Lawrence Bragg and the Cavendish Laboratory
Updated: May 13, 2020
This post is cross-posted (with minor modifications) from the Connecting with Collections blog.
This month the Connecting with Collections interns are all posting on the theme of who? In my last CwC post I raised some biographical issues and introduced my main subject, Derek de Solla Price. So this time I’ll write about a significant supporting character: Sir Lawrence Bragg.
Bragg is justly famous in the history of science: he remains the youngest ever winner of a Nobel Prize (at the age of 25 he shared the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics with his father William Henry Bragg, for their work developing X-ray crystallography). The previous year he had been elected to a fellowship and lectureship at Trinity College, Cambridge. During the First World War he developed techniques of sound ranging on the Western Front, and he succeeded Ernest Rutherford as Professor of Physics at Manchester University in 1919. In 1937 he was appointed Director of the National Physical Laboratory, but had not even left Manchester when Rutherford, who had moved to Cambridge, died. Against some misgivings from his father, Bragg replaced Rutherford again, this time as Cavendish Professor of Experimental Physics.
It is as Cavendish Professor that he interests us. J. A. Ratcliffe, head of the radio ionosphere research group at the Cavendish and a trusted lieutenant of Bragg, had this to say about him:
A Cavendish Professor plays at least four parts. He must be a scientist, run the laboratory, uphold the interests of the department in the University, and act as an Elder Statesman of Science outside. Bragg was pre-eminently the active scientist, and he ran the laboratory extremely well. I do not think he played the part that some others have done in the University itself, and I am not sure that his part as Elder Statesman was quite as large as theirs would have been. I found him extremely helpful and kindly, and above all things a real gentleman in every way. He was quite open and straight-forward and ready to help anyone who had the good of the laboratory at heart. I think there was an extremely good feeling in the laboratory during his time and all liked him.
That’s a pretty glowing report for a boss to receive, and it is clear that Bragg excelled as a manager. As soon as he came to the Cavendish he was thinking strategically about how it needed to change, and he explained his ideas in 1942 in Physicists After the War: Britain produced just one good physicist per million population and the demand for physicists exceeded supply. In future, scientists would need to pay more attention to the technical applications of their research. His ideas in this field influenced Derek Price, who would go on to develop the field of scientometrics – the statistical study of science.
He felt his role as a manager was to create the conditions for discoveries to take place. The best conditions for “brain-waves”, he felt, involved collaboration, discussion, and cross-fertilisation of ideas. They did not arise in large, amorphous organisations, or come to isolated individuals. So he restructured the Cavendish into research units, of 6-12 scientists, with a few assistants, one or two mechanics, and a workshop. (It was apparently very important that the workshop be well supplied with junk, so that new ideas could be tried out quickly and at low cost.) The rapid expansion of the Cavendish (from about 40 researchers before WWII to 160 by 1948) meant that some research groups had to be sub-divided. Nevertheless, he promoted contact between groups, and encouraged senior researchers to continue teaching undergraduates, hoping that this would stimulate the flow of ideas.
The fact that each group had its own workshop (as well as a central workshop for the largest and most specialised tasks) meant that there was some duplication of functions. Bragg felt that it was better to have extra machines and occasional underemployment of technicians, than to delay research because the workshops were too busy.
It was in one of these workshops that King Arthur’s Table was built. Derek Price had come to the Cavendish to put the archives in order and catalogue the Laboratory’s collection of antique scientific instruments. Bragg supported Price’s application for an ICI Fellowship to fund his PhD studies on medieval astronomical instruments, and it seems likely that Bragg took advantage of the workshops’ flexibility to commission them to produce a six-foot wood and brass equatorium – rather different from their usual work in cutting-edge physics!
These kinds of jobs were done without paperwork, so I am unlikely to be able to discover the precise circumstances of the equatorium’s production. But I am glad to have discovered more about a major contributor to the success of the Cavendish Laboratory, and a key figure in twentieth-century science.