The History of the Department of Physics


Following the foundation of Kings College at Aberdeen in 1495, Physics was among the subjects first taught here. From a perspective of 500 years, good teaching has been the most important task in the University. Soon after its foundation, King's College became a thoroughly European University of stature, with strong links formed to mainland Europe by its scholars and its residents. With the coming of the zealous protestant church in Scotland, links with Catholic institutions and countries faded away. The Physics of the day continued to be taught, though, under the title "Natural Philosophy".

More recent initiatives in teaching Physics include:

  • pioneering of University physics teaching using a substantial amount of demonstration apparatus (18th century)
  • pioneering of extensive Physics classes for tradesmen (1780s)
  • early astronomical observatory for teaching equipped with modern instruments in the 1790s
  • medical Physics teaching (1893)
  • women Physics graduates (1890s)
  • introduction of the 3-year Designated Physics Degree in 1970
  • creation of much greater choice of Joint-Honours and Combined Honours degrees (1990s)
  • Honours Physical Sciences (2005).


Research at Aberdeen has also had notable proponents. James Clerk Maxwell began his professorial career at Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1856. Maxwell is seen by many as matching the perception of Newton and Einstein and exceeding their versatility. At Aberdeen he discovered the law of distribution of velocities of molecules in a gas, laying the foundations of modern kinetic theory of gases. His colourimetry experiments in Aberdeen established the Maxwell colour triangle and formed the basis of colour photography, shown by him in 1861. While at Aberdeen, he submitted his prize essay on Saturn's rings (a tour de force in celestial mechanics) and gestated his theory of electricity and magnetism.

George P Thomson was Professor here in the 1920s, when he undertook his famous experimental work which showed that electrons are diffracted like waves. He won the Nobel Prize for his efforts, following in the footsteps of his father JJ Thomson who also won the Nobel prize, for the discovery of the electron.

More recently, former Professor RV Jones FRS was widely known for his development of sophisticated instruments measuring small displacements. His techniques were an inspiration for early atomic force microscopy. Today, Physics based research is carried out in a wider range of departments at Aberdeen than ever before.

Finally, if you would like to read a longer version of our history, then click on "500 years of Physics at Aberdeen", a pdf file.



Initial design by Jan Skakle
Content John Reid
Last updated 21st August 2007