AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXVI , No. 2, Fall 2004

Balloons aunched from the top of the Bristol University Physics Building.
Balloons were at the heart of Cecil Powell and Peter Fowler's cosmic ray research, here launched from the top of the Bristol University Physics Building. Photo courtesy University of Bristol.

Click on photo to see a larger image.

Records of Bristol University's Cosmic Rays and Solid State Research Preserved
by Peter Harper

Cosmic Rays and the Solid State: Bristol Physics in the Twentieth Century: that is the title of a project completed earlier this year to catalog the archives of six Bristol physicists and add the catalogs to the national online Access to Archives (A2A) database hosted by The National Archives in London (

The National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists (NCUACS) at the University of Bath, UK, in its work in locating, cataloging and finding places of deposit for the archives of contemporary British scientists has long had an interest in the University of Bristol, as one of the most important centers of physics research in Britain. Likewise it has been very keen to support national developments in the online provision of information about archives including full-text catalogs. In Phase One of the development of A2A (2000-2002) the NCUACS was successful in securing funding from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to secure the retroconversion of its paper catalogs and their incorporation in the database. The announcement of Phase Two (to run 2002-2004) coincided with the availability of the six Bristol physics archives, and the NCUACS was again successful in securing funding from the HLF for processing and online access via A2A.

The physicists were Cecil Powell, Nevill Mott, Peter Fowler, Charles Frank, Andrew Keller and Alec Merrison. Powell, who came to Bristol in 1928, developed the photographic emulsion technique for recording cosmic ray events and was awarded the 1950 Nobel Prize for the technique and the discoveries made with it. The project papers the third group of Powell papers processed by the NCUACS since 1973 were found in a locked filing cabinet in the physics laboratory over 30 years after he died. Mott opened up solid state physics worldwide in the years after his arrival in Bristol in 1933 and subsequently shared the 1977 Nobel Prize for fundamental theoretical investigations of the electronic structure of magnetic and disordered systems. The project papers are almost entirely his correspondence with his parents from school days to Cavendish Professor of Physics in Cambridge in 1954. Peter Fowler was the son of Ralph Fowler and the grandson of Lord Rutherford. After undergraduate studies at Bristol, he joined Powell's cosmic rays research group, which he subsequently led. Frank came to Bristol after wartime work in scientific intelligence with his friend R.V. Jones. His archive documents an enormous breadth of interests, though he is perhaps best known for his work on dislocations in crystal structure. Keller was a postwar refugee from Hungary who came to Bristol in 1955 at the invitation of Frank and pioneered polymer physics, which is documented in an especially comprehensive scientific correspondence. Merrison's scientific career included periods at Harwell, Liverpool and CERN, but he came to Bristol as Vice-Chancellor, 1969-1984, which is the period principally documented in his archive. All the archives are deposited in Bristol University Library, with the exception of the Mott papers, which are in Cambridge University Library.

The Heritage Lottery Fund is a major supporter of archival projects, especially where widening public access can be demonstrated by such means as the Internet. Partnership funding is required, and other supporters of the Bristol physics project included the Institute of Physics, the Macro Group UK and the Polymer Physics Group. A2A is the English strand of the UK archives database. It aims to create a virtual national archives catalog bringing together a critical mass of information about the national archival heritage and making that information available globally from one site via the World Wide Web. It works best as a searchable database but it is possible to access the full text catalogs, and currently the NCUACS is adding links from its own site ( to the catalogs it has compiled.

For information please contact:

Peter Harper, Director, National Cataloguing Unit for the Archives of Contemporary Scientists, University Library, University of Bath, Claverton Down, Bath, Somerset BA2 7AY
Phone: +44 1225 385241

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