AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXVIII, No. 1, Spring 1996


Physics and Physics Archives at Imperial College, London

by Anne Barrett, College Archivist

The origins of Imperial College can be traced back to 1835--and to a collection of geological specimens related to the development of the Geological Survey of Great Britain. The specimens and Survey were eventually housed in one building and to enhance their value the government decided a mining school should be added to the building. This became the Royal School of Mines which was one of the four constituent Colleges which formed Imperial College in 1907, coming together in South Kensington, London.

The Colleges were staffed by many of the great men of science of the period, including T.H. Huxley, John Tyndall, George Gabriel Stokes, Sir Roderick Murchison, Norman Lockyer, and William Edward Ayrton. The teaching of physics began in 1851 at the Royal School of Mines with a course by Robert Hunt on Mechanical Science "which embraced a consideration of the physical constitution of matter--the molecular forces--Gravitation...Light..., Electricity..., Magnetism..."

Physics teaching developed throughout the following fifty years; by the turn of the century there had been changes such as Alfred Fowler taking over Lockyer's Solar Physics Observatory, and William deWiveslie Abney lecturing on vision. Innovation in teaching and research is a hallmark of Imperial College and that in the Physics Department is no exception. For example, the first course in Technical Optics to be instituted in Britain was devised and begun at Imperial College in 1917 and continues today. Later lecturers in Physics have included H. Callendar, Lord Rayleigh (R.J. Strutt), D. Dingle, G.P. Thomson, M. Blackman, A.E. Conrady, A.O. Rankine, R. Kingslake, P.M.S. Blackett and latterly Abdus Salam.

The College Archives has a variety of material relating to the teaching of physics throughout the history of the constituent colleges, but has few large collections of papers of individual physicists, except for that of Herbert Dingle. In the T.H. Huxley Papers (the largest set of an individuals papers held) there exist letters between John Tyndall and Huxley and a search will reveal other physics related correspondence in the collections. Much relating to the development of physics at Imperial will be found in the Departmental papers. Besides physics, of course the Archives hold material on all the departments and centers in Imperial and so reflect the evolution of the College. Material such as early ledgers and student records, Governing Body Minutes, trademark registration certificates and papers of administrative sections are deposited. The Archives includes all media: correspondence, maps, plans, bound volumes, film, video tape, prints, negatives, glass negatives, audio tape, and computer disks (though not many of the latter as yet).

A Muniments room was set up in 1937 by the then Rector Sir Henry Tizard to retain historical items, and this room has expanded to the 5,000-plus linear feet of the Archives. I handle over 1,000 enquiries per year and 500 visits to the Archives, besides accessioning and doing the background work and--last year--putting on a highly successful exhibition on T.H. Huxley in association with the Science Museum, our neighbor. 1995 was the centenary of Huxley's death, so it was appropriate to devote time to this important figure who did so much to direct the development of science teaching and its professionalization as well as the evolution of Imperial College itself.

For information contact Anne Barrett, Imperial College Arhives, Sherfield Building room 455, London SW7 2AZ, England; phone (0)171-594-8850, fax (0)171-594-9353, e-mail:

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