Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, CH, FRS[1] (14 February 1869 – 15 November 1959) was a Scottish physicist and meteorologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the cloud chamber.[2][3]

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson
CTR Wilson
Wilson in 1927
Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

14 February 1869
Glencorse, Scotland
Died15 November 1959 (aged 90)
Carlops, Scotland
Alma materOwens College
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Known forCloud chamber
Atmospheric electricity
Scientific career
InstitutionsSidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Academic advisorsJ. J. Thomson
Doctoral studentsCecil Frank Powell
Philip Dee

Education and early life

Wilson was born in the parish of Glencorse, Midlothian to Annie Clark Harper and John Wilson, a sheep farmer. After his father died in 1873, he moved with his family to Manchester. With financial support from his step-brother he studied biology at Owens College, now the University of Manchester, with the intent of becoming a doctor. In 1887, he graduated from the College with a BSc. He won a scholarship to attend Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge where he became interested in physics and chemistry. In 1892 he received 1st class honours in both parts of the Natural Science Tripos.[4][5][6]


He became particularly interested in meteorology, and in 1893 he began to study clouds and their properties. Beginning in 1894, he worked for some time at the observatory on Ben Nevis,[7] where he made observations of cloud formation. He was particularly fascinated by the appearance of glories.[8] He then tried to reproduce this effect on a smaller scale at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, expanding humid air within a sealed container. He later experimented with the creation of cloud trails in his chamber by condensation onto ions generated by radioactivity. Several of his cloud chambers survive.[9]

Wilson was made Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, and University Lecturer and Demonstrator in 1900.[3] He was known by some as a poor lecturer, due to a pronounced stutter.[10]


The invention of the cloud chamber was by far Wilson's signature accomplishment, earning him the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1927.[6] The Cavendish laboratory praised him for the creation of "a novel and striking method of investigating the properties of ionized gases".[11] The cloud chamber allowed huge experimental leaps forward in the study of subatomic particles and the field of particle physics, generally. Some have credited Wilson with making the study of particles possible at all.[8]

Observatory Ben Nevis memorial
Commemorative plaque on behalf Ben Nevis Observatory and C. Wilson's cloud chamber

Wilson published numerous papers on meteorology and physics, on topics including X-rays,[12] ionization,[13] thundercloud formation,[14] and other meteorological events.[8] Wilson may also have observed a sprite in 1924, 65 years before their official discovery.[15] Weather was a focus of Wilson's work throughout his career, from his early observations at Ben Nevis to his final paper, on thunderclouds.[16][14]


Retrospectively, Wilson's experimental method has received some attention from scholars.

In a period of scientific inquiry characterized by a divide between "analytical" and "morphological" scientists, Wilson's method of inquiry represented a hybrid. While some scientists believed phenomena should be observed in pure nature, others proposed laboratory-controlled experiments as the premier method for inquiry. Wilson used a combination of methods in his experiments and investigations.[17] Wilson's work "made things visible whose properties had only previously been deduced indirectly".[8]

He has been called "almost the last of the great individual experimenters in physics".[10] He used his cloud chamber in various ways to demonstrate the operating principles of things like subatomic particles and X-rays.[12][13] But his primary interest, and the subject of the bulk of his papers, was meteorology.[17]

Awards, honours and legacy

Wilson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1900.[1]

Wilson Cloud Chamber at AEC's Brookhaven National Laboratory
Wilson's Cloud Chamber at AEC's Brookhaven National Laboratory

For the invention of the cloud chamber he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927, becoming the only Scottish-born person to do so.[8][6] He shared this prize with Arthur Compton.[16] Despite this great contribution to particle physics, he remained interested in atmospheric physics, specifically atmospheric electricity, for his entire career.[18][19] For example, his last research paper, published in 1956 when he was in his late eighties (at that time he was the oldest FRS to publish a paper in the Royal Society's journals), was on atmospheric electricity.[14]

The Wilson crater on the Moon is named for him, Alexander Wilson and Ralph Elmer Wilson.[20] The Wilson Condensation Cloud formations that occur after large explosions, such as nuclear detonations, are named after him.[21] The Wilson Society, the scientific society of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge is named for him,[22] as is the CTR Wilson Institute for Atmospheric Electricity, the Atmospheric Electricity Special Interest Group of the Royal Meteorological Society.

The archives of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson are maintained by the Archives of the University of Glasgow.[23]

In 2012, the Royal Society of Edinburgh held a meeting in honor of Wilson, the "Great Scottish Physicist".[19]

Personal life

In 1908, Wilson married Jessie Fraser, the daughter of a minister from Glasgow. The couple had four children. His family knew him as patient and curious, and fond of taking walks in the hills near his home.[15] He died at his home in Carlops on 15 November 1959, surrounded by his family.[4]


  1. ^ a b Blackett, P. M. S. (1960). "Charles Thomson Rees Wilson 1869–1959". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. 6: 269–295. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1960.0037.
  2. ^ Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Isaac Asimov, 2nd ed., Doubleday & C., Inc., ISBN 0-385-17771-2.
  3. ^ a b Charles Thomson Rees Wilson's biography
  4. ^ a b Longair, Malcolm S. (2006). "Wilson, Charles Thomson Rees (1869–1959)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/36950. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  5. ^ "Wilson, Charles Thomson Rees (WL888CT)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  6. ^ a b c "C.T.R. Wilson - Biographical". Nobel Media AB. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  7. ^ Williams, Earle R. (1 August 2010). "Origin and context of C. T. R. Wilson's ideas on electron runaway in thunderclouds". Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics. 115 (A8): A00E50. Bibcode:2010JGRA..115.0E50W. doi:10.1029/2009JA014581. ISSN 2156-2202.
  8. ^ a b c d e Brocklehurst, Steven (7 December 2012). "Charles Thomson Rees Wilson: The man who made clouds". BBC News. Retrieved 8 June 2017.
  9. ^ Phillipson, Tacye (December 2016). "Surviving Apparatus Showing the Early Development of the Cloud Chamber". Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society.
  10. ^ a b Halliday, E.C. (1970). "Some Memories of Prof. C.T.R. Wilson, English Pioneer in work on Thunderstorms and Lightning". Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. 51 (12): 1133–1135. doi:10.1175/1520-0477(1970)051<1133:smopct>;2.
  11. ^ A history of the Cavendish laboratory 1871-1910.With 3 portraits in a collotype and 8 other illustrations. London. 1910. hdl:2027/coo1.ark:/13960/t0ns19f2h.
  12. ^ a b Wilson, C. T. R. (1 August 1923). "Investigations on X-Rays and $ \beta $-Rays by the Cloud Method. Part I. X-Rays". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 104 (724): 1–24. Bibcode:1923RSPSA.104....1W. doi:10.1098/rspa.1923.0090. ISSN 1364-5021.
  13. ^ a b Wilson, C. T. R. (9 June 1911). "On a Method of Making Visible the Paths of Ionising Particles through a Gas". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 85 (578): 285–288. Bibcode:1911RSPSA..85..285W. doi:10.1098/rspa.1911.0041. ISSN 1364-5021.
  14. ^ a b c Wilson, C. T. R. (2 August 1956). "A Theory of Thundercloud Electricity". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 236 (1206): 297–317. Bibcode:1956RSPSA.236..297W. doi:10.1098/rspa.1956.0137. ISSN 1364-5021.
  15. ^ a b Bowler, Sue (7 December 2012). "C T R Wilson, a Great Scottish Physicist: His Life, Work and Legacy" (PDF).
  16. ^ a b "C. T. R. Wilson". Physics Today. 2017. doi:10.1063/pt.5.031417.
  17. ^ a b Gooding, David; Pinch, Trevor; Schaffer, Simon (18 May 1989). The Uses of Experiment: Studies in the Natural Sciences. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521337687.
  18. ^ Harrison, Giles (1 October 2011). "The cloud chamber and CTR Wilson's legacy to atmospheric science". Weather. 66 (10): 276–279. Bibcode:2011Wthr...66..276H. doi:10.1002/wea.830. ISSN 1477-8696.
  19. ^ a b Aplin, Karen L. (1 April 2013). "CTR Wilson – Honouring a Great Scottish Physicist". Weather. 68 (4): 96. Bibcode:2013Wthr...68...96A. doi:10.1002/wea.2095. ISSN 1477-8696.
  20. ^ "Planetary Names: Crater, craters: Wilson on Moon". Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  21. ^ Glasstone, Samuel; Dolan, Philip J., eds. (1977). The effects of nuclear weapons (3rd ed.). Washington: U.S. Department of Defense. p. 45. hdl:2027/uc1.31822004829784.
  22. ^ "About | Wilson Society". Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  23. ^ "Papers of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, 1869-1959, Nobel Prize winner and Professor of Natural Philosophy, University of Cambridge - Archives Hub". Retrieved 28 January 2017.


was a common year starting on Friday of the Gregorian calendar and a common year starting on Wednesday of the Julian calendar, the 1869th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 869th year of the 2nd millennium, the 69th year of the 19th century, and the 10th and last year of the 1860s decade. As of the start of 1869, the Gregorian calendar was

12 days ahead of the Julian calendar, which remained in localized use until 1923.

1927 in science

The year 1927 in science and technology involved some significant events, listed below.


1959 (MCMLIX)

was a common year starting on Thursday of the Gregorian calendar, the 1959th year of the Common Era (CE) and Anno Domini (AD) designations, the 959th year of the 2nd millennium, the 59th year of the 20th century, and the 10th and last year of the 1950s decade.

1959 in Scotland

Events from the year 1959 in Scotland.

1959 in the United Kingdom

Events from the year 1959 in the United Kingdom.

Cavendish Laboratory

The Cavendish Laboratory is the Department of Physics at the University of Cambridge, and is part of the School of Physical Sciences. The laboratory was opened in 1874 on the New Museums Site as a laboratory for experimental physics and is named after the British chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish. The laboratory has had a huge influence on research in the disciplines of physics and biology.

The laboratory moved to its present site in West Cambridge in 1974.

As of 2011, 29 Cavendish researchers have won Nobel Prizes. Notable discoveries to have occurred at the Cavendish Laboratory include the discovery of the electron, neutron, and structure of DNA.

Cloud chamber

A cloud chamber, also known as a Wilson cloud chamber, is a particle detector used for visualizing the passage of ionizing radiation.

A cloud chamber consists of a sealed environment containing a supersaturated vapor of water or alcohol. An energetic charged particle (for example, an alpha or beta particle) interacts with the gaseous mixture by knocking electrons off gas molecules via electrostatic forces during collisions, resulting in a trail of ionized gas particles. The resulting ions act as condensation centers around which a mist-like trail of small droplets form if the gas mixture is at the point of condensation. These droplets are visible as a "cloud" track that persist for several seconds while the droplets fall through the vapor. These tracks have characteristic shapes. For example, an alpha particle track is thick and straight, while an electron track is wispy and shows more evidence of deflections by collisions.

Cloud chambers played a prominent role in the experimental particle physics from the 1920s to the 1950s, until the advent of the bubble chamber. In particular, the discoveries of the positron in 1932 (see Fig. 1) and the muon in 1936, both by Carl Anderson (awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1936), used cloud chambers. Discovery of the kaon by George Rochester and Clifford Charles Butler in 1947, also was made using a cloud chamber as the detector.. In each case, cosmic rays were the source of ionizing radiation.

Davisson–Germer experiment

The Davisson–Germer experiment was a 1923-7 experiment by Clinton Davisson and Lester Germer at Western Electric (later Bell Labs), in which electrons, scattered by the surface of a crystal of nickel metal, displayed a diffraction pattern. This confirmed the hypothesis, advanced by Louis de Broglie in 1924, of wave-particle duality, and was an experimental milestone in the creation of quantum mechanics.

Dennis Gabor Medal and Prize

The Dennis Gabor Medal and Prize (previously the Duddell Medal and Prize until 2008) is a prize awarded biannually by the Institute of Physics for distinguished contributions to the application of physics in an industrial, commercial or business context. The medal is made of silver and is accompanied by a prize and a certificate. The original Duddell award was instituted by the Council of The Physical Society in 1923 to the memory of William du Bois Duddell, the inventor of the electromagnetic oscillograph. Between 1961 and 1975 it was awarded in alternate odd-numbered years and thereafter annually.

In 2008 the award was renamed in honour of Dennis Gabor, the Hungarian – British physicist who developed holography, for which he received the 1971 Nobel Prize in Physics. The prize also switched to being awarded in alternate even-numbered years.

February 14

February 14 is the 45th day of the year in the Gregorian calendar. 320 days remain until the end of the year (321 in leap years).

Franklin Medal

The Franklin Medal was a science award presented from 1915 through 1997 by the Franklin Institute located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. It was founded in 1914 by Samuel Insull.

The Franklin Medal was the most prestigious of the various awards presented by the Franklin Institute. Together with other historical awards, it was merged into the Benjamin Franklin Medal, initiated in 1998.

Howard N. Potts Medal

The Howard N. Potts Medal was one of The Franklin Institute Awards for science and engineering award presented by the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It is named for Howard N. Potts. The awards program started in 1824. The first Howard N. Potts Medal was awarded in 1911. After 1991, the Franklin Institute merged many of their historical awards into the Benjamin Franklin Medal.

List of Fellows of the Royal Society elected in 1900

Fellows of the Royal Society elected in 1900.


Midlothian (; Scottish Gaelic: Meadhan Lodainn) is a historic county, registration county, lieutenancy area and one of 32 council areas of Scotland used for local government. Midlothian lies in the east-central Lowlands, bordering the City of Edinburgh, East Lothian and the Scottish Borders.

Midlothian emerged as a county in the Middle Ages under larger boundaries than the modern council area, including Edinburgh itself - and also known as Edinburghshire until 1921. Traditional industries included mining, agriculture and fishing - although the council area is now landlocked.

Under local government reforms in 1975, Midlothian became a district council within the Lothian region and in 1996 the current unitary council area was created. It contains the towns of Dalkeith, Bonnyrigg and Penicuik, as well as a portion of the Pentland Hills Regional Park, Roslin Chapel and Dalkeith Palace.

November 15

November 15 is the 319th day of the year (320th in leap years) in the Gregorian calendar. 46 days remain until the end of the year.


Penicuik ( PEN-i-kuuk) is a town and former burgh in Midlothian, Scotland, lying on the west bank of the River North Esk. It lies on the A701 midway between Edinburgh and Peebles, east of the Pentland Hills.

Philip Dee

Prof Philip Ivor Dee CBE FRS FRSE (8 April 1904, Stroud – 17 April 1983, Glasgow) was a British nuclear physicist. He was responsible for the development of airborne radar during the Second World War. Glasgow University named the Philip Ivor Dee Memorial Lecture after him.

Scottish Meteorological Society

The Scottish Meteorological Society was founded in 1855 by David Milne-Home with private funding, particularly from wealthy landowners who wished to compile meteorological records in order to improve agriculture.The Society founded the observatory on Ben Nevis, officially opened in 1883.In 1921, the Society amalgamated with the Royal Meteorological Society.

Recipients of the Copley Medal (1901–1950)

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