The History of the School of Physics

The School has a long and distinguished history. A convenient starting point is 1710, when it was resolved "that ground be laid out in the south-east corner of the physick garden sufficient for erecting an Elaboratory and anatomical theatre thereupon". However, Trinity graduates had already made their mark upon the subject. An example is William Molyneux, whose Dioptrica Nova (1692) was the first book on optics in the English language. 

The Fitzgerald Building TCD

The original Erasmus Smith's Professor, Richard Helsham, was Jonathan Swift's doctor; he was the first to lay out Newton's methods in a form suitable for the undergraduate, and his Lectures in Natural Philosophy were used for a hundred years in college. The book has been republished for the millennium by the School of Physics and is available from the Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol, (U.K. ISBN 1 98 706 174). In his time the instrument collection numbered hundreds of items. Today many fine instruments remain, but principally from the late 19th century.  The Physics Antique Instruments Catalogue can be viewed on the School of Physics webpages.

Richard Helsham


In the 19th century the College enjoyed a golden age of contributions to physics, mainly of a mathematical nature. The roll-call of distinguished names includes MacCullagh, Hamilton, Lloyd, Preston and Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is best known for the Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction, but he was a widely influential figure as the leader of the international team who called themselves the Maxwellians. His uncle, George J Stoney, another Trinity graduate, gave the electron its name, before it was experimentally discovered. It was largely due to Fitzgerald's advocacy that our Physical Laboratory was built in 1906 just five years after his death. In 2001 the building was renamed The Fitzgerald Building in his honour.

George Francis Fitzgerald

The Fitzgerald Building’s fine lecture theatre is where Erwin Schrödinger delivered his famous lecture serious entitled ‘What is Life?’ in which he expressed his hypotheses about the molecular structure of genes. These lectures and the subsequent book inspired many biologists of the time to pursue genetics and the structure of DNA.

The leading figure of twentieth-century physics in Trinity has been Ernest Walton, whose 1932 experiment ('splitting the atom') with John Cockcroft at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge was one of the milestones of the modern subject and earned them the Nobel Prize. He returned to Trinity in 1934, but there was little funding for scientific research until more recent times, when vigorous research programmes developed. These have placed Trinity Physics at the head of the subject in Ireland, with a leadership role in European science. Known as the School of Physics since 2005, it is part of the Sami Nasr Institute for Advanced Materials (SNIAM) built in 2000 and the Centre for Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices (CRANN) constructed in 2006.

ETS Walton 



A Brief History of Physics in Trinity College Dublin

The sequence of Erasmus Smith’s professors and their colleagues, beginning in 1724 with Richard Helsham, forms the basic framework underlying most of this account. In particular, the 19th century was a golden age for Trinity physics, and Humphrey Lloyd, William Rowan Hamilton, James MacCullagh and George Francis Fitzgerald were among the most well-known physicists anywhere of the time.....