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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 10 (January 1, 1938.)

The Lord Rutherford of Nelson

page 9

The Lord Rutherford of Nelson

It is particularly appropriate that from the pen of Dr. Marsden, head of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research of New Zealand, should come the following biographical summary of Lord Rutherford's life and work. Not only is Dr. Marsden particularly well qualified to deal with the scientific side of the subject, but he had the inestimable advantage of working with Rutherford at Manchester, and so gaining personal knowledge of his human attributes.

The life work of Lord Rutherford ot Nelson was, paradoxically enough for such a great man, devoted to the realms of the Infinitely small. So small indeed were the particles with which he daily dealt that he had to set up a new, and fantastically small unit of measurement to appraise them—a millionth of a millimicron—a measure now known as the “Rutherford” unit. In plain English this length is the millionth of a thousandth of the millionth of .3937 of an inch, and if any discrepancy arises in measurements scaled with this unit, they are probably due to the fact that it is difficult to measure .3937 of an inch exactly.

Rutherford was by all standards a very great man; physically the replica of an English hale and hearty sporting squire, mentally the genius who foresaw the disintegration of the atom and the negation of the molecular theory of matter, technically the greatest experimental scientist the world has ever seen, socially a commanding personality who swayed all those with whom he came in contact, and withal a big-hearted, red-blooded man full of simple kindliness and natural affections. Not the least tribute that followed on his passing was that from the Jewish men of science expelled from Germany, whose lot he had laboured and organised so hard and so successfully to ameliorate. His self-imposed task of finding positions for these unfortunates in colleges and seats of learning throughout the world was one of which New Zealanders should ever be proud.

Baron Ernest Rutherford of Nelson, O.M., M.A., D.Sc., F.R.S. (From a painting by Oswald Birley, R.P. in the National Art Gallery, Wellington.)

Baron Ernest Rutherford of Nelson, O.M., M.A., D.Sc., F.R.S. (From a painting by Oswald Birley, R.P. in the National Art Gallery, Wellington.)

On 19th October, 1937, Lord Rutherford passed away at Cambridge, England, after a brief illness, brought on by the strain from undue exertion in chopping trees at his cottage at Chute. To the outside world, he was New Zealand's greatest and best known citizen; to the scientific world, he was the greatest experimental physicist of all time. His death, at the relatively early age of 66, and the removal from Empire counsel and from world science of his inspiration and advice, is a most grievous loss.

He was the most simple and lovable of men, and it is therefore doubly fitting that we should pause, not only to render our homage but to consider the significance of his life and work. Already, in this age of rapid development, there is enough perspective to appreciate a little of the great unfolding of Nature's truth involved in the scientific discoveries which he pioneered, for, like Newton and Faraday, he was a pioneer on a new frontier in science, and his work brought in such a wealth of new conceptions as to usher in a new epoch in scientific thought.

Like Faraday, he rose by sheer force of will and innate ability from small beginnings and humble surroundings to the highest position in the scientific world, and it is a tribute to our free democratic institutions that it should be possible for one born in the relatively humble and limited cultural facilities of a New Zealand countryside to rise to the world's foremost scientific position and to obtain by sheer merit, courage and industry, all the distinctions which have been so freely bestowed upon him by every civilised country, and in the end to be given the final homage of burial in the National Valhalla—Westminster Abbey.

Rutherford's early years were linked with the heroic and hardy days of our pioneers. His childhood was spent in that atmosphere of dogged perseverance, combined with initiative which characterised the days of the foundation of New Zealand's nationhood. Rutherford and his parents typify New Zealand's noblest traditions of uprightness, integrity and vigour. He inherited high qualities from both his parents; from his father, a balanced and fertile mind, and a rich physical endowment; from his mother, a high mental equipment and a culture which rose superior to the relatively primitive and rough but simple environment of the early days.

Lord Rutherford's parents both arrived in New Zealand as young children in the early 40's. His father, James Rutherford, arrived in Nelson in April, 1842, at the age of three, with his grandfather, George, who had been engaged to come to New Zealand to erect a sawmill for Captain Thoms at Motueka.

Lord Rutherford's mother was Martha Thompson, who arrived in New Plymouth at about the same year, with her widowed mother and the parents of the latter, the Shuttleworths. Martha Thompson's father, Charles Edwin, was said to have been a brilliant mathematician, employed in a counting-house, but, unfortunately, he died in his thirty-third year in Hornchurch, Essex, just prior to the departure for New Zealand of his wife and children. His father was an iron-founder.

James Rutherford and Martha Thompson were married in 1866, and they had, in fairly rapid succession, twelve children, of whom Ernest, afterwards Lord Rutherford, was the fourth. He was born in Spring Grove on 30th August, 1871.

The whole family possessed high mental capacity. Under the influence page 10 of their parents they were a singularly united and happy family.

Rutherford's father was a man of great character, of fine, quiet disposition, straight and honourable. His mother was a truly remarkable woman of high education, very musical, a good organiser, thrifty, and hard working. She had a true appreciation of the value of education and had a practical ambition for her children. For instance, she exercised them in the evenings by spelling bees and arithmetical exercises. In common with many of the early pioneers, the parents, even in adversity, denied themselves to give their family a good education. It is not improbable that much of this urge came from their memories of the educational facilities of the Old Country and the desire that their children should not suffer in comparison.

For the first five years of his life, Rutherford lived at Spring Grove, and the next six years at Foxhill, some ten miles away, where his father earned a living as a wheelwright and by small-scale farming; also as a bridge contractor or builder in connection with the railway then in course of construction. At one stage also, along with his uncle, he operated a flax mill.

Ernest Rutherford attended the local primary school at Foxhill, and his school record is still available there showing how, at one stage, he passed through two standards in one year. His teacher was Harry Ladley, evidently an inspiring master. It is not improbable that under Ladley, Rutherford's attention was first drawn to the studies in science which he was afterwards to make his life work. There has been preserved by his mother, his first science text book inscribed in his name, at the early age of ten. It was a small text book on physics by Balfour Stewart, Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Manchester, and it is an interesting coincidence that Rutherford was destined afterwards to fill so worthily the same Chair.

In the preface to this book, the author stated: “The book has been written, not so much to give information, as to endeavour to discipline the mind by bringing it into immediate contact with Nature herself, for which purpose a series of simple experiments are described, leading up to the chief truths of each science, so that the power of observation in the pupils may be awakened and strengthened.”

When the scientific methods by which Rutherford afterwards pursued his work are considered, it is remarkable to find how the aim of Balfour Stewart's text book was realised, for observation and appeal to simple direct experiment were outstandingly apparent in his methods of work.

To continue his early history, however, in 1882 his parents gathered up their belongings and removed by boat to Havelock at the head of Pelorus Sound. There his father set up a flax-mill, at which he gradually milled the naturally growing flax in the neighbouring swamps, and, not content with this, his natural progressiveness and engineering ability led him to erect a saw-mill where he produced railway sleepers (7ft. by 8in. by 5in.) from black and brown birch under contract at 2/8d. each for shipping to Lyttelton by sailing ships. It was a grand sight when sometimes a dozen vessels were held up at the head of Pelorus Sound by adverse winds and the race afterwards to be first to the landing boat. Ernest, in the meantime, attended the Havelock primary school where he came under the influence of an enthusiastic teacher, particularly of boys—Mr. Jacob H. Reynolds who, not content with the ordinary syllabus, taught some of his pupils Latin for an hour each morning before school. Here, at the age of 15, Ernest won an Education Board Scholarship, value £52/10/per annum, for two years, obtaining the astonishing total of 580 marks out of a possible 600. Thus he went to Nelson College, and such was his grounding that he was immediately placed in the fifth form and soon justified this classification.

In the meantime, his family had suffered two serious hardships. In the first place, his two younger brothers were drowned in an accident in the Sounds. The father and brothers scoured the shores for three months in a vain effort to find the bodies. This accident so seriously affected his mother that she, for a long time, lost her sunny, cheery nature, and never again did she turn to her favourite music or play again her cherished Broadwood piano. A little later, his father had a serious accident on the small jetty from which he loaded his sleepers, unfortunately fracturing five of his ribs. Shortly after his recovery, the Atkinson Government cancelled orders for railway sleepers, and the family perforce looked round for fresh avenues of occupation. His father crossed to the North Island and proceeded north from Wellington on horseback, looking for suitable areas of flax. Eventually he arrived at Pungarehu, near the coast, 30 miles south of New Plymouth. Flax milling had not started in this area, so Rutherford was able to obtain suitable land at £3 per acre, near other flax swamps which he was afterwards able to cut under royalty. Returning to Havelock he chartered the Murray. under Captain Vickerman, and loaded it with his whole family, three extra operatives, and all his household furniture, his horses, his flaxmilling machinery and a quantity of timber. The charter cost him £100. It took three days to get to New Plymouth, where the whole outfit was unloaded and the effects transported by the rough track to Pungarehu. Leaving his wife and younger children at New Plymouth, he proceeded to carve out a home and establish his mill. Soon he was relatively prosperous, although his flax was sold in Melbourne at only £13 per ton and had to be transported to New Plymouth for shipment over a road which took nearly two days to travel, with a five-horse team drawing only three tons.

It is interesting to realise the energy and ability which James Rutherford put into his flax-milling operations. He harnessed water power to drive his mill. He experimented and developed a method of soaking the fibre after stripping and subsequently a special scraper to remove the vegetable matter so as to minimise the labour and time of paddocking. He looked ahead and planted specially selected native varieties. Nevertheless, he relied most on ready-grown swamp flax, and such was the success of his operations that the flax he produced was reckoned amongst the best in the Dominion, and he was later able to retire to New Plymouth, all his children having married and settled in different parts of the country.

But to return to Ernest. I have recounted this history of the family fortunes because it shows that his was no sheltered upbringing. Naturally, he always took a part in the family work. Even at Foxhill, he had his share of wood-chopping and earned money in the holidays picking hops. At Havelock he milked his share of the cows each morning, tended the vegetable garden, ran messages to the flax-mill at Ropaka. While on holiday from Nelson College at Pungarehu, he worked in the flax-bleaching paddocks. On one occasion he painted the house; on another, built a tennis-court. During another holiday he built a battery of Grove cells; but this is anticipating. The main thing is that he was not only a diligent and brilliant student, but he took part to the full in the every-day duties of a family engaged in country occupations. If there were space, one could enlarge on the initiative and ingenuity he displayed in these simple duties, and there is no doubt that in this, his father's example must have had a great influence. It is also abundantly evident that he took part in and enjoyed to the full the sports and games of the countryside, page 11 swimming, singlestick, boating, fishing, rambling over the hills. At Nelson College he played in the College XV. In short, he laid a foundation of health and vigour which was to stand him in such good stead later, enabling him to work steadily for long periods and yet enjoy his leisure hours to the full.

He won four scholarships and his crowning achievement was to win a University Entrance Scholarship in 1889 which took him to Canterbury College, where he commenced his University Course the following year, specialising in mathematics and physics. Compared with the numbers of students in these days, the classes were small and the teaching and student relationships were of a much more personal nature. He was fortunate in his Professors, C. H. H. Cook, who gave him a thorough training in mathematics, and A. W. Bickerton, an original and somewhat unorthodox teacher of physics and chemistry. It is perhaps a coincidence that Bickerton had almost an obsession in regard to his theories of the effects of the impact of stars, and that Rutherford, many years later, drew such important and revolutionary conclusions from his own experiments on the impact of what he showed to be miniature stars, i.e., the nuclei of swift moving atoms of matter. Bickerton, and his later disciple, Gifford, held the idea that in stellar encounters a third body would be produced. Rutherford later showed experimentally that such third bodies were produced by atomic impacts resulting in disintegration of one of the atoms concerned.

Rutherford was fortunate in his student days in having a number of brilliant fellow students. It would perhaps be invidious to mention names other than Marris, who later became Sir Charles Marris, after a brilliant career in the Indian Civil Service.

In 1893, Rutherford accomplished what had been done only once previously in the history of the University. He gained a double first-class honours in mathematics and physics. He had already turned his attention to physical research in spite of the paucity of equipment available.

In 1887, Professor Heinrich Hertz, of the University of Bonn, had experimentally proved the existence of electric waves, the possibility of which had previously been mathematically foretold by Clerk Maxwell. This discovery was revolutionary and already the best scientific minds of Europe had devoted their whole energy to the study. Nevertheless, with home-made equipment and electric batteries. Rutherford attacked the problem of finding a suitable detector of these radiations so that their nature could be studied. He submitted his investigations as a thesis for the 1851 Exhibition Science Scholarship and also published them in the Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. The selectors for this Scholarship are always faced with the difficult task of comparing students from various branches of science and, in this case, they actually selected J. C. Maclaurin of Auckland for the Scholarship. Maclaurin was a brilliant chemist who afterwards became the New Zealand Dominion Analyst, and did outstanding work in the development of the cyanide process for separation of gold. At the time, however, Maclaurin was not able to take up the Scholarship which was accordingly awarded to Rutherford, and this enabled him to proceed to a British University and start on a scientific career. He wisely chose to study under Professor J. J. Thomson at Cambridge, and entered Trinity College in 1895. At first he continued his investigations of electric waves, and was the first to signal over any considerable distance. Using his own detector he managed to signal over the space of half a mile, full of intervening streets and houses in Cambridge, but he did not continue these studies, his ideas being taken up and developed by Marconi. His search for scientific truth was uncontaminated by any worldly motive, and he did not concern himself with the economic application of his results.

(To be concluded in our next issue.)

Rutherford's Term Report at Nelson College in 1888.

Rutherford's Term Report at Nelson College in 1888.

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