University of Manchester, Department of Physics Archive

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

Archive of the University of Manchester's department of physics.

The archive is fragmentary, but includes material from the earliest years of the department. Most material dates from 1870-1910, and the 1960s-1990s. It is not believed that archival records for the intervening period are extant.

Of particular interest are a series of laboratory record books (DPH/2) dating from 1872-1910, which provide detailed information on students' experimental work (note: these do not include information on research work by staff). The records provide detailed information on the development of laboratory teaching within the physics syllabus in this period. As such, the records books are rare survivals of the earliest period of laboratory physics instruction in a British university.

Committee minutes (DPH/1) date from the period when formal committee organization was being developed in the department in the 1960s. The minutes include those of the Departmental Board, the senior departmental committee, which had overview for many academic and administrative arrangements within the Department. Information about the Department's work can also be picked up from the Departmental handbooks which date from the 1960s to the 1990s and include information on syllabus, research work and facilities (DPH/3). The archive also includes a letter book (DPH/4) dating 1871-1882; this provides limited, but interesting, information on administrative arrangements within the Department, including relations with equipment suppliers.

The archive contains a number of photos, dating from the 1890s to the 1950s (DPH/5). These are mostly departmental groups of staff and students. Finally, the collection includes an interesting notebook of a former Student Doris Bailey, who recorded lectures on radioactivity, delivered, it is believed, by Hans Geiger in the 1910/11 session (DPH/6/1).

Administrative / Biographical History

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 in its 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). Balfour Stewart (1828-1887) had been a meteorologist at Kew Observatory, and his main research interests were in the areas of radiation and geomagnetism. Initially Stewart's energies at Manchester were directed to building up physics as a taught discipline. He designed a new physics laboratory at the Oxford Road site, which opened in 1872. This laboratory became the heart of the department; it was well equipped with facilities for optical, electrical and radiant heat measurement. Stewart insisted that experimental work was a key part of the emerging physics syllabus, and physics students were required to attend up to two practical classes a week, with the option of undertaking further lab work of their own.

In 1881, an appointment of major significance was made, when Arthur Schuster became professor of applied mathematics (J.J. Thomson, another former Owens student, and Oliver Lodge were unsuccessful candidates). Although Schuster was officially in the maths department, he worked closely with colleagues in physics (he also had close connections to the chemistry department). Schuster had research interests in a number of areas of physics, including spectroscopy, cosmic physics, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, and electricity. In 1887 he succeeded Balfour Stewart as Langworthy professor of physics, and head of the Physical laboratories.

Schuster was very keen to promote research; he introduced a physics colloquium so that staff and students 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 of physics to industry, particularly electricity and magnetism, and he built up teaching and research in these areas. As a result of his initiatives, by the early 1890s over a hundred students were studying physics. Honours and masters degrees in physics were introduced, and some of the Department's students went on to become notable physicists, including Arthur Eddington, G A Hemsalech, Walter Makower and Joseph Petavel. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Department was arguably second only to the Cavendish Laboratory as a centre for academic physics in Britain.

In 1900 a new physics laboratory was opened in Coupland St., designed by J W Beaumont. Schuster had played a major role in planning the building, which included facilities for spectroscopic research, photometry, low temperature physics, magnetism, electrical, and optical work. It included several laboratories and a large lecture room seating 200. An observatory constructed by Messrs T Cook & and sons of York, and the gift of Sir Thomas Bazley, was located on the roof. A scientific instrument manufacturer was located adjacent to the Laboratories.

Following Schuster's retirement in 1907 Ernest Rutherford was appointed to the Langworthy chair of physics, (Rutherford was Schuster's preferred candidate). Rutherford had previously worked at McGill University in Canada on nuclear physics, and shortly after coming to Manchester won the 1908 Nobel Prize for physics. Under Rutherford's leadership, the department won a world reputation for its work in atomic physics. Rutherford's own work at Manchester included demonstrating that the alpha particle was a particle of helium, developing, with Hans Geiger, new methods of counting alpha particles, and conducting the first artificial nuclear disintegration in 1919, achieved by the bombardment of nitrogen by alpha particles. Rutherford's research group notched up many important achievements including Hans Geiger's prototype radiation counter, Geiger and Ernest Marsden's discovery of the large-angle scattering of alpha particles,(which contributed to the Rutherford's theory of the nuclear atom), Niels Bohr's work on quantification of electron orbits, and Herbert Moseley'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 a youthful Nobel Laureate. Bragg's interests were in the X-ray analysis of atomic structure of crystals, and this became a major area of research at Manchester. Original work was undertaken in X-ray analysis of silicates and alloys, and two of Bragg's students, Henry Lipson and Arnold Beevers, 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, including Neville Mott, Harold Robinson, Hans Bethe, W. H. Zachariasen, Rudolf Peirls and Douglas Hartree. At this 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 trained under Rutherford at Cambridge, came with a formidable reputation for original research in cosmic rays (his achievements included confirming the existence of the positron). At Manchester, Blackett continued work on cosmic rays, building up a major research school in this area. The Department notched up some notable discoveries, including George Dixon Rochester and Clifford Charles Butler's discovery of the Kaon, the first 'strange' particle, an elementary particle composed of a system of quarks. Other areas of research included magnetic spectrographs, liquid time variations of cosmic rays, parallel plate spark counters, Cerenkov detectors, and experiments on penetrating showers at Pic-du-Midi and Jungfraujoch. In his later years at Manchester, Blackett's interests shifted to geophysics, including studies of the Earth's magnetic fields and rock magnetism. He encouraged the development of astronomy as a departmental specialism (an area which had been neglected since Schuster's day); he supported Bernard Lovell's ground-breaking work in radio-astronomy, which was to lead to the establishment of the radio telescope at Jodrell Bank in the 1950s, and helped secure the appointment of Zdenek Kopal as professor of (optical) astronomy in 1952. Blackett also promoted the computing science, another area in which Manchester played an innovatory role in the post-war period.

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, high energy physics, low temperature, molecular, optics, polymers, and nuclear. Nuclear physics, in particular, was a major research interest in the 1950s and 1960s, Blackett's successor as Langworthy professor, Samuel Devons specialised in this area. Devons' period of office between 1955 and 1960 was dominated by the development of a heavy ion linear accelerator (the LINAC), eventually established at a site on Oxford Road.

Devons was succeeded by Brian Flowers as Langworthy professor in 1961; Flowers was also a nuclear physicist, who came to Manchester from the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in 1958, when he was appointed to a chair of theoretical physics. Under Flowers' leadership, additional chairs were secured for nuclear physics (John Willmott), low temperature physics (H.E. Hall) and high energy physics (Paul Murphy). Flowers also oversaw the department's move to new accommodation in the University Science Area in the Schuster building, opened in 1966. Flowers, who became a distinguished figure in public science, was seconded to the Science Research Council in the late 1960s, whereupon John Willmott became de facto head of department. This position was formalised in 1972, when Willmott was appointed as Flower's successor. Willmott remained head of department until 1989, when he was succeeded by the theoretical physicist, Sandy Donnachie.

In the latter decades of the twentieth century, the department continued to be one of the largest physics departments in the country. It taught not only honours physics, but also a chemical physics honours 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 "core and options" scheme whereby undergraduates spent a total of two years on core physics subjects and one year on optional subjects, either in physics or in other science subjects. The Department remained very research active, with research groups for atomic physics, molecular physics, lasers and liquid crystals, X -ray spectroscopy, condensed matter physics, particle physics, nuclear structure, optics and theoretical physics (in addition to the astronomy groups). The Department was actively involved with external research facilities including the Daresbury Synchrotron Radiation Source, ISIS at the Rutherford Laboratory, Oxfordshire, CERN in Switzerland, Deutsches Elektronen-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 of staff, including 13 professors, 70 research fellows, and over 600 undergraduates and 140 postgraduates studying physics.

With the establishment of the new University of Manchester in 2004, the Department was reconstituted 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


Archive arranged by series as follows:

  • DPH/1 - Departmental committee minutes
  • DPH/2 - Laboratory records
  • DPH/3 - Promotional material
  • DPH/4 - Letter books
  • DPH/5 - Photographs
  • DPH/6 - Records relating to departmental students

Conditions Governing Access

Access conditions apply to use of this collection; some items are closed to public inspection.

The collection includes material which is subject to the Data Protection Act 1998. Open parts of this collection, and the catalogue descriptions, may contain personal data about living individuals. Under Section 33 of the Data Protection Act 1998 (DPA), The University of Manchester Library (UML) holds the right to process personal data for research purposes. The Data Protection (Processing of Sensitive Personal Data) Order 2000 enables the UML to process sensitive personal data for research purposes. In accordance with the DPA, the UML has made every attempt to ensure that all personal and sensitive personal data has been processed fairly, lawfully and accurately. Users of the archive are expected to comply with the Data Protection Act 1998, and will be required to sign a form acknowledging that they will abide by the requirements of the Act in any further processing of the material by themselves.

Some items in this collection may be closed to public inspection in line with the requirements of the DPA and other legislation. Restrictions/closures of specific items will be indicated in the catalogue.

Acquisition Information

The archive was maintained at the department until transferred to the University Archives on several dates between 1990-2010 by members of the Department, particularly Professor Robin Marshall.

The archive is owned by the University of Manchester.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.


Further accruals expected. Records of the post-2004 School of Physics and Astronomy will be treated as a separate collection.

Related Material

The activities of the radio-astronomy section of the Department are contained within the Jodrell Bank Observatory archive (JBA), also held by UML. Records of the Whitworth Meteorological Observatory (WMO), which was run by the Department, are maintained as a separate collection (these contain weather data only).

Arthur Schuster's papers include information on the Department, particularly relating to the 1900 building (SCH).

Relevant files in the Vice-Chancellor's archive include:

  • VCA/7/71 - Department of Physics, 1933-1949
  • VCA/7/378 - Department of Physics, 1946-1968
  • VCA/7/623 - Department of Physics, 1970-1982
  • VCA/7/22 - Chair of Engineering Physics (Hartree)
  • VCA/7/90 - Chair of Theoretical Physics (Rosenfeld)
  • VCA/7/226 - Langworthy Chair of Physics (Blackett)
  • VCA/7/509 - Langworthy Chair of Physics (Devons)
  • VCA/7/510 - Chair of Theoretical Physics (Flowers)
  • VCA/7/511 - Chairs of Physics (Hall/Paul)
  • VCA/7/512 - Chair of Theoretical Physics (Edwards)
  • VCA/7/513 - Chair of Physics (Willmott)
  • VCA/7/514 - Chair of Physics (Murphy)
  • VCA/7/515 - Chair of Theoretical Physics (Donachie)
. A number of these files are subject to access restrictions, and material may be closed to public inspection.

Annual reports of the Department (to 1996) can be found in the Reports of Council to Court (UOP/2); staff lists etc. are available in the University calendars (UOP/1). The Faculty of Science archive (FSC) has information on the development of the physics curriculum and syllabus from 1903-2004.

Papers of former departmental members are available at other repositories including Patrick Blackett's papers at the Royal Society (GB 117 Blackett); Lawrence Bragg's at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (BRAGG), and Brian Flowers at Imperial College Archives and Corporate Records Unit, London (B/Flowers).


A comprehensive history of the Department has yet to be written. Robert Kargon, Science in Victorian Manchester (Baltimore 1977)  has a brief but informative discussion of the Department under Stewart and Schuster. Arthur Schuster The Physical Laboratories of the University of Manchester (1906) , while not a history, is a good overview of the Department's work to 1906, and includes much on the 1900 laboratories. Post-war activities of the Department are described in passing in Brian Pullan's two volume History of the University of Manchester (Manchester 2000, 2003). See also J. B. Birks, Rutherford at Manchester (London 1962).

Geographical Names