Joseph Petavel. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Departmentwas arguably second only to the Cavendish Laboratory as a centre for academic physics inBritain.
In 1900 a new physics laboratory was opened in Coupland St., designed by J W Beaumont. Schusterhad played a major role in planning the building, which included facilities for spectroscopicresearch, photometry, low temperature physics, magnetism, electrical, and optical work. It includedseveral laboratories and a large lecture room seating 200. An observatory constructed by Messrs TCook & and sons of York, and the gift of Sir Thomas Bazley, was located on the roof. Ascientific instrument manufacturer was located adjacent to the Laboratories.
Following Schuster's retirement in 1907 Ernest Rutherford was appointed to the Langworthy chairof physics, (Rutherford was Schuster's preferred candidate). Rutherford had previously worked atMcGill University in Canada on nuclear physics, and shortly after coming to Manchester won the 1908Nobel Prize for physics. Under Rutherford's leadership, the department won a world reputation forits work in atomic physics. Rutherford's own work at Manchester included demonstrating that thealpha particle was a particle of helium, developing, with Hans Geiger, new methods of counting alphaparticles, and conducting the first artificial nuclear disintegration in 1919, achieved by thebombardment of nitrogen by alpha particles. Rutherford's research group notched up many importantachievements including Hans Geiger's prototype radiation counter, Geiger and Ernest Marsden'sdiscovery of the large-angle scattering of alpha particles,(which contributed to the Rutherford'stheory of the nuclear atom), Niels Bohr's work on quantification of electron orbits, and HerbertMoseley's research on X-ray line spectra and his discovery of atomic number.
In 1919 Rutherford moved to Cambridge and was succeeded by Lawrence Bragg, who had been ayouthful Nobel Laureate. Bragg's interests were in the X-ray analysis of atomic structure ofcrystals, and this became a major area of research at Manchester. Original work was undertaken inX-ray analysis of silicates and alloys, and two of Bragg's students, Henry Lipson and ArnoldBeevers, developed the Beevers-Lipson strips, used for complex computations in the pre-computer age.The Department continued to attract high profile researchers during the inter-war period, includingNeville Mott, Harold Robinson, Hans Bethe, W. H. Zachariasen, Rudolf Peirls and Douglas Hartree. Atthis time, the department was one of the largest for physics in the country.
In 1937, Patrick Blackett succeeded Bragg as Langworthy professor. Blackett, who had trainedunder Rutherford at Cambridge, came with a formidable reputation for original research in cosmicrays (his achievements included confirming the existence of the positron). At Manchester, Blackettcontinued work on cosmic rays, building up a major research school in this area. The Departmentnotched up some notable discoveries, including George Dixon Rochester and Clifford Charles Butler'sdiscovery of the Kaon, the first 'strange' particle, an elementary particle composed of a system ofquarks. Other areas of research included magnetic spectrographs, liquid time variations of cosmicrays, parallel plate spark counters, Cerenkov detectors, and experiments on penetrating showers atPic-du-Midi and Jungfraujoch. In his later years at Manchester, Blackett's interests shifted togeophysics, including studies of the Earth's magnetic fields and rock magnetism. He encouraged thedevelopment of astronomy as a departmental specialism (an area which had been neglected sinceSchuster's day); he supported Bernard Lovell's ground-breaking work in radio-astronomy, which was tolead to the establishment of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in the 1950s, and helped secure theappointment of Zdenek Kopal as professor of (optical) astronomy in 1952. Blackett also promoted thecomputing science, another area in which Manchester played an innovatory role in the post-warperiod.
In the post-war period, the organization of the department had become complex, with"sub-departments" in experimental physics, theoretical physics, astronomy and radio-astronomy(Jodrell Bank). Academic staff were organized into distinct research groups; for example, highenergy physics, low temperature, molecular, optics, polymers, and nuclear. Nuclear physics, inparticular, was a major research interest in the 1950s and 1960s, Blackett's successor as Langworthyprofessor, Samuel Devons specialised in this area. Devons' period of office between 1955 and 1960was dominated by the development of a heavy ion linear accelerator (the LINAC), eventuallyestablished at a site on Oxford Road.
Devons was succeeded by Brian Flowers as Langworthy professor in 1961; Flowers was also a nuclearphysicist, who came to Manchester from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in 1958, when he wasappointed to a chair of theoretical physics. Under Flowers' leadership, additional chairs weresecured for nuclear physics (John Willmott), low temperature physics (H.E. Hall) and high energyphysics (Paul Murphy). Flowers also oversaw the department's move to new accommodation in theUniversity Science Area in the Schuster building, opened in 1966. Flowers, who became adistinguished figure in public science, was seconded to the Science Research Council in the late1960s, whereupon John Willmott became de facto head of department. Thisposition was formalised in 1972, when Willmott was appointed as Flower's successor. Willmottremained head of department until 1989, when he was succeeded by the theoretical physicist, SandyDonnachie.
In the latter decades of the twentieth century, the department continued to be one of the largestphysics departments in the country. It taught not only honours physics, but also a chemical physicshonours degree, and joint degrees with chemistry, computer science, maths, electronic engineering,geology, and liberal studies in science. The physics syllabus was latterly organized around a "coreand options" scheme whereby undergraduates spent a total of two years on core physics subjects andone year on optional subjects, either in physics or in other science subjects. The Departmentremained very research active, with research groups for atomic physics, molecular physics, lasersand liquid crystals, X -ray spectroscopy, condensed matter physics, particle physics, nuclearstructure, optics and theoretical physics (in addition to the astronomy groups). The Department wasactively involved with external research facilities including the Daresbury Synchrotron RadiationSource, ISIS at the Rutherford Laboratory, Oxfordshire, CERN in Switzerland, DeutschesElektronen-Synchrotron in Germany, and the Institut Laue-Langevin in France.
In the 1992, the Department remained one of the largest in the University with over 70 members ofstaff, including 13 professors, 70 research fellows, and over 600 undergraduates and 140postgraduates studying physics.
With the establishment of the new University of Manchester in 2004, the Department wasreconstituted as the School of Physics and Astronomy.
Langworthy Professor of Physics and Director of the Physical Laboratories
- Balfour Stewart, 1870-1887
- Arthur Schuster, 1888-1907
- Ernest Rutherford, 1907-1919
- W.L. Bragg, 1919-1937
- Patrick Blackett, 1937-1953
- Samuel Devons, 1955-1960
- Brian Flowers, 1961-1972
Head of Department and Director of the Physical Laboratories
- John Willmott, 1972-1989
- Alexander Donnachie, 1989-1994
- W R Phillips, 1994-1997
- M A Moore, 1997-2004