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William Henry Bragg and Son

'All of us know something of that feeling of humility in the presence of greatness thing when we venture to ask a question of Nature herself. When we begin to venture to assemble the instruments, quite simple they may be, with which we hope to enquire into that which is yet unknown, we feel a certain shame at our temerity and perhaps would begin our work alone.

'It is the task of the researcher to describe what he observes so faithfully that his hearers also see the vision. He must serve them for their eyes, if they themselves are not trained to use them.' [1]

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William Henry Bragg, the eldest of three boys, was born on 2 July 1862 in Cumberland, England. His father was a naval captain. In 1869 William Bragg's mother died; she was only thirty-six years old, and he was just seven. From this time on, he lived with his Uncle William, a chemist who ran a pharmacy, and was a major influence on the young William Bragg.

Drawing of William Henry Bragg

William Bragg entered Cambridge University in 1881, following his obsession with mathematics. He tended to be reclusive, and called himself 'unadventuresome, shy and ignorant'. [2] Despite his shyness, William Bragg loved his life at Cambridge University. After finishing his mathemetics studies, he turned his attention to physics and worked at the Cavendish Laboratory during part of 1885. At the end of this year, he applied for and was appointed to the position of Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. Surprisingly, this application and appointment took place all within the space of just over one week! Three weeks later, William Bragg left for Australia.

William Bragg quickly established himself in Adelaide. He formed friends with the Todd family: Charles Todd was the Government Astronomer, Superintendent of Telegraphs and later Postmaster-General, South Australia 1855-1906. The Todds nicknamed William Bragg 'the 'Fessor'; and in 1888 William proposed to their young daughter Gwendoline. He was 26, she was 18. They married on 1 June 1889, and their first son, William Lawrence, was born nine months later. From all accounts, their marriage was a happy one. They had a second son, Robert Charles, in 1891, and a daughter, Gwendolen Mary, in 1907.

William Bragg was a favourite University of Adelaide Professor of Physics. He occupied himself with teaching, managment, educational reform, university life, family life, playing lacrosse, tennis and golf, and participating in church activities, becoming churchwarden of St John's Church, Adelaide, and even obtaining a licence to preach.

As he was, by his own admission, unadventurous, William Bragg had not yet considered following a research career; he was quite satisfied with his life as it was. He became a popular public lecturer, and delighted in making new scientific ideas easily understood for everyone by using simple, straighforward language and engaging demonstrations. He was a kind, charming man, and his audience adored him. This was an exciting, enjoyable time for William Bragg and his young family.

In December 1897 William took Gwendoline to Egypt and Italy; they then joined their sons in France and, as a family, went to England where they met with William Bragg's family. During this trip he also renewed some scientific acquaintences.

At the turn of the century William Bragg was thirty-eight years old, and had spent nearly fifteen years in Adelaide. He had followed, studied and explained new discoveries, as well as repeating experiments. He had noticed the discovery of x-Rays by Röntgen with interest, and demonstrated the power of x-rays in his public lectures. But he had still not taken the step of initiating his own research program.

1904 saw William Bragg made President of Section A (Physics) of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). As part of this role, he was required give the Presidential Speech in New Zealand, and this was the spur which saw him taking the first tentative steps toward his own research program. William Bragg decided to talk about the recent Radium and radioactivity discoveries of Mme Curie. While reading Curie's papers, William Bragg saw an interpretation of results that had she had not suggested. Once he returned from New Zealand, he obtained funds to investigate his theory. Finally, and unexpectedly, William Bragg had become a researcher.

Around this time, William Bragg began writing to Ernest Rutherford for advice and to discuss his results. They had met in Adelaide in 1895. Rutherford was very supportive and, although letters had a three-month turn around, the two formed a great friendship and remained in touch for years. Additionally, Professor Soddy, also much younger than William Bragg but more experienced as a researcher, gave him much helpful advice and support.

William Bragg was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1907, and in January 1909 Bragg reluctantly packed up his family and left his beloved Adelaide for a position at the University of Leeds. He had accepted the job offer only to further his research career.

When the Braggs arrived in England in March 1909, William Bragg was forty-seven years old and nearly half-way through his career, which had mostly been dedicated to teaching and education. His son, William Lawrence Bragg (known as Lawrence), had just graduated from the University of Adelaide, and travelled to England to study at Cambridge University. A whole new phase of the Braggs' lives was starting.

After Adelaide, Leeds was a shock to William Bragg and his family, who were unused to the grey and cold of England, the poverty, dirt and smoke. Meanwhile, the church, which had been such a joyful part of their life in Adelaide, was starkly different back in England:

'Never after his return from Adelaide did [my father] take any active part in church affiars; increasingly he felt apart from organised religion. The Church's non-comprehension of the scientific point of view distressed him greatly.' [3]

University life was a hard adjustment for William Bragg as well. In Adelaide, he had been the only eminent physicist around and enjoyed an adoring public. In Leeds, he no longer ran the show; he had to conform to rules, hierarchies, and traditions. His lecturing went badly, and William Bragg lost his confidence. Over three miserable years his research ground to a halt. Yet he clung desperately to his corpuscular theory of x-rays (that they are particles, not waves) and even engaged in an uncharacteristic public argument with Charles Glover Barkla, who took the opposing view. (Barkla received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1917, 'for his discovery of the characteristic Röntgen radiation of the elements'.)

In 1911 William Bragg was offered a position in British Columbia that would have surely meant the end of his research career. Despite the difficulties he was going through, he turned it down.

In 1912, Lawrence Bragg graduated from Cambridge University, and father and son began to work together researching x-rays and crystal structure. This was the start of their Nobel Prize winning work in x-ray crystallography. William Bragg was very adept at creating new equipment, while Lawrence was very insightful. Their skills were complemetary and they loved working together. Their most dramatic collaboration was in determining the structure of diamond. (For more details about their scientific work, see Lawrence Bragg and Father.)

William Bragg and his son, Lawrence, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1915, 'for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays'.

William Bragg left the University of Leeds in 1915 to become Professor of Physics at the University College, London, a position he held until 1923. During the First World War, he was in charge of research on the detection and measurement of underwater sounds in connection with the location of submarines. His second son, Bob, was killed in action during the First World War.

William Bragg was knighted in 1920; his much loved wife, Gwendoline, died in 1929.

He received the Order of Merit in 1931 and was Director of the Royal Institution to 1942, President of the Royal Society 1935-40. Awarded the Rumford Medal Royal Society 1916, and the Copley Medal Royal Society 1930.

William Bragg was quite concerned about his son, Lawrence, living in his shadow and was much relieved when Lawrence was also knighted. He wrote to his sister-in-law, Lorna Todd, on 5 January 1941:

'You will learn by newspaper cable that Willie [William Lawrence] is knighted. Isn't that fine?... He will have to be Sir Lawrence: we can't have confusion worse than ever. I am so very glad for his sake. In spite of all care, people mix us up and are apt to give me a first credit on occasions when he should have it: I think he does not worry about that at all now, and will never anyhow have cause to do so now. I think I am more relieved about that than he is.' [4]

Sir William Bragg died on 10 March 1942, aged 79.

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[1] Caroe, G.M. [Lawrence Bragg's sister/William Bragg's daughter], William Henry Bragg, 1862-1942: man and scientist, Cambridge University Press, 1978, p. 24.
[2] Ibid., p. 24.
[3] Ibid., p. 165.
[3] Ibid., p. 177.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 18 December 1997
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Denise Sutherland and Elissa Tenkate
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 19 February 1998

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