Papers and correspondence of Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett of Chelsea, 1897-1974

Archive Collection

Scope and Content

The papers are extensive, relating to almost every aspect of Blackett's career in science and public life. There is biographical and personal material including large numbers of letters of congratulation received on the occasion of the various scientific and public awards and honours with which Blackett's achievements were recognised. There are records of his work on particle disintegration, cosmic rays, astrophysics and magnetism in the form of laboratory notebooks, working papers, correspondence, lectures, publications and broadcasts. There is documentation of his activities on various defence projects and as a member of government committees before, during and after the Second World War. Blackett's political interests are represented by material relating to the Association of Scientific Workers, Labour Party discussion groups on science and technology policy and the Ministry of Technology instituted after the Party's 1964 electoral victory. There are records of a wide range of science-related interests such as the history of science and technology, science, education and government, and nuclear weapons and disarmament, and of his overseas activities including material relating specifically to India and that concerned with matters more generally affecting developing countries.

A few lacunae in the surviving material have been identified. There are no documents relative to Blackett's service with the National Research and Development Corporation or the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and, of his correspondence during the Second World War, only that for 1942 survives.

Administrative / Biographical History

Blackett was born in Kensington, London. He was educated at the Osborne Naval College and Dartmouth College for a career in the Royal Navy and saw action during the First World War at the Battle of Jutland. He resigned from the navy at the end of the war and entered Magdalene College, Cambridge to read for the Natural Sciences Tripos, 1919-1921. He became a research student under Rutherford at the Cavendish Laboratory in 1921, working with cloud chambers. In 1924 he succeeded in obtaining the first photographs of an atomic transmutation, which was of nitrogen into an oxygen isotope. He continued to develop the cloud chamber and in 1932, with the assistance of G. Occhialini, he designed a cloud chamber in which photographs of cosmic rays were taken automatically. Early in 1933 the device confirmed the existence of the positron. In the same year he became Professor of Physics at Birkbeck College, London where he continued his cosmic ray studies demonstrating in 1935 the formation of showers of positive and negative electrons from gamma rays in approximately equal numbers. In 1937 he succeeded W.L. Bragg as Langworthy Professor of Physics at Manchester University, continuing his cosmic ray work.

He was brought into the Air Defence Committee in 1936 by H.T. Tizard and during the Second World War he contributed to or directed several research projects such as proximity fuses and bombsights and greatly developed the technique of operational research, notably as applied to controversies over bombing policy and the U-boat campaign. He returned to academic life at the end of the war and, as a consequence of his research into cosmic rays, became interested in the history of the Earth's magnetic field and turned to the study of rock magnetism. In 1953 he was appointed Head of the Physics Department at Imperial College, London where he built up a team specialising in rock magnetism. He was Professor Emeritus and Senior Research Fellow, 1965-1974. Blackett was always politically committed to the left, and in later years to developing countries and especially to India. At certain periods he exerted influence, particularly after the Labour Party's General Election victory in 1964 when he became Deputy Chairman and Scientific Adviser, Advisory Council on Technology, Ministry of Technology.

Blackett received many honours and awards both in Britain and internationally. He was elected FRS in 1933 (Bakerian Lecture 1939, Royal Medal 1940, Copley Medal 1956, PRS 1965-1970), and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1948 for his work on particle disintegration and cosmic rays. He was appointed to the Order of Merit in 1967 and received a Life Peerage in 1969.

Arrangement

By section as follows: Biographical and personal, Particle disintegration, Astrophysics, Magnetism, Second World War and government committees, Political activities, Science-related interests, Overseas activities, Lectures, addresses, publications and broadcasts, Correspondence.

Conditions Governing Access

Papers retain the period of confidentiality agreed at time of the deposit. All new deposits closed for 30 years except by permission of Officers of the Royal Society or the person controlling access.

Other Finding Aids

Printed Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett, Baron Blackett of Chelsea: CSAC catalogue no. 63/2/79, 401 pp. Copies available from NCUACS, University of Bath.

Custodial History

Received for cataloguing in 1975-1976 by the Contemporary Scientific Archives Centre from Lady Blackett, widow. Deposited in the Royal Society in 1979.

Geographical Names