Rutherford’s Nuclear Atom, Manchester

Landmark Plaque being presented

The Landmark Plaque was presented to Prof Rod Coombs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University by RSC President Prof David Phillips. Photograph by Diana Leitch.

Chemical Landmark plaque to mark the centenary of Rutherford’s nuclear atom

The presentation took place in the Conference Centre, University Place, Manchester University on Monday 8th August 2011 as the opening part of the Rutherford Centennial Conference organised by the Institute of Physics to celebrate the centenary of the publication of Rutherford’s paper describing the discovery of the atomic nucleus. The conference marked one hundred years of the atomic nucleus by addressing the wide range of current topics characterising modern nuclear physics, including nuclear structure and astrophysics, hadron structure and spectroscopy, weak interactions and relativistic heavy-ion collisions. The historical aspects of his discovery were dealt with as part of the RSC’s Landmark event.

The conference itself was opened by Mr Derek Leask, High Commissioner for New Zealand, an appropriate choice given that Ernest Rutherford was a New Zealander by birth and lived there until he took up his postgraduate studentship in the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge, in 1895.

Jeff Hughes of Manchester University gave an address outlining Rutherford’s life and scientific achievements. This was an amplification of his talk which he gave to our Group in March 2011 as part of our Mme Curie conference. Rutherford was appointed Macdonald Professor of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada in 1898 where he quickly became an authority on the new science of radioactivity. In 1907 he moved to Manchester University and in 1908 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his McGill work on radioactive decay. As he regarded himself primarily as a physicist, he remarked that this was the greatest transformation in his career! At Manchester, Rutherford and co-worker Hans Geiger, together with their student Ernest Marsden, used α-particles to bombard gold foil. They observed an unexpected back-scattering of the particles and this led Rutherford to propose his theory of the nuclear atom. The results upon which his theory was based were, in fact, published in 1909 but it was at a meeting of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society on 7th March 1911 that his conclusions as to the nature of the atom with its nuclear “core” were given a public airing. The hypothesis was given a mathematical interpretation by Niels Bohr in 1913 into its now familiar form.

The second speaker was John Schiffer, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago who spoke on the development of nuclear physics post-Rutherford. This proved an ambitious aim for what was a lecture of less than an hour’s duration, but John managed valiantly and not only drew attention to the other landmarks that map out this field but also found time to speculate which of the current researches might be identified as the most promising ones.

The Landmark Plaque was presented to Prof Rod Coombs, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Manchester University by RSC President Prof David Phillips. The text on the plaque reads:

Ernest Rutherford on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the atomic nucleus by Ernest Rutherford, a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry and pioneer in nuclear physics, at the University of Manchester.

Prof Sean Freeman, of the Nuclear Physics Research Group School at the University of Manchester said: “It is a real pleasure for the Royal Society of Chemistry to be involved in the celebrations of the centenary of Rutherford’s discovery of the atomic nucleus.

“His genius uncovered the structure of the atom and effectively initiated the whole area of nuclear physics. It is particularly nice for the RSC to join us in the opening ceremony of the conference as Rutherford won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances’.

The University is particularly proud to receive a Chemical Landmark plaque to mark this anniversary”.

Schunck Building, University of Manchester

Schunck Building (present day)

Schunck Building (present day)

Halfway down Burlington Street stands the Schunck Building, part of a 1904 extension to the University of Manchester. Its unusual history captures how, at the turn of the twentieth century, the focus of scientific activity was shifting from private individuals to large institutions.

Edward Schunck, the building’s first user, was born in Manchester in 1820. The son of a German textile merchant, he received his earliest chemical training from William Henry, a leading manufacturing chemist, who brought him into the laboratory attached to the works where Henry’s Magnesia and other pharmaceuticals were made.

There were, of course, no University facilities near Manchester at this time, but Schunck’s background gave him an easy passage to the well-equipped research laboratories of Germany. After studying briefly at the University of Berlin, he moved to Giessen to study with the immensely influential Justus von Liebig, receiving his doctorate in 1841.

The Schunck family owned a textile works near Rochdale involved in calico printing, bleaching, fulling, and other processes, and in 1842 Edward returned to become chemical manager at the works. Over the next few years, however, he gradually withdrew from the factory and concentrated full-time on research. He investigated industrial materials such as dyestuffs, but also a range of other substances including chlorophyll, which he suggested played a similar role in plants to that of haemoglobin in animals (carrying carbon dioxide, rather than oxygen, around the organism).

Schunck established himself as one of the leaders of Manchester’s chemical culture in the years following the 1844 death of its long-term figurehead, John Dalton. He was repeatedly President of the Literary and Philosophical Society, and was closely connected with many of the organisers of Owens College, founded in 1851 and increasingly a centre for chemistry teaching.

Schunck, however, had no need of the College’s facilities. In the 1870s, he inherited the family fortune and built a superb private laboratory at his home on Kersal Moor, to the north of Salford, together with an extensive library of chemical literature. Late in life, he transferred around £20 000 to Owens College, to be used for promoting chemical research.

Schunck died in 1903, bequeathing the laboratory and library to the College. The bequest was taken literally. Not only were the contents of the library brought to the College, then in the process of becoming the University of Manchester: the entire physical laboratory was removed from Kersal and reconstructed on Burlington Street under the supervision of the Professor of Chemistry, H B Dixon.

Contemporary accounts suggest a faithful brick-by-brick reconstruction, but this is difficult to establish from the official records. Pevsner’s architectural guide points out that the brick of the building matches its neighbours, implying that this was really a partially new construction to a similar shape. The internal fixtures of the laboratory, however, were transferred directly.

Under the influence of German industrial success, the University’s chemical activities in this period were focused increasingly on the organic side of the discipline, which had applications in dyestuffs, food and explosives. The re-erected Schunck Laboratory forms one corner of what became a small quadrangle devoted entirely to organic work, filling the space between Henry Roscoe’s original Chemistry Building and the Medical School.

The organic expansion had already begun in 1895 with the Schorlemmer Laboratories (now hemmed in on all sides, and barely visible from the street). These were named in honour of Carl Schorlemmer, a former pupil of Robert Bunsen (of burner fame). In 1874, Owens College had given Schorlemmer the first Chair in Organic Chemistry in Britain. He was followed in 1892 by William Henry Perkin, Junior, son of the London chemist remembered for discovering mauve, the first synthetic dye. The younger Perkin’s students included Robert Robinson, a future Nobel Prizewinner and President of the Royal Society, and Chaim Weizmann, future President of Israel, whose work on fermentation processes proved crucial to the British war effort around 1915.

Further down Burlington Street, where the extensions to the John Rylands University Library now stand, were further chemical laboratories built in the 1940s and 50s. These were short-lived, as chemistry migrated – like almost all the University’s scientific activities – to new, larger buildings on the east side of Oxford Road. Following the path round to the right, however, reveals a collection of gloriously un-redeveloped outbuildings, giving a good flavour of what this end of the campus must once have been like.

The Schunck Building itself is now home to facilities including a vegetarian café and the Burlington Society, the postgraduate and mature students’ society for the universities of Greater Manchester.

Access: no formal public access to the interior. Good views of the frontage from Burlington Street, which is publicly accessible.

Owens College and the Technical School, Manchester

By the 1850s Manchester’s central district was fully commercial. The Infirmary was remodelled, losing its sprawl of allied charities, gaining a portico and clock tower as a solid civic monument. On the streets around Piccadilly, the warehouses were becoming grander, now that the railways brought potential buyers to see the stock collected and elaborately displayed. One of the merchants, John Owens, was persuaded by another to leave his fortune to provide a college for young men. This was not to be a sectarian affair like that newly established by the Congregationalists; it was not to be tainted with the Unitarian heresy, like the Manchester New College, now back in its home city after 37 years in York. Owens College was to be like Oxford and Cambridge in what it taught. But it would be non-sectarian and non-residential. It was established in 1851 in the former house of Richard Cobden, merchant, liberal parliamentarian, anti-militarist and phrenologist.

It almost failed. Manchester fathers would go to occasional lectures, and they would turn out for a big fashionable event like the Art Shown of 1857; some of them reckoned their business might benefit through a short course on calico printing or some such; but they were not going to divert their sons into three years of university education. Owens College survived because it came to incorporate a more vigorous form of symbiosis between capital and culture, one learned from Scotland and especially from Germany. 1851, the year of the College’s opening, was also the year of the Great Exhibition in London. British industry was then supreme, but so was German science, and from Prince Albert downward there were educated men who feared that German success in science would lead to more powerful competition in industry. Their answer was to develop in Britain the system of advanced training and research which had been pioneered in German universities. In Manchester it was Henry Roscoe, Professor of Chemistry from 1857, who developed that vision, linking it to the practical concerns of local industrialists, but always insisting that no one could be a useful chemist until he had mastered the principles of the subject; you could not start with applications. That vision led to the largest and finest school of chemistry in Britain. When Owens College moved in 1873 to its present site on Oxford Road, Roscoe built a large chemical laboratory at the rear of the main building. It was Roscoe and his students who helped arrange for the University Charter of 1880, by which the Owens College became linked to newer colleges in Leeds and Liverpool as the Victoria University.

Owens College

Owens College

By then the local medical school had been brought into the College; its staff included notable ‘scientific clinicians’, such as Julius Dreschfield. Engineering classes, under Osborne Reynolds, were becoming established. Horace Lamb’s applied mathematics was to add further strengths. The Physics Department had a good reputation for teaching – several of its pupils, including J J Thomson and Arthur Schuster, had gone on to the new Cavendish Laboratories at Cambridge. In the natural historical sciences, the former Natural History Society’s Museum had been rehoused as part of the new College; its curator, W Boyd Dawkins, became Professor of Geology in 1874. Five years later, Arthur Milnes Marshall, the talented Cambridge embryologist, was given the chair of zoology. Williamson remained in the chair of botany until 1891. Like much of the work at Owens, his research was linked to the local community; he was the major British pioneer in the study of coal fossils.

The Mechanics’ Institute had developed in parallel with Owens. A new building was opened in 1856 in what is now Princess Street (it now houses the Labour History Archive). The occasion was marked with an international exhibition of Arts and Manufactures, but enrolments were disappointing, and from the 1870s the development of elementary education under the municipal School Boards robbed the Institute of some of its previous function. It was a night-school educated boot-maker, J H Reynolds, who rescued the Institution. Appointed its Secretary on 1879, he made it part of a growing national movement for technical education, linking it with the new City and Guilds Examination, and soliciting industrial support. As British manufacturers worried more and more about international competition, and as the elementary schools gave a basic education to more of the working classes, so the Technical School grew. By 1889 it was planning a new building and was to be part of a Whitworth Institute, together with the School of Art and a Whitworth Gallery; but new legislation and national funding became available, and the Technical School was taken over by the Council in 1892. A fine new building, of German inspiration was opened in 1901 (later the ‘UMIST main building’, which was extended in the 1950s). The ‘Tech’ was intended to teach science for industrial application; Owens would teach the professional men; there was an agreement to that effect from 1896. But as money and equipment poured into the new Tech, the boundaries became blurred.

Manchester Infirmary, Manchester

The Manchester Infirmary in Piccadilly was the main focus for established and incoming doctors. Its leading surgeon, Charles White, was an authority on midwifery and a noted teacher. Its leading physician, Thomas Percival, was a key member of the Unitarian Congregation at Cross Street Chapel (now an office site). With his minister there, and with his colleague Thomas Henry (the leading apothecary and manufacturing chemist), Percival established a scientific society which has continued to the present as the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He also helped establish here a College which gave higher education to laymen as well as to future Unitarian ministers. As Manchester’s urban problems grew severe, as fever threatened, Percival and his colleagues addressed the problems of public health and fought for an expansion of the Infirmary to provide better facilities for infectious diseases. They had their successes, especially around 1790, but their projects were increasingly overtaken by the long years of war and repression which followed the French Revolution It was Percival and his friends who first advanced schemes for higher education for industrialists. They brought John Dalton to Manchester, as a teacher of chemistry and natural philosophy. It was here that the young Quaker asked himself why the atmosphere did not separate into the elements that it was now believed to contain; he reflected on the solubility of gases, which his friend Thomas Henry was forcing into mineral waters; he thought about chemical combination, and about explaining chemistry to the young.

John Dalton collecting marsh fire gas, from Ford Madox Brown's mural in Manchester Town Hall

John Dalton collecting marsh fire gas, from Ford Madox Brown's mural in Manchester Town Hall

It is to this college teacher, befriended by industrialists and by enthusiasts for Newtonian science and rational amusement, that we owe the Atomic Theory in Chemistry. His book, A New System of Chemistry and Philosophy, was published in 1808. It was Dalton, as a scientific hero, who maintained the Literary and Philosophical Society through the difficult decades which opened the new century.