The History of the School of Physics

The Department 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". But 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

Image above: The Fitzgerald Building 1906

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, so that his Lectures in Natural Philosophy were used for a hundred years in the College. The book has been republished for the millennium. In his time (the early 18th century) the instrument collection numbered hundred of items : today many fine instruments remain, but principally from the late 19th century. An exception is the lodestone presented to Helsham, which is a splendid emblem of our modern research in magnetism.

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.

View of the front desk and blackboard at the Physics Lecture Theatre

It was largely due to Fitzgerald's advocacy that our Physical Laboratory was built, after his death early in this century.

The leading figure of twentieth-century physics in Trinity has been Ernest Walton, whose 1932 experiment ('splitting the atom') with Cockcroft at the Cavendish was one of the milestones of the modern subject, and earned them the Nobel Prize. He returned in 1934, but the Department remained impoverished until more recent times, when vigorous research programmes developed. These have placed it at the head of the subject in Ireland, with a leadership role in European science.