Sir Ernest Rutherford

Ernest Rutherford, 1st Baron Rutherford of Nelson OM, FRS

Baron Rutherford of Nelson was an outstanding scientist who was instrumental in the development of sonar during the First World War.

Ernest Rutherford was born in rural Nelson on 30 August 1871, the fourth of 12 children to James and his wife Martha.

Ernest was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, in 1908.

He boarded at Nelson College from 1887 to 1889 and won a scholarship to assist attendance at a college of the University of New Zealand. He attended Canterbury College in Christchurch 1890 to 1894, graduating as a BA in pure mathematics, applied mathematics, English, French and physics. Ernest also won a scholarship in mathematics, enabling to do his honours, in both maths and physics, in both of which he graduated with first class honours. This was followed by a further year at Canterbury College where he earned a BSc degree and undertook research for a scholarship, which when it was received, enabled him to attend Cambridge University. There he became an outstanding research student under Professor J.J. Thomson of the Cavendish Laboratory.

In 1898 Rutherford took up a professorship at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. There his work on radio activity brought world acclaim and soon after moving to Manchester University, Ernest was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry, in 1908. More profound discoveries followed, cementing his place in history and he was knighted in 1914.

One of Ernest’s particular concerns was the detection of submarines… By late 1917 a sonic device had been developed, suitable for mounting on a ship and a few sets were at sea shortly before the end of the war.

In July 1915, the Admiralty established the Board of Invention and Research “for the purpose of securing for the Admiralty, during the continuance of the war, expert assistance in organising and encouraging scientific effort in relation to the requirements of the Naval Service”. It consisted of a central committee under the abrasive Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fisher, and included Sir J.J. Thomson, Sir Charles Parsons and Sir Ernest Rutherford. Its role was to assess invention proposals made by the general public and transmit those of use to the war effort to the Admiralty technical departments, which did not have the manpower to do this. Numerous sub-committees were established, ranging from Airships to Internal Combustion Engines and Oil Fuel to the detection of submarines.

One of Ernest’s particular concerns was the detection of submarines, for which a small team was gathered. These included one of his students, A.B.Wood, H. Gerrard from Manchester University and two graduate students, J.H.Powell and J.H.T. Roberts. R.W. Boyle a Canadian, and previously a PhD student of Rutherford,  joined the team in early 1916. Besides their detailed technical research other means of locating submarines also had to be considered, even one involving the use of seagulls and later sea lions. The former plan even got to the stage of formal trials being ordered, albeit not as a result of any recommendation by Rutherford.

Much work was done on developing listening devices (hydrophones) and also transmitting devices. However it was not until the French shared the work that had been done by Paul Langevin, assisted by a Russian inventor M.Constantin Chilowsky in late 1916 that real progress was made. By late 1917 a sonic device had been developed, suitable for mounting on a ship and a few sets were at sea shortly before the end of the war. It was not however, until 1924 that an efficient set was at sea, by which time all those noted above had long ceased to be involved in the project.

Umbo, 1902-1980. Portrait of Ernest Rutherford - Photograph taken by Umbo. Marsden, Lady Joyce : Assorted photographs and negatives from the papers of Sir Ernest Marsden. Ref: PAColl-0091-1-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23093359
Umbo, 1902-1980. Portrait of Ernest Rutherford – Photograph taken by Umbo. Marsden, Lady Joyce : Assorted photographs and negatives from the papers of Sir Ernest Marsden. Ref: PAColl-0091-1-003. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/23093359

The work done by this team was extremely sensitive and it was not until the late 1930s that the existence of the device was made public. It was known to the British as “ASDIC” from the acronym for the Anti-Submarine Detection Investigation Committee, a term that remained in use until superseded in the 1960s by the American term “Sonar”, another acronym, taken from Sound Navigation and Ranging.

Post war Ernest continued his scientific career and in 1919 became the director of the Cavendish Laboratory. He was raised to the peerage in 1931, as Baron Rutherford of Nelson. He chose to include in his coat of arms a kiwi, a Maori warrior and Hermes Trismegistus, the patron of knowledge and alchemists. His shield is quartered by the curves of the decay and growth of radioactivity. His Latin motto, ‘Primordia quaerere rerum’ (To seek the nature of things), was chosen from Lucretius’s De rerum natura.

In 1900 Ernest married Mary Georgina Newton, their only child, Eileen being born the next year. Ernest Rutherford died at Cambridge on 19 October 1937 and his ashes were interred in London’s Westminster Abbey, under an inscribed flagstone near the choir screen in the nave.