THE BRILLIANT BRAGGS – FATHER WILLIAM AND SON (WILLIAM) LAWRENCE* – are two of Adelaide’s five Nobel Prize winners. The others are Howard Florey and Robin Warren, both for medicine, and J.M Coetzee for literature.
William Bragg arrived from England in 1885 aged 23 but his next 23 years at Adelaide University were vital to developing him as an individual, family man, sportsman, public figure, teacher and research scientist.
Adelaide enriched William Bragg's life and he gave back to the city in full.
His marriage into the Adelaide family of Gwendoline, daughter of another famous scientist and technologist Charles Todd, transformed him personally and professionally.
William Bragg’s involvement with Adelaide life accorded with his belief that universities should “act as the centre from which all education radiates”. Adelaide’s respect for him showed in the practical support it gave to the research that would take him and his son onto the world stage of science.
Studying at Adelaide University from age 14, the Braggs’ elder son Lawrence, the keen boyhood collector of shells on Adelaide beaches, followed his father in making great leaps in scientific insights, the greatest being the Nobel-winning Bragg’s Law on using X rays to calculate the position of an atom within a crystal. X-ray crystallography is now crucial in medicine and pharmacy, physics, chemistry, mining and biological sciences.
William and Lawrence’s unique father-and-son win of the Nobel physics prize in 1915 was achieved ahead of other contenders that year, including Max Planck – formulator of quantum physics – and Albert Einstein.
The Braggs’ important Adelaide era has been detailed by John Jenkin’s major work William and Lawrence Bragg, father and son: the most extraordinary collaboration in science (2008). Crystal clear: the autobiographies of Sir Lawrence and Lady Bragg gives added personal insight.
ARRIVING, AGED 23, AS ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR OF MATHEMATICS IN 1886
William Henry Bragg, born in 1862, was brought up on his father’s Cumberland farm in England until his mother, who taught William to read before he went to school, died in 1869. He lived in Leicestershire with his stern uncle. At the local school, William was the youngest boy in England to get through the junior Oxford local exams. Moved to King William’s College on the Isle of Man, William excelled in maths and found enjoyment in school activities, sport and his roles in school plays.
In 1884, after gaining first class honours in mathematics, William Bragg learnt his physics in Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory. When Horace Lamb resigned from the Elder chair of mathematics at Adelaide University, J.J. Thomson (the Nobel physicist who would discover the electron in 1897) recommended that William apply for the position. Thomson headed the Cavendish Laboratory and had much in common, particularly tennis, with William. Bragg was selected for the £600 per annum University of Adelaide position at the age of 23.
William Bragg met some of the most important people in his life on the first day of his 23 years in Australia. Having sailed from Tilbury for his voyage on the RMS Rome, William arrived at Glenelg on 27 February 1886 and spent the night at the Pier Hotel. The next day, young doctor Alfred Lendon – and future life-long friend – called for William and took him to meet Samuel Way, chief justice of South Australia and university chancellor. Next stop was a visit to Charles Todd and his family.
Charles Todd was famous as the architect and builder of the transcontinental Overland telegraph line that linked Australia, through Darwin, with Europe. On his first day in South Australia in 1886, William Bragg met Todd, government astronomer, postmaster general and superintendent of telegraphs – and his future father in law, at the Todd home within the Adelaide Observatory buildings in the west parklands. William also met Todd's wife Alice, sons and daughters, including Gwendoline.
BRAGG RECRUITS ROBERT CHAPMAN AND ARTHUR ROGERS; BACKS STUDENTS UNION IN 1895
Professor William Bragg, with first class honours from Cambridge at the age of 23, joined a new Adelaide University still struggling in 1886. Of 100 full-course students, only a few were at the science school. William taught all pure and applied maths and all the physics and practical physics. He was also in charge of much of the secondary public exams in maths and physics. But he was happy to lecture second-year music students in acoustics – a specialty he revisited in World War I.
Still struggling with lack of apparatus, William Bragg asked in 1887 for an assistant lecturer. This was granted after William offered to provide one third of the salary (£100) himself for the first two years. His choice, Robert Chapman, became a powerhouse of engineering knowledge in South Australia and later Elder professor of mathematics and mechanics. William also started free lectures for science teachers and for the public. The last of these was on the “mysterious X rays”.
Arthur Rogers' superb skill in creating apparatus was critical to William Bragg’s breakthrough alpha particle and gamma ray experiments. Rogers' schooling in England was hampered by disability but he gained jobs working with metal, wood and glass. Migrating to Adelaide in the 1880s to improve his health, he joined Edwin Sawtells' optical and watchmaking business. This may have been where William had apprenticed himself to learn how to make the apparatus for the uni laboratory.
Part of William Bragg’s role in helping build Adelaide University’s culture, role and standards was in care for students. William was the leader in the new university’s student union getting its first home. The need for a students’ union has been traced to discontent with the small unfurnished students’ room closed by the university council in 1889 after it was damaged by angry students. William got things moving in 1895 by overseeing the planning and building of a students union building.
TAKES LEAD ROLE IN COMIC DRAMA AT BARR SMITHS' TORRENS PARK THEATRE IN 1886
Seaside summer holidays became a family tradition was for the Braggs and Todds. Gwen Bragg and the two boys usually went for an extended time. William joined Gwen by taking up in painting and they even exhibited their work together. They were an integral part of the reactivated South Australian Society of Arts. and they exhibited together. William represented the society on the board of governors of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of South Australia.
Keen on sports from his school and university days, William Bragg helped developed lacrosse in South Australia. William became the colony’s finest all-round player with the Adelaide club whose home ground was the Old Adelaide (Victoria Park) Racecourse opposite the grandstand, in 1886. He organised and became captain of a North Adelaide club and was picked in in a combined South Australian team that inflicted the only defeat on the South Melbourne club on Adelaide Oval in 1887.
REPRESENTS ROYAL SOCIETY OF SOUTH AUSTRALIA NATIONALLY
William Bragg was closely involved with the jubilee exhibition, the Exhibition Building and the Elder Conservatorium of Music. The jubilee exhibition, celebrating the South Australia’s 50th anniversary and the golden jubilee of Queen Victoria’s reign, opened in 1887 in the new Exhibition Building on North Terrace. As a member of Adelaide University’s board of musical studies, Bragg was active planning the Elder Conservatorium and advised on the acoustics for it and the Elder Hall.
As with his father-in-law Charles Todd, Adelaide University's mathematics and physics professor and future Nobel Prize winner William Bragg promoted electrical technology in Adelaide. Todd, as South Australia's postmaster general and director of the Adelaide-Darwin telegraph line project, had urged that Adelaide use electricity long before it was seriously discussed in the 1880s. In 1900, the new School of Mines and Industries asked Adelaide University to help reorganise its electrical engineering course. William Bragg had a shortage of staff, funds and equipment but he suggested weekly evening classes that began in 1891. Students petitioned for an advanced course in 1894. A brilliant undergraduate from Sydney University, John Madsen arrived at Adelaide University in 1901 as assistant lecturer in mathematics and demonstrator in physics. During the 1902/3 summer break, Madsen visited universities and electrical works in England and the USA. In 1903, he became Adelaide University’s lecturer in electrical engineering. The university and School of Mines in 1902 set up four-year courses leading to a joint school fellowship and university diploma in applied science. The electrical engineering course and laboratories design were left to Madsen, who took on all physics practical work, advised Adelaide Electric Lighting Co. and, by 1906, was helping Bragg with research. Bragg took a deep interest in these developments. With Todd's support, Bragg was elected an associate (1893) and then full member of The Institution of Electrical Engineers (UK) until 1912.
ADELAIDE UNIVERSITY GRANTS STUDY LEAVE IN UK IN 1898
William Bragg’s demonstration of X rays in Adelaide in 1896 had special significance. It was part of William’s interest shifting to electromagnetism and he was also use a confluence of local resources. A high-voltage induction coil was borrowed from his famous father in law Charles Todd, postmaster general superintendent of electric telegraph. At the same time, Samuel Barbour, an R.H. Faulding & Co. chemist, returned from Europe with one of the new glass discharge (Crookes) tubes.
DECLINES OFFER FROM CANADIAN UNIVERSITY IN 1907
During research (1904-08) at Adelaide University with alpha particles, William was conscious of vigorous discussions in science worldwide on the nature of X rays and gamma rays as waves or particles. The prevailing view than was the ether-pulse theory that saw X rays as electromagnetic wave pulses. But William revived the idea that X rays and gamma rays might be material particles. William invited Adelaide University colleague John Madsen to help investigate his radical theory.
Visits by Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy to William Bragg, while he was at Adelaide University, were crucial to the progress of Bragg’s research and reputation. Rutherford and Soddy were key world figures in nuclear physics on its way to unveiling the structure of the atom. William was conscious of isolation from people and events in England and Europe but his correspondence with Soddy and Rutherford were a bridge enabling him to proceed with his research in Adelaide.
William Bragg was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1907. This was second for the broader family. His father in law Charles Todd had been elected a fellow in 1889. Also in 1907, Ernest Rutherford recommeded William as his successor at McGill University in Canada. William, who was initially very interested, but told Rutherford that “we have struck our roots very deep … I think there could hardly be a more delightful city to live in than Adelaide, nor a kindlier people”.
BORN 1890 INTO BOYHOOD AT NORTH ADELAIDE
X rays, central to William and Lawrence Braggs’ Nobel Prize in 1915, featured in a domestic drama at the family’s North Adelaide home in 1896. Six-year-old Lawrence Bragg was riding his tricycle when brother Bob jumped on from behind. They both fell on Lawrence’s left elbow. Lawrence was taken to his father William’s Adelaide University laboratory where the elbow was Xrayed with basic apparatus. X rays had only been discovered in 1895 by Wilhelm Röntgen in Germany.
Shell collecting became Lawrence Bragg’s main boyhood interest, helped by the family’s seaside holidays at Port Willunga, Port Elliott, Semaphore, Brighton, Normanville, Aldinga and Grange. The shell collecting also suited Lawrence’s preference for solitary pursuits. Lawrence’s shell collecting grew to specimens from 500 species. In 1906/07, Lawrence Bragg found an unusual cuttlefish bone that Dr Joseph Verco, who had the city's finest collection of shells, named sepia braggi.
BEFORE DEPARTING FOR LEEDS UNIVERSITY POSITION IN 1909
William Bragg was at the forefront of (Royal) Adelaide Golf Club’s effort to establish itself at Seaton from 1906. William joined the club in 1893 when its course was in the east city parklands opposite the Braggs’ first home at North Adelaide. He was elected the club’s secretary/treasurer and reduced his golf handicap from 13 to 1.William was involved in the club's efforts to find a new course in 1904 at Seaton. William provided a club trophy in 1905 and in 1906/7 he won the senior medal.
Adelaide gave the Braggs a big sendoff after William Bragg wrote to the Adelaide University Council, in 1908, tendering his resignation after an attractive offer from Leeds University. But he suggested 10 months leave of absence and the chance to return. Australasian scientists were sad to see him go. Clinton Coleridge Farr wrote: “He is as unassuming as he is brilliant ... More than any other man, has helped to shift the centre of gravity of scientiﬁc research a little to the south.”
THE MAKING OF LAWRENCE BRAGG: YOUNGEST NOBEL LAUREATE IN SCIENCE
Lawrence Bragg started at St Peter's College in 1901, benefitting from changes since 1894 when the Rev. Henry Girdlestone, an Oxford science graduate, took over as headmaster. Age 11, Lawrence Bragg was in the fifth form and doing a public examination at the end of his first year. Precocious in lessons, he found his social immaturity compared to older class mates a great handicap. In 1904, he topped mathematics, chemistry and French exams, as well as Form VI overall.
Lawrence Bragg completed his secondary education in 1905 – at the age of 15. Lawrence enrolled at Adelaide University in 1906. He studied Physics 1, Inorganic Chemistry 1 (BA course), and second-year pure mathematics, getting a first-class pass in each. Much of his mathematics and physics tutoring came from his father. In 1908, Lawrence undertook the honours mathematics course and graduated BA with first-class honours. He left for England with his family in 1909.
Lawrence Bragg entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1909 on a major scholarship in mathematics. He completed the first-year mathematical tripos with a first-class pass. William urged his son to change to physics and Lawrence achieved a first-class natural science honour. Lawrence began research in Cavendish Laboratory in 1912 when he became aware of Max von Laue proving X rays were waves of light. This sparked the joint interest of Lawrence and father William in X-ray diffraction.
As a 22-year-old first-year research student at Cambridge University in 1912, Lawrence Bragg discovered how to “see” the positions of atoms in solids. This was Braggs Law, basis of the 1915 Nobel Prize shared by Lawrence – youngest winner of the prize for science – with father William. William built a spectrometer, enabling the two Braggs to examine X rays from crystals at various angles. This initiated X-ray crystallography – still the most accurate to determine molecular structures.
ADELAIDE KEEPS ITS CONNECTION WITH THE BRAGGS