Catalogue description Catalogue of supplementary papers and correspondence of Sir Joseph John Thomson, FRS (1856-1940), physicist.

This record is held by Cambridge University: Trinity College Library

Details of NCUACS 91.4.00
Reference: NCUACS 91.4.00
Title: Catalogue of supplementary papers and correspondence of Sir Joseph John Thomson, FRS (1856-1940), physicist.

















The material in this collection covers the period 1836-1956. It is presented in eight sections in the order given in the list of contents.


Section A, Biographical, covers the period 1874-1956. The material includes biographical profiles, certificates, press cuttings, photographs and invitations. Correspondence and papers used by Lord Rayleigh in the preparation of his biography of Thomson The Life of Sir J. J. Thomson O.M. sometime master of Trinity College, Cambridge (Cambridge, 1942) can be found at NCUACS 91.4.00/A.23-NCUACS 91.4.00/A.31. NCUACS 91.4.00/A.110-NCUACS 91.4.00/A.143 includes press cuttings on Thomson's lectures and reviews of his publications. Certificates are at NCUACS 91.4.00/A.72-NCUACS 91.4.00/A.103.


Section B, Family and personal, is the largest in the collection and spans the period 1836-1952. The bulk of the material consists of family and personal correspondence sent to members of the Thomson and Paget families between 1872 and 1952. This correspondence has been arranged by recipient, thus for example, letters from Thomson to his wife are to be found in Lady Thomson's correspondence at NCUACS 91.4.00/B.45-NCUACS 91.4.00/B.53 rather than in that of Thomson himself (NCUACS 91.4.00/B.1-NCUACS 91.4.00/B.6). There is significant correspondence sent to Thomson, 1873-1940, but the largest component of the section, at NCUACS 91.4.00/B.45-NCUACS 91.4.00/B.639, is correspondence and papers of Lady Thomson covering the period 1872-1950. This includes family and personal correspondence received by Lady Thomson, notebooks and diaries, and correspondence from societies and organisations. At NCUACS 91.4.00/B.640-NCUACS 91.4.00/B.679 is correspondence received by other family members including G.P. Thomson, J.P. Thomson, F.V. Thomson and G.E. Paget. The section also includes photographs, household accounts and a little miscellaneous material.


Section C, Trinity College, Cambridge, consists chiefly of incoming correspondence sent to Thomson as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and covers the period 1918-1944. The bulk relates to College matters including students, Fellows, meetings etc., but there is also business and personal correspondence including letters of congratulations on Thomson's installation as Master in 1918.


The correspondence includes letters from Cambridge colleagues such as E. Rutherford, R.T. Glazebrook, J.G. Frazer and A. Schuster. The section also includes invitations to social occasions received by the Thomson and replies to invitations to social events hosted by the Thomsons between 1918 and 1938. There are also a small number of Trinity College entrance examination papers and scripts.


Section D, Research, is very slight. It consists of a few research notes and photographs for the period 1893 to 1934.


Section E, Societies and organisations, is also slight. It has been arranged in alphabetical order and covers the period 1886-1930. The most significant material is that at E.10-E.28 - reports and minutes of the Committee on Science in the Educational System of Great Britain, which Thomson chaired between 1902 and 1920. There is also a small amount of Royal Society material.


Section F, Lectures, speeches and publications, covers the period 1876-1938. There is material on a number of Thomson's public lectures and speeches including lectures given at the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Winnipeg, Canada, 1909. A notebook at NCUACS 91.4.00/F.27 has typescript notes on lectures delivered at Cambridge by Thomson. Publications material includes manuscript drafts of the first edition of Conduction of Electricity through Gases (Cambridge 1903) and Rays of Positive Electricity (London 1913).


Press cuttings on Thomson's lectures and publications can be found at NCUACS 91.4.00/A.110-NCUACS 91.4.00/A.143.


Section G, Visits and conferences, is not extensive. The material has been arranged in chronological order 1896-1938. It includes brief correspondence on the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, 1909.


Section H, Correspondence, is presented in two sequences, scientific and general. The scientific sequence includes letters from G.G. Stokes, Lord Rayleigh (4th Baron) and Lord Kelvin. The general sequence is arranged in chronological order covering the period 1888-1938. A file of 'Letters to JJ from distinguished people and others' is at NCUACS 91.4.00/H.32-NCUACS 91.4.00/H.35, which includes correspondence from Arthur Balfour, Stanley Baldwin and Austen Chamberlain.


Compiled by Nicola Ashbridge, Adrian Nardone and Peter Harper


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 Crystallographic Association


The Geological Society


The Higher Education Funding Council for England


The Institute of Physics


The Royal Society


Trinity College Cambridge


The Wellcome Trust


We are very grateful to Mr D.P. Thomson for making the material available and for his advice and information.

Date: 1836-1956
Related material:

Papers and correspondence of Sir Joseph John Thomson previously catalogued by the Unit for Trinity College are deposited in Trinity College Cambridge. Ref: GB 0016 J.J. Thomson. Finding aid: CSAC catalogue no. 74/4/80.


Correspondence, notebooks and papers of Sir Joseph John Thomson are deposited in Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives. Ref: GB 0012 CUL Add 7654.


The papers and correspondence of Sir George Paget Thomson are deposited in Trinity College Cambridge. Ref: GB 0016 G.P. Thomson. Finding aid: CSAC catalogue no. 75/5/80.

Held by: Cambridge University: Trinity College Library, not available at The National Archives
Language: English

Thomson, Joseph John, 1856-1940, knight, scientist and physicist

Physical description: 59 boxes
Access conditions:








Immediate source of acquisition:

The papers were received from Mr David Paget Thomson, grandson, in August 1997 and December 1999.

Administrative / biographical background:

Joseph John Thomson was born in Cheetham Hill, Manchester on 18 December 1856. His father, Joseph James Thomson, was an antiquarian bookseller and publisher and his mother Emma Thomson (nèe Swindells) came from a branch of the local Vernon family who owned a cotton spinning company. Thomson was originally intended for an engineering apprenticeship. However, because of a long waiting list, he enrolled at Owens College in Manchester in 1871 (later University of Manchester) where he studied engineering, mathematics, physics and chemistry. Thomson had given up any thought of a career in engineering by the time he left Owens College in 1876. His ambition was to carry out original research.


In 1876 Thomson was awarded an Entrance Scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1880 he graduated from the Mathematical Tripos as Second Wrangler. After graduation Thomson stayed in Cambridge. He was made a Fellow of Trinity in 1880. It was at this stage that he decided to concentrate on physics and began experimental work at the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rayleigh. In 1881 Thomson published his first major paper in the Philosophical Magazine showing that an electrified sphere, by acting as a current when it moves, would have an extra mass as a result of its charge. This theory was the first hint of a connection between mass and energy.


Thomson was appointed a Lecturer at Trinity College in 1883 and in 1884 he succeeded Lord Rayleigh as Professor of Experimental Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. Under his direction the Cavendish Laboratory entered an era of new scientific discovery and became the leading experimental laboratory of physics in the scientific world. Thomson's fame attracted a succession of brilliant young men including E. Rutherford, J.S.E. Townsend and J.A. McClelland. Thomson held this post for 34 years.


Thomson continued research work on electric discharge through gases; he retained an interest in this line of experimentation for the rest of his life. However, it was overshadowed by his discovery of the electron. On 30 April 1897 Thomson gave the first public announcement of his discovery of the electron in a lecture at the Royal Institution. Thomson's discovery was based on the theory that a cathode ray particle is more than one thousand times lighter than the lightest chemical atom and a universal constituent of matter. This ground-breaking discovery opened up the field of subatomic physics to experimental investigation.


In 1905 Thomson turned his attention away from cathode rays towards positive rays and in 1912 Thomson and his research assistant F.W. Aston discovered isotopes of neon, the first nonradioactive isotopes to be identified.


During the First World War Thomson was advisor to various government departments. He was also a member of the Board of Invention and Research, which was set up in July 1915 by Arthur Balfour, who was then First Lord of the Admiralty, to organise the science of the country for war.


In 1918 Thomson was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. He resigned from the Cavendish Professorship and was succeeded by Rutherford. However he was appointed to an honorary professorship by the University, which enabled him to continue his researches in the Cavendish Laboratory. He held the Mastership until his death in 1940.


Thomson became a leading spokesman for science in this period and was a member of the University Grants Committee (1919-1923) and the Committee on Science in the Educational System of Great Britain. He also played an important part in the formation of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, which was set up in 1919. Thomson remained on its advisory council until 1927.


During his career Thomson was President of the Cambridge Philosophical Society 1894, and President of Section A of the British Association, 1896 and 1931. In 1909 Thomson also acted as President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at its annual meeting which was held in Winnipeg, Canada.


In 1884 Thomson was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. He received all the Royal Society medals for which he was eligible (Royal 1894, Hughes 1902, Copley 1914, Albert 1915), and served as President between 1915 and 1920. In 1906 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his theoretical and experimental investigations of the passage of electricity through gases. He received a Knighthood in 1908 and the Order of Merit in 1912. Thomson received many other honours for his contribution to science. He was honorary member of the Royal Society of Medicine, London, 1919, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1922, Institution of Civil Engineers, 1925. He was also President of the Junior Institution of Electrical Engineers, 1910, and Honorary Professor of Physics at the Royal Institution. He also received many honorary degrees including those from Oxford, Göttingen, Oslo, Dublin, St. Andrews, Athens and Baltimore.


Thomson married Rose Paget, daughter of Sir George Paget, Regius Professor of Physic at Cambridge, in 1890. They had two children, George Paget Thomson and Joan Paget Thomson. G.P. Thomson was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1937.


Thomson died 30 August 1940.

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