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's research covered many areas, including spectroscopy, cosmic physics, meteorology, terrestrial magnetism, and electricity. In 1887 he succeeded Balfour Stewart as Langworthy Professor of Physics, and Director 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 promoted 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, 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 Peierls 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 his work on cosmic rays (his achievements included confirming the existence of the positron). 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 was 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