Edward Hutchinson Synge (1890-1957)

Edward Hutchinson Synge  is a forgotten member of a famous Irish family. He is the brother of John Lighton Synge, the renowned mathematican, and nephew of the playwright John Millington Synge, whose works include The Playboy of the Western World.

Edward (known as Hutchie) was born on June 1st, 1890. He arrived in Trinity College Dublin as a student in 1908, top among the sixteen student who secured “High Places at Entrance”. His stellar academic achievements continued with the Townsend Prize in mathematics at the end of his first year, followed by a Foundation Scholarship at the end of his second year.  Unexpectedly in 1911 following the death of JM Synge, he inherited almost half of his uncle’s estate and withdrew from Trinity without completing his degree. He remained a recluse for the rest of his adult life.

However, his interest in Physics remained, and he published nine articles in Philosophical Magazine in the decade spanning 1922 – 1932. These papers cover topics including relativity, microscopy, astronomical observations and remote sensing. In his papers he proposed insightful new methods for high resolution microscopy and innovative tespcope designs. However, as a unknown scientist his work did not receive much attention and remained in obscurity.  It was many decades later before other scientists independently proposed similar ideas. In 2007 Synge’s work was revisited by L. Novoty in The History of Near-field Optics [1].  Subsequently, in 2012 J. F. Donegan, D. Weaire and P. S. Florides edited a collection of Synge’s publications bringing further recognition to his visionary acheievements [2].

In standard optical miroscopes the resolution is limited by Abbe diffraction limit. In two of his papers Hutchie proposed a practical method for a scanning near-field microscopy (SNOM) which allows for optical imaging with resolution higher than the Abbe diffraction limit [3]. In Synge’s publication he was the first to suggest that the rapid scanning could be achieved using the piezolectric effect [4]. The SNOM was independently rediscovered by IBM in 1984. As envisaged by Synge it works on the principle of scanning a light source of dimensions smaller than the wavelength of light across the sample using the piezo-electric effect while maintaing the source at a very small distance from the sample surface. 


  1. Novotny, “The History of Near-field Optics”, Progress in Optics, 2007, 50, E. Wolf (ed.) Ch. 5, 137-184, Elsevier, Amsterdam
  2. F. Donegan, D. Weaire and P. S. Florides (Eds.), “Hutchie: the life and works of Edward Hutchinson Synge (1890 – 1957)”, Living Ed. Science, 2012.
  3. H. Synge, “A Suggested Method for extending Microscopic Resolution into the Ultra-Microscopic Region”, Philosophical Magazine 7, 6:35 (1928), 356-362
  4. E. H. Synge, “An Application of Piezo-electricity to Microscopy”, Philosophical Magazine 7, 13:83 (1932), 297-300.