Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS (1802–1875)
Studies of physics at King’s College London date back to its founding in 1829. The first Professor was Sir Charles Wheatstone FRS (1802–1875) who was at King’s from 1834 until 1875. His greatest achievement was the development of electric telegraphs, which revolutionised communications. For the first time, people kilometres apart and out of sight of each other could 'talk' in a reliable way. At a time of expanding rail networks, these communications were essential. Wheatstone also attempted to measure the speed of electric pulses, invented the accordion, and developed stereo photographs.
James Clerk Maxwell FRS (1831–1879)
James Clerk Maxwell FRS (1831–1879), generally regarded as the world’s leading theorist of the 19th century, was at King’s between 1860 and 1865. In this productive period, he developed the unification of the electric and magnetic forces, leading to the theory of electromagnetism and ultimately to things we now take for granted such as television, microwave ovens and mobile phones. He also worked on his theories of thermodynamics and carried out experiments which led to the definition of the unit of electrical resistance. His theoretical work laid down the basis for a deeper understanding of the contemporary technology based on steam power.
While at King’s Maxwell demonstrated the world’s first colour photograph and used polarised light to measure stresses in transparent materials. He is rightly regarded as the 19th century equivalent of Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein; Einstein himself said that Maxwell’s work was 'the most profound and useful [change] that physics has experienced since the time of Newton', while another iconic 20th century physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote: 'From a long view of the history of mankind – seen from, say ten thousand years from now – there can be little doubt that the most significant event of the nineteenth century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics'. A biography of Maxwell, 'The Man Who Changed Everything' by Basil Mahon, was published by John Wiley in 2003, and his contributions to King’s are commemorated through the student Physics society – the Maxwell Society – and a weekly series of 'Maxwell Lectures'.
Professor CG Barkla FRS (1909–1914) was awarded the 1917 Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery that x-rays emitted by different elements have characteristic energies. Sir Owen Richardson FRS (1914–1944) was the Nobel Prize winner for 1928 for his work on thermionic emission; the invention of the thermionic valve revolutionised telecommunications and allowed the development of radio and television. The Nobel Prize for Physics in 1947 was awarded to Sir Edward Appleton FRS (1924–1936) for his work on the Physics of the upper atmosphere, and in particular for his discovery of the layer of ionised upper atmosphere that is still referred to as the Appleton Layer. Again, and quite coincidentally, he was carrying out fundamental physics with very strong applications to communications.
Professor Maurice Wilkins FRS (1916-2004) shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Physiology with James Watson and Francis Crick for determining (by x-ray diffraction) the structure of DNA. Maurice Wilkins’ autobiography, 'The Third Man of the Double Helix', was published by Oxford University Press in 2003. Crucial to the discovery of the double-helix were also the x-ray DNA photographs taken at King's by Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). Her biography, 'Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA' by Brenda Maddox, was published by HarperCollins in 2002. (For more details see 'DNA: the King's story'
; a digital archive).
More recently, Professor Peter Higgs FRS was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in discovering the existence of the Higgs Boson particle at CERN in Geneva, and Professor Michael Levitt, also an alumnus of the department, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on multiscale models for complex chemical systems.
Other key figures
Other distinguished members of the Department have included the first holder of the Chair of Theoretical Physics at King's, Professor Charles Coulson FRS (1947–1952), one of the pioneers in the application of quantum mechanics to chemical structure. An example of his state-of-the-art work was investigating the behaviour of the electrons when one carbon atom is missing from a diamond: in those pre-computer days, considerable algebraic and physical skill was necessary to get even a simple model calculation into a state where is was 'straightforward, if lengthy, to evaluate'.
Professor WC (Bill) Price FRS (1949–1976) was a world-leading spectroscopist and one of the first users of photoelectron spectroscopy to use the ionisation energy of molecules as a probe of their chemical bonding.