Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of ROBERT WILLIAM DITCHBURN FRS (1903 - 1987)

This record is held by University of Reading: Special Collections

Details of NCUACS 6/5/88
Reference: NCUACS 6/5/88
Title: Catalogue of the papers and correspondence of ROBERT WILLIAM DITCHBURN FRS (1903 - 1987)





SECTION C DIAMOND CONSULTANCY With an introductory note NCUACS 6/5/88/C.1-NCUACS 6/5/88/C.22






The collection, although small in size, offers a respectable amount of biographical material, material relating to Ditchburn's principal publications and diamond research at Reading and some scientific correspondence.


Section A, Biographical, consists of Ditchburn's own material relating to his career, including curricula vitae and a typescript copy of his 'Reminiscences' for The Making of Physicists, and letters containing the recollections of colleagues, students and friends sent to G W Series while he was compiling the Royal Society memoir. The final draft of the memoir is at NCUACS 6/5/88/A.1.


Section B, Publications and Lectures, comprises a chronological sequence of notes, drafts, correspondence and other material relating to Ditchburn's publications and lectures. Unfortunately his university lectures and seminars are represented only by NCUACS 6/5/88/B.4, a notebook for lectures given by Ditchburn probably while professor at Trinity College Dublin.


There is a considerable body of material relating to the English language editions of Light (NCUACS 6/5/88/B.8-NCUACS 6/5/88/B.30).


At the end of the sequence is a small subsection (NCUACS 6/5/88/B.57-NCUACS 6/5/88/B.59) devoted to Ditchburn's work for the Pugwash movement, principally papers and lecture notes on armaments and energy.


Section C, Diamond Consultancy, is a chronologically presented sequence of, mainly, correspondence between Ditchburn and colleagues in South Africa regarding progress in research at Reading.


Section D, Scientific Correspondence, consists of letters arranged alphabetically by correspondent, chiefly about light and vision. It includes a 1935 letter from Sir J Chadwick (NCUACS 6/5/88/D.8) thanking Ditchburn for recommending him for the Nobel Prize in Physics which he received that year. Also of interest is a letter Ditchburn sent in 1975 to the Burmah Oil Company suggesting that their investment in research into achieving nuclear fusion through laser systems was unlikely to have any commercially viable result (NCUACS 6/5/88/D.6).


At NCUACS 6/5/88/D.12 is 1970 correspondence with D Fishlock, science correspondent of the Financial Times, who enquired about a second world war government campaign encouraging the consumption of carrots as an aid to night vision.


Section E, Non-print material, is largely group photographs taken at various conferences. There is also a photograph of students at the Cavendish Laboratory 1927 (NCUACS 6/5/88/E.1). NCUACS 6/5/88/E.11 is a tape-recording of a lecture by Ditchburn on Sir J J Thomson.


Compiled by Peter Harper and Timothy E. Powell


The work of the National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, and the production of this catalogue, are made possible by the support of the following societies and organisations:


The Biochemical Society


The British Library


The City of Bath


The Geological Society


The Institute of Physics


Pergamon Books


The Royal Society


The Royal Society of Chemistry


The Society of Chemical Industry




We are very grateful to Mrs Doreen Ditchburn for making available her husband's papers, and to Professor G W Series for a draft of his Royal Society memoir and the material assembled for it.

Date: 1919-ca1988
Related material:

The University of Liverpool Archives hold 7 notebooks dating from Ditchburn's undergraduate courses 1920-22 (NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367). See appendix.


The Manuscripts Department of Cambridge University Library possesses an early undated notebook recording experiments (Add. MS 8637).


The Admiralty Research Establishment holds a collection of papers relating to Ditchburn's wartime research there.


Mrs Ditchburn retains a little personal material.




The University of Liverpool archives holds seven notebooks compiled by Ditchburn while an undergraduate at the University 1920-22, and has provided the following listing which is reproduced here by permission.


Notebooks compiled by Professor Robert W. Ditchburn, F.R.S. whilst a student on the Practical course for the Honours B.Sc. in Physics, 1920-21, deposited by Professor Ditchburn (B.Sc. Maths and Physics 1920, B.Sc. Hons. in Physics 1922), 9 Summerfield Rise, Goring, Reading, RG8 ODS, 2 June 1986, and 13 June 1986, and 20 February 1987.


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367




1. Professor Ditchburn entered the University in October 1919 at the age of 16 years, having attended Bootle Secondary School and obtained the Higher School Certificate (in Maths, Physics and Chemistry, with French as Subsidiary) in 1917. By permission of the Faculty of Science Professor Ditchburn was exempted from the Intermediate B.Sc. examination and was allowed to sit the Final Examination for the B.Sc. (Pass Degree) in Maths and Physics in June 1920, which he passed First Class. The degree of B.Sc. Honours in Physics was conferred on Professor Ditchburn in July 1922. During Session 1923-24 Professor Ditchburn was a registered external research student, working on 'the atomic nucleus'. During Sessions 1919-20 to 1921-22 inclusive Professor Ditchburn held a Bibby Scholarship (see The University of Liverpool Calendar 1919-20 p.431) and also a Pennington (Peace) Scholarship [awarded by Bootle County Borough Council].


2. Professor Ditchburn was successively Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy in Dublin University, 1929-46, and Professor of Physics at the University of Reading, 1946-68. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1962.


For fuller details see the entry for Professor Ditchburn in Who's Who 1986, p.471.


Professor Ditchburn contributed his Reminiscences (of his student career at Liverpool and Cambridge), as chapter one, to Rajkumari Williamson (ed.), The Making of Physicists (Adam Hilger, Bristol, 1987).


3. For a few more details about the Physics courses see the Faculty of Science Prospectus of Courses Session 1920-21. The University of Liverpool's Calendar 1920-21 indicates that, apart from Professor L.R. Wilberforce, the following were then the members of the academic staff of the Department of Physics: Mr. J. Rice (Senior Lecturer), Mr. R. Ablett and Mr. E. Edwards (Demonstrators and Junior Lecturers), and Mr. J.E. Crackston (Oliver Lodge Fellow). Professor Ditchburn believes that the Practical course which he took was supervised by Professor Wilberforce and Mr. Ablett. The notebooks provide no evidence of the names of the supervisors (who occasionally tick the results of the experiments) with the sole exception of Experiment No.11 which is ticked by J.E.C. [Crackston], 25 April 1921.


4. Professor Ditchburn thinks that he had about 10 lecture notebooks in all, but that he does not think there is any likelihood that he will locate further volumes.


5. NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/7 was, with the agreement of Professor Ditchburn, transferred by the Keeper of Archives and Manuscripts, University of Reading, in February 1987. Professor Ditchburn deposited this volume with the Keeper on 21 June 1967 (ref. Acc. No.544) whilst he was Professor of Physics at the University of Reading.


6. The death of Professor Ditchburn was recorded in the 11 May 1987 issue of Precinct (University of Liverpool).


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/1-2 Notebooks (illustrated by diagrams, graphs, etc.) compiled by Professor Ditchburn whilst a student on the Practical course for the Honours B.Sc. in Physics, Session 1920-21:-


1. Notes on the method followed in writing up the results of the experiments, followed by notes on the experiments (the following brief details being taken from the list of contents of the volume):- (1 vol.)


1. Elasticity of a copper wire


2. Viscosity


3. Self-Induction


4. Mutual Induction


5. Coefficient of Restitution


6. Newtons Rings


7. Cardinal Points


8. Surface Tension


9. Frequency of Fork


10. Low Resistance (a) Lord Rayleigh's method


(b) Lord Kelvin's method


11. Focal Length of Objectives Covers period from 12 Oct. 1920 up to 17 Feb. 1921.


2. Notes on experiments (the following brief details being taken from the list of contents of the volume):- (1 vol.)


12. Diffraction Phenomena


13. Fresnel's Biprism


14. Thermoelectric E.M.F.


15. Resistance of Electrolyte (Kohbrausch's method)


16. Capillary Electrometer


17. Hysteresis (Magnetometer)


18. Hysteresis (Ballistic)


19. Resolution of Telescope


20. Quarter Wave Plate


21. Convergent Light Polariscope


22. Conductivity of Metal Bar


23. Thermoelectricity


24. Conductivity of Glass


25. Indices of Iceland Spar


26. Saccharimetry


27. Focal Line


28. Focal Planes and Principal Planes of a Ramsden Eyepiece


Covers period 21 Feb. 1921 onwards.


Loose in the volume: typescript (carbon copy) instructions for conducting an experiment to determine the velocity of light by measurement of the ratio of the electro-magnetic to the electro-static unit of capacity, n.d.


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/3 Notes on lectures given on Course F [Mathematical Physics] in the Department of Physics, 27 Oct. 1920, 3 Nov. 1920, and n.d. [Oct. and Nov. 1920]. (1 vol.)


Loose in the volume: two sheets of notes on [a] lecture given on the same course, 29 Nov. 1920.


Above the name of R.W. Ditchburn at the front of this volume appears the signature of 'Alex Irving'. Professor Ditchburn cannot recollect Mr. Irving but presumes that he must have given him a part-used notebook, the first few pages of this notebook having been cut out. [There appears to be no reference to Mr. Alex Irving as a student at the University: there is no Student Dossier for him and he does not appear in the lists of graduates given in the Calendars.]


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/4 Notes on lectures given on Course F [Mathematical Physics] in the Department of Physics, (1 vol.)


10 Dec. 1920 (sic) ('Tensors (cont.)' [continued from notes on undated lecture Tensors in NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/3], 12 Oct. 1920, and 19 Nov. 1920.


Across a majority of the pages is written "Copied" indicating that a fair copy of the notes was later made.


These notes are written in a "Notes of Lectures. University of Liverpool" notebook bought from Philip, Son and Nephew, Ltd., University Booksellers, 3, Bedford Street, N., Liverpool.


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/5 Notes (a) on lectures "XXIII - XXIX" on Magnetism and Electromagnetism [probably given by Mr. James Rice, Senior Lecturer in Physics] (1 vol.) on pages paginated 1-201, the odd numbered pages only being used for these particular lectures.


n.d. [?1921-22]


(b) on lectures X - XXI on Magnetism and Electromagnetism on pages paginated 128-2, the even numbered pages only being used for these lectures (e.g. 128, 126, 124, etc.)


n.d. [? 1921-22]


Loose in the volume: notes on "reciprocal M. Lauberts for five point graphs" (1 sheet)


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/6 Notes on lectures [I] - IV and unnumbered on Electro-magnetic Theory, Dispersion, and Magneto-optics, [probably given by Mr. J. Rice subsequently to those in NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/5] n.d. [? 1921-22] (1 vol.)


At the back of this volume (which is numbered "II") are:-


(a) Notes [on a lecture on] "some mathematical theorems", and


(b) Notes on Professor H.A. Lorentz's "Rede" Lecture on Maxwell's Electromagnetic Theory, delivered at Cambridge on 15 May 1923.


NCUACS 6/5/88/D.367/7 Notes on lectures given in the Department of Physics:- (1 vol.)


(a) (pp. 1-219, odd numbered pages only being used)


Electricmagnetic Theory lectures [I] - VI given by Mr. James Rice, [Senior lecturer in Physics]. 12 Jan. 1921 - n.d. [?Feb. 1921]


(b) (pp. 124-234, even numbered pages only being used; start at the other end of the volume to (a)).


Note on the Telegraphic Equation, n.d. [?Feb. 1921], followed by notes on lectures on Physical Optics,


4 march 1921 - 11 March 1921, and brief notes on Lecture X on Convergent Light, 17 March 1920.


These notes are written in a notebook on which the name and coat of arms of The University of Liverpool appear on the cover.

Held by: University of Reading: Special Collections, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Ditchburn, Robert William, 1903-1987, scientist and physicist

Physical description: 4 boxes
Immediate source of acquisition:

The papers were received in June 1988 from Mrs Doreen Ditchburn and Professor G W Series, FRS, the author of the Royal Society memoir of Ditchburn.

Publication note:

For a full account of the life and career of Ditchburn see G W Series' Royal Society memoir 'Robert William Ditchburn 1903-1987', on which the above outline has freely drawn.

  • Optics
  • Light
  • Physics
Administrative / biographical background:



Robert William Ditchburn was born in Waterloo, Lancashire, in 1903. He attended Bootle Grammar School (where his father, who graduated in Physics from the University of London, was Headmaster) from 1911. At the age of 16 Ditchburn won a Bibby Scholarship to Liverpool University where he was exempted from the first year course because he held a Higher School Certificate in relevant subjects.


Ditchburn passed the Ordinary Degree in Mathematics and Physics in 1920 and gained his BSc Honours in Physics in 1922. He also was successful in the Cambridge University Scholarship Examination and was admitted to Trinity College the same year. As he already had a degree in Physics Ditchburn was excused Part I of the Tripos. He graduated in 1924.


In 1923 Ditchburn had won a four year Senior Scholarship and this, together with the Isaac Newton Scholarship held 1925-28 and various academic prizes, enabled him to study for his PhD at the Cavendish Laboratory under Sir J J Thomson, its former Head.


Apparently with no great hope of success Ditchburn applied for a fellowship at Trinity College Dublin in 1928. He was in fact elected and a year later was appointed Erasmus Smith's Professor of Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Dublin University. Also in 1929 Ditchburn married Doreen Barrett. They remained in Dublin until 1946, except for three years from 1942 during which Ditchburn served as Principal Experimental Officer at the Admiralty Research Laboratory, Teddington.


Ditchburn returned to England in 1946 to take up the Chair of Physics at Reading University. As Head of the Department he oversaw a considerable growth in the study of physics at the University; from 1946 to his retirement in 1968 the staff of the Department increased from three to over thirty. This expansion, which Ditchburn himself thought his single most important contribution to science, culminated in the opening in 1960 of the J J Thomson Physical Laboratory, built on the new Whiteknights site.


An important field of study of the Physics Department, initiated at the suggestion of Sir Francis Simon in 1953, was diamond research, particularly the investigation of the effects of radiation on diamonds. In the years thereafter the University of Reading was to assume a prominent position in this field.


In 1956 Ditchburn was instrumental in forming an international Diamond Research Committee, acting as chairman from its inception until 1982. He served as a consultant on diamonds to De Beers and helped to establish a sound administrative base for the company's research into synthesising diamonds, a project which was eventually successful.


Ditchburn retired in 1968 though he remained active in the fields of diamond research and optics. He also found time to research the illness of Sir Isaac Newton, disputing the suggestion that he died of mercury poisoning.


At about this time Ditchburn became strongly committed to the Pugwash movement and attended the 1967 conference in Sweden. He produced a number of papers for Pugwash meetings on the subject of armaments and the energy crisis.


Ditchburn's Royal Society memorialist identifies his principal research areas as the photo-ionization of gases and vapours, other absorption processes relevant to the upper atmosphere, the optical properties of solids, (especially diamonds) and the effect of eye movements on visual perception. His most important publication, Light, was first published in 1952 and, with revised editions 1963 and 1976, became a standard textbook dealing with all aspects of the subject.


His interest in eye movements may have been inspired by his wartime research at Teddington. In his later years Ditchburn concentrated on this topic, publishing his second major work, Eye Movements and Visual Perception, in 1973, five years after retirement.


Ditchburn's scientific achievements were recognised with numerous honours and awards. He was elected to the Fellowship of the Royal Irish Academy 1930, serving on its council twice, 1933-1939 and 1942-1943. He was made a Fellow of both the Physical Society (1943) and the Institute of Physics (1949). In 1952-1955 he was on the council of the Physical Society and was vice-president 1958-1960, delivering the Society's Thomas Young Oration in 1959. Ditchburn then served a further two years as vice-president of the newly-merged Physical Society and Institute of Physics.


He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society 1962 and served on several of its committees. He was also on the British National Committees for Physics, Astronomy and Radio-Science and the National Subcommittee for Optics 1948-1966 (chairman from 1961).


In addition to these and other positions and honours Ditchburn was a Fellow of the Optical Society of America and in 1983 was awarded the prestigious C E X Mees Medal for his contribution to optics research.

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