Rutherford - A Brief Biography
john.campbell at canterbury.ac.nz
(All material is from
my book Rutherford Scientist Supreme. The
text of this version of the many brief biographies I have written on Rutherford appeared in edited form in the June
2001 issue of The World and I magazine, a publication of the Washington
Times Corporation. www.worldandimag.com )
Ernest Rutherford is
one of the most illustrious scientists of all time.
He is to the atom what Darwin is to evolution, Newton to mechanics, Faraday to
electricity and Einstein to relativity. His pathway from rural child to
immortality is a fascinating one.
Rutherford's works ensure his immortality.
As the The New York Times stated, in a eulogy accompanying the
announcement of his unexpected and unnecessary death in 1937.
" It is given to but few men to achieve immortality, still less
to achieve Olympian rank, during their own lifetime. Lord Rutherford
achieved both. In a generation that witnessed one of the greatest
revolutions in the entire history of science he was universally
acknowledged as the leading explorer of the vast infinitely complex
universe within the atom, a universe that he was first to
Not for him the fame
based on one discovery. He radically altered our understanding of
nature on three separate occasions. Through brilliantly conceived
experiments, and with special insight, he explained the perplexing
problem of radioactivity as the spontaneous disintegration of atoms
(they were not necessarily stable entities as had been assumed since
the time of the ancient Greeks), he determined the structure of the
atom and he was the world's first successful alchemist (he converted
nitrogen into oxygen). Or put another way, he was first to split the
Any of his secondary
discoveries, such as dating the age of the Earth, would have given fame
to a lesser scientist. For example, the first method invented to detect
individual nuclear particles by electrical means, the Rutherford-Geiger
detector, evolved into the Geiger-Muller tube. The modern smoke
detector, responsible for saving so many lives in house fires, can be
traced back to 1899 when, at McGill
University in Canada, Rutherford
blew tobacco smoke into his ionisation chamber and observed the change
His background is
rather unique, having been born in New Zealand, a country which, within
a mere 50 years of formal European settlement of that remote British
Colony, could admit him to its, already 20-year-old, university.
Ernest Rutherford was
born at Spring Grove in rural Nelson on August 30th 1871, the second
son and fourth child of twelve born to James and Martha Rutherford.
Scottish James had arrived in New Zealand in 1843 as a
four-year old. James became a wheelwright and engineer, and later a
flax-miller. As a boy Ernest was surrounded by hard-working people with
technical skills. Map of main locations in New
Martha Rutherford (née
Thompson) was born in England
and arrived in New Plymouth in 1855 as a thirteen-year old. She was
evacuated to Nelson in 1860 during the Taranaki Land War. Had it not
been for that war James and Martha would never have met. Martha became
a teacher at the Spring Grove school where her efforts were always
praised by the provincial school inspector. So Ernest Rutherford and
his siblings received a good education because of parents who appreciated
education: his father because he hadn't had much and his mother because
Ern led the life typical of a
child growing up in rural New Zealand. Family chores,
such as milking cows and gathering firewood, ate up time after school.
On Saturdays the boys were free for swimming in the creek, and
birdsnesting to raise money for catapult rubber and kite strings. The
family shifted according to the father's work; in 1876 to Foxhill for
farming and railway construction, in 1883 to Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds
for flax-milling, and finally in 1888 to Taranaki for flaxmilling.
At age ten at Foxhill
School Ernest received his first science book. Amongst the many
suggested experiments in it one, on using the speed of sound to
determine the distance to a firing cannon, gave him the knowledge to
surprise his family by estimating the distance to a lighting flash.
Perhaps it was also this book which inspired him to make a minature
cannon out of a hat peg, a marble and blasting powder. The cannon
exploded, luckily without causing injury.
At Havelock Ernest was lucky to avoid
the drowning fate of two of his brothers and lucky to be taught by a
country school-teacher of above average ability. In 1887 Ernest, on his
second attempt, won a Scholarship to Nelson
College, until that time the
only scholarship available to assist a Marlborough boy to attend secondary
For the next three
years Ernest boarded at Nelson
College. In 1889
he was head boy (the Dux of the school, hence his nick-name `quacks'),
played in the rugby team and, once again on his second attempt, won one
of the ten scholarships available nationally to assist attendance at a
college of the University of New Zealand.
From 1890 to 1894 Ern attended Canterbury College
There he played rugby and participated in the activities of the
Dialectic Society (a student debating society), the graduation day
celebrations (for which he co-wrote one song) and the recently formed
Science Society. In 1892 he passed BA in Pure Mathematics and Latin
(both compulsory), Applied Mathematics, English, French and Physics.
ability won him the one Senior Scholarship in Mathematics available in New Zealand.
This allowed him to return for a further (honours or Masters) year
during which he took both mathematics and physics. For the latter Ern
was influenced by Alexander Bickerton, a liberal freethinker. The
physics course required an original investigation so Ern elected to
extend an undergraduate experiment in order to determine if iron was
magnetic at very high frequencies of magnetising current. In this he
had been inspired by Nikola Tesla's use of his high frequency Tesla
coil to transmit power without wires. Ern developed two devices; a
simple mechanism for switching two electrical circuits with a time
interval between them which could be adjusted to be as short as a
hundred thousandth of a second, and a magnetic detector of very fast current
In 1893 Ern obtained a
Master of Arts degree with double First Class Honours, in Mathematics
and Mathematical Physics and in Physical Science (Electricity and
Magnetism). At this time he boarded with a widow, Mary Newton, who, as
secretary of the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, was a leader in
the movement which culminated in 1893 when New Zealand became the
first country in the world to grant women the vote. Coincidentally it
was also the first election for which Ern was old enough to appear on
the electoral roll.
Having failed for the
third time to obtain a permanent job as a school-teacher, and having
briefly considered going into medicine, Ern had few other options for a
career. He seemed to be limited to tutoring, to help support himself
whilst carrying out more research in electrical science. The Royal
Commissioners for the Exhibition of 1851 had just initiated
scholarships to allow graduates of universities in the British Empire to go anywhere in the world and
work on research of importance to their home country's industries.
Every second year one scholarship was available for a graduate of the University of New Zealand.
Thus it was that in
1894 Ern returned to Canterbury
College where he
took geology and chemistry for a BSc degree. (A candidate for a
scholarship had to be enrolled at the University.) For the research
work required of a candidate, Ern extended his researches of the
previous year to even higher frequencies using the damped oscillatory
current from discharging a Leyden-jar (an electrical capacitor) or a
Hertzian oscillator. He showed that a steel needle surrounded by a wire
loop in the discharge circuit was indeed magnetised for frequencies as
high as 500 million per second. By slowly dissolving the needle in acid
he showed that only a very thin surface layer of the needle was
submitted work for the scholarship allocated to New Zealand. The
University's examiners in England
recommended that James Maclaurin of Auckland University
nominated. (His brother later became the President of the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology.) Maclaurin could not accept the terms of the
scholarship so the University therefore nominated Ern, the only other
candidate, who was duly awarded it.
Ernest Rutherford left
New Zealand in 1895 as a highly skilled 23-year-old who held three
degrees from the University of New Zealand and had a reputation as an outstanding
researcher and innovator working at the forefront of electrical
technology. His brilliance at experimental research was already
He elected to work with
Professor J J Thomson of Cambridge
Laboratory and was Cambridge
first non-Cambridge-graduate research student. Rutherford
adapted his detector of very fast transient currents for use as a
frequency meter and used it to measure the dielectric properties of
electrical insulators. To compare its sensitivity as a detector of
electromagnetic waves against that of the standard detector of the
time, the coherer, he mounted his detector in the receiving circuit of
a Hertzian oscillator/receiver unit and found, as had others before
him, that he could detect electromagnetic waves over a few metres even
when there was a brick wall between the two circuits.
Encouraged by Sir
Robert Ball, who wished to solve the difficult problem that a ship
could not detect a lighthouse in fog, and sensing fame and fortune, Rutherford
increased the sensitivity of his apparatus until, in February of 1896,
he could detect electromagnetic waves over a distance of several
hundred metres, a then world record.
JJ Thomson, who was
about to discover the first object smaller than an atom (the electron),
quickly realised that Rutherford was a
researcher of exceptional ability. Thomson invited him to join in a
study of the electrical conduction of gases. Wireless telegraphy was
thus left for Guglielmo Marconi to develop and commercialize.
Rutherford developed several ingenious
techniques to study the mechanism whereby normally insulating gases
become electrical conductors when a high voltage is applied across
them. When X-rays were discovered a few months later he used them to
initiate electrical conduction in gases. He repeated this with rays
from radioactive atoms when they were discovered in 1896. His interest
soon switched to understanding radioactivity itself, an interest which
became his life's work but his contribution to the earlier fields
should not be forgotten.
In 1898 Rutherford discovered that two quite separate
types of emissions came from radioactive atoms and he named them alpha
and beta rays. Beta rays were soon shown to be high speed electrons.
Barred in the near term
from advancement at Cambridge,
Rutherford in 1898 accepted a professorship at McGill
University in Montreal, Canada. (The following year
changed its rules to allow earlier promotion to Fellowship.) The laboratories
at McGill were very well equipped. As Rutherford
wrote to his wife-to-be ``I am expected to do a lot of work and to form
a research school in order to knock the shine out of the Yankees!''
Rutherford returned to New Zealand in 1900 to marry Mary
Georgina Newton, the daughter of his landlady in Christchurch. They were to have one
At McGill Rutherford promptly discovered radon, a
chemically unreactive but radioactive gas. In this he was assisted by
his first research student, Harriet Brookes. Rutherford,
with the later help of a young chemist, Frederick Soddy, unravelled the
mysteries of radioactivity, showing that some heavy atoms spontaneously
decay into slightly lighter atoms. This was the work which first
brought him to world attention. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal
Society of Canada in 1900 and of London
in 1903. His first book Radioactivity was published in 1904. In
1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry `for his investigations
into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of
radioactive substances.' As a bemused Ern often told friends, the
fastest transformation he knew of was his transformation from a
physicist to a chemist.
It is usually
overlooked that Rutherford’s Nobel Prize was the first awarded
for work done in Canada.
This is because the award was made after he had shifted to Manchester in
On realising that lead
was the final decay product of uranium, Rutherford
proposed that a measure of their relative proportions and the rate of
decay of uranium atoms would allow minerals to be dated and,
subsequently, this technique placed a lower limit on the age of the
formation of the Earth. Radioactive dating of geological samples
underpins modern geology. Throughout his time in Canada Rutherford
was regularly head-hunted by American universities and institutions,
for example Yale and the Smithsonian Institute. The main result of
these approaches was that McGill kept upping his salary. Rutherford always
had a shift in mind, but only to Britain in order to be
nearer the main centres of science, and to have access to more, and
better, research students.
Professor Schuster of Manchester University
inherited a large fortune so offered to step down from his chair if Rutherford would accept the position. He would.
Transferring there in 1907 he showed convincingly what he had long
suspected, namely that the alpha particle was a helium atom stripped of
its electrons. He and an assistant, Hans Geiger, developed the
electrical method of tirelessly detecting single particles emitted by
radioactive atoms, the Rutherford-Geiger detector. With this he could
determine important physical constants such as Avogadro's number, the
number of atoms or molecules in one gramme-mole of material.
While at McGill
Rutherford had noted that a narrow beam of alpha particles became fuzzy
on passing through a thin sheet of mica. Now he set Geiger to measuring
the relative numbers of alpha particles as a function of scattering
angle. Geiger also had the responsibility of training undergraduates in
techniques relevant to radioactivity measurements. When Geiger reported to
Rutherford that an undergraduate student, Ernest Marsden, was ready for
a project of his own, Rutherford set
him the task of investigating whether any alpha particles were
reflected from metals. Marsden found that some alpha rays were
scattered directly backwards, even from a thin film of gold. It was, a
surprised Rutherford stated, as if one
had fired a large naval shell at a piece of tissue paper and it had
In 1911, Rutherford
deduced from these results that almost all of the mass of an atom, an object
so small that it would take over five million of them side-by-side to
cross a full stop on this page, is concentrated in a nucleus a thousand
times smaller than the atom itself. (If the orbital electrons in our
atoms were compressed into the nucleus we would occupy the space of a
small grain of sand.) The nuclear model of the atom had been born. This
second great discovery gave him enduring fame.
A young Dane, Neils
Bohr, was attracted to work with Rutherford
after having seen him in jovial mood whilst being feted at a Cavendish
Laboratory dinner. Bohr placed the electrons in stable formation around
the atomic nucleus. The Rutherford-Bohr atom features in chemistry and
physics books used world-wide and Rutherford scattering is still used
today to probe sub-nuclear particles and the structure of
Rutherford was knighted
in the 1914 New Years Honours list and visited Australia and New Zealand for a
scientific meeting and for a family reunion. War was declared just
before he reached Australia.
After a three month visit to New Zealand Rutherford returned to Britain
where he worked on acoustic methods of detecting submarines for the
British Admiralty's Board of Invention and Research. One of the Board's
tasks was to evaluate all suggestions received. One involved using sea
lions from a circus to see if they could be used in detecting
Rutherford's only patent is from his
development of a directional hydrophone and that was assigned to the
Admiralty. When the Americans finally entered the war in 1917 Sir
Ernest Rutherford led the delegation to transfer submarine detection
knowledge to them. He fruitlessly advised the American Government to
use young scientists on problems associated with war work and to not
waste their lives and skills in the trenches. (One of his brightest
students, Harry Moseley, on track for a Nobel Prize for his work on
using X-rays to probe the electronic structure of atoms, had been
killed in Turkey.)
Near the end of the war
Rutherford returned to the pursuit of
non-war science. While playing marbles by bombarding light atoms with
alpha rays, he observed outgoing protons of energy larger than that of
the incoming alpha particles. From this observation he correctly
deduced that the bombardment had converted nitrogen atoms into oxygen
atoms. He thus became the world's first successful alchemist and the
first person to split the atom, his third great claim to fame.
In 1919 Rutherford became the Director of Cambridge
University's Cavendish Laboratory. The following decade was one of consolidation,
of setting up a first class research team and of tidying up loose ends.
In 1925 Rutherford once more travelled out to Australia and New Zealand to give public
lectures and to visit ailing parents. He was then an imposing figure:
tall, well-built and with bright blue eyes. The six-week tour of New Zealand,
his fourth and last visit to his homeland, was that of an international
celebrity. Wherever he went he received civic receptions and halls were
packed to overflowing to hear him give illustrated talks on the
structure of the atom. Rutherford
declared that he had always been very proud of being a New Zealander.
In his public
pronouncements to the news media he regularly encouraged the Goverment
to reserve some of the most scenic parts of New Zealand for posterity
and he supported education and research. In particular, he recommended
that New Zealand
scientists devote special attention to researches of benefit to
farmers. His support helped the establishment of New Zealand's Department of
Scientific and Industrial Research in 1926.
daughter Eileen had married Ralph Fowler, a mathematical physicist at
the Cavendish Laboratory. They had four children; Peter who became a
distinguished cosmic ray physicist, Elizabeth a doctor, Patrick an
electrical engineer monitoring safety at nuclear power plants and Ruth
a research physiologist. Sadly, Eileen died of an embolism at age 29,
nine days after the birth of her fourth child and just two days before
Christmas of 1930.
overshadowed Rutherford's elevation to
the peerage in the New Year's honours list for 1931, thus becoming
Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson. He chose to include in his coat of
arms a Kiwi, a Maori Warrior and Hermes Trismegistus, the patron saint
of knowledge and alchemists. His shield is quartered by the curves of
the decay and growth of radioactivity. His latin motto, `Primordia
Quaerere Rerum', (which translates as `To Seek the Nature of Things')
was chosen from Lucretius' `On the Nature of the Universe'.
He spoke only twice in
the House of Lords, on both occasions in support of industrial
1932 was a vintage year
for Rutherford and the Cavendish Laboratory. James Chadwick discovered
the neutron. A decade earlier Rutherford
had predicted it must exist and in the interim had often mentioned to
Chadwick what properties it must have.
In that same year John
Cockcroft and Ernest Walton finally split the atom by entirely
artificial means using protons, the nuclei of hydrogen atoms, which had
been accelerated to very high speeds in a high voltage accelerator. The
age of big science had begun under Rutherford's
For years Rutherford had assumed that to penetrate the
nucleus of an atom one would need particles accelerated through a few
million volts to match the energy with which particles were ejected
from radioactive atoms. Hence for years he had cajoled British industry
to push development of high voltage sources. The breakthrough though
came from George Gamow's application of quantum mechanics to show that
lower energies would be more efficient at penetrating the atomic
After Cockcroft and
Walton's success, Rutherford had Mark
Oliphant build a lower voltage accelerator but with a much improved
particle flux. Following the gift of heavy hydrogen (dueterium) from
Gilbert Lewis of Berkeley,
they bombarded dueterium with deuterium and discovered tritium (H3
the third isotope of hydrogen) and the light isotope of helium (He3).
Rutherford served well his science, his
laboratory, his university and his adopted country. He campaigned for Cambridge University to grant women the
same privileges as men. He carried out regular public duties such as
supporting the freedom of the British Broadcasting Corporation from
goverment censorship, served on its Panel of Advisors and gave regular
radio talks on his work. While on the Board of Management of the
Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1851 he defended the award of scholarships
to overseas universities. As Chairman of the Advisory Council of the
British Department of Scientific and Industrial Research he advised the
British Government on scientific matters and opened many research
laboratories. Most Sundays he played golf for recreation.
Rutherford was one of the first to
determine that the energy involved in the radioactive decay of an atom
was millions of times that of a chemical bond and he was the first to
be convinced that the energy was internal to all atoms. In 1916, during
the dark days of World War I, Rutherford stated that there was then no
way that the energy of the atom could be extracted efficiently and he
personally hoped that methods would not be discovered until man was
living at peace with his neighbours.
When Hitler rose to
power in Germany
in 1933 and commenced his non-Aryan policy, Lord Rutherford helped
found, and was President of, the Academic Assistance Council which
aided displaced academics. This was to be one of the biggest mass
migrations of scientists the world had seen and it began the
transference of the centre of science from Europe to America. As the clouds of
war once more gathered over Europe, Rutherford presided over a meeting
of the Cambridge
of the Democratic Front in which he made a case for an international
ban on the use of aeroplanes in warfare. These aspects of his life's
work are nigh forgotten but deserve greater recognition.
Ernest Rutherford died
aged 66 on the 19th of October 1937, the result of delays in operating
on his partially strangulated umbilical hernia. His ashes were interred
Westminster Abbey, under an inscribed flagstone near the choir screen
in the Nave. When JJ Thomson died in 1940 he was interred next to Rutherford. Newton
presides above them and they are surrounded by other greats of British
Lady Rutherford retired
to Christchurch, New Zealand, where she died
in 1954. Rutherford's medals, possibly the best assemblage of
scientific medals in the world, were given to the University of Canterbury.
During his lifetime Rutherford was awarded many scientific prizes and
honorary degrees from many countries and Fellowships of many societies
and organisations (such as the Royal College of Physicians and the
Institution of Electrical Engineers). Among other honours he was
elected President of the Royal Society (1926-30), President of the Institute of Physics (1931-3) and was
decorated with the Order of Merit (1925).
Death did not stop the public
acclamation. Many buildings in many countries have been named in his
honour. He has appeared on the stamps of at least eleven countries;
New Zealand (1971 and 2000).
Britain (2010), and
Ivory Coast (2016).
Curiously, he never featured on a British stamp until he appeared
in a 2010 series of Fellows of the Royal Society to mark
the Royal Society's 350 anniversary. In 1991 the
Rutherford Origin was built on the site of his birth in rural Nelson.
It incorporates into a garden setting a permanent outdoor display of
information about his life and work and is open all hours. In 2003 the
Pickering/Rutherford/Havelock Memorial was opened at Havelock in the Marborough Sounds.
In November of 1992 he featured on the new NZ$100 banknote. Because it is the
highest denomination banknote his image regularly appears as background
on TV news items, and TV and newspaper advertisments, involved with
His discoveries are his
real memorial. But forgotten is his humility in giving his co-workers
more than full credit. Whilst he was at Manchester he didn't put his name on
a third of the papers reporting on radioactivity even though he
initiated almost every investigation. Often he would do the preliminary
work then hand the topic to a student or colleague. He never put his
name on Geiger and Marsden's paper announcing large angle scattering of
alpha rays, nor on Chadwick's paper announcing the neutron, nor on
Cockcroft and Wilson's
paper announcing the splitting of the atom using a particle
His humility should
also be a memorial.
Translations of this
Short Biography into Other Languages
Other Short Biographies
The following are known
to me and, by and large, meet my standard of coverage and
Dictionary of New Zealand
The DNZB was a major
project to mark the 1990 sesquicentennial of New Zealand. It covers
people whose major period of activity was up to 1960. A project of the
History Section of the Department of Internal Affairs, it was published
as 5 volumes, most recently by Auckland University Press
(firstname.lastname@example.org). The section now comes under the Ministry for
Culture and Heritage. The date of publication of each volume, and the
period of peak activity covered, is as follows.
Vol 1 1990 1769-1869
Vol 2 1993 1870-1900
Vol 3 1996 1901-1920 (Rutherford)
Vol 4 1998 1921-1940
Vol 5 2000 1941-1960
I wrote the Rutherford essay.
Basically they are now waiting for more people to die before extending
into the next two decades. It is difficult to have impartial
biographies written about people still alive.
The electronic version of DNZB was opened 19th Feb 2002 at
www.dnzb.govt.nz. The printed version had no illustrations, the
electronic version will have.
The Nobel Archive now
has an electronic museum which includes biographies of Nobel Laureates.
See www.nobel.se. Because of copyright they are reluctant to correct
the few little points in error. This is a pity as this is the first
source schoolchildren may go to when seeking a short biography of Rutherford.
Rutherford was 15, not 16, when he arrived at Nelson
College, not Nelson Collegiate
The UNZ was an examining body based in the capital (Wellington) where no teaching was
done. At the time it comprised one university (Otago) and two colleges
(Canterbury and Auckland).
He sat BA in 1892, MA in 1893 and BSc in 1894.
He was awarded the 1851 Scholarship in 1895, not 1894. He elected to
take it with JJ Thomson at the Cavendish Laboratory.
His second paper, covering his first year of research in 1893, was
published in the Trans of the NZI for 1895, not 1896.
He first split the atom in 1917, not 1919. The work was published in
New Zealand Edge
(www.nzedge.com) has a heroes section which includes several New Zealand scientists, including Rutherford. I do not know who wrote this article.
It was written prior to 1999.