Tag Archives: Science

Francis William Aston

Francis William Aston
Born 1st September 1877 in Harborne, Birmingham,
Died 20th November 1945 at Trinity College, Cambridge.


During its long history Birmingham has played host to many famous scientists such as Matthew Boulton and James Watt (Steam engines) and John Roebuck (Lead chamber process for making sulphuric acid) among others, but Francis William Aston is one of the lesser known members of the scientific community in Birmingham.

Mason College, later University of Birmingham

Although Francis William Aston is best known for his work in the area of Physics, he initially began his university career studying Chemistry and Physics at Birmingham University where he studied the optical properties of organic acids; he wrote a paper on this subject which was published in 1901.

After a short break from the academic world during which he worked as a chemist for a brewer, he returned to academia, being awarded a scholarship to study at Birmingham University where he began building vacuum pumps to investigate the properties of gases in evacuated tubes.

In 1908 he moved to Cambridge under the tutelage of J.J Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory.

Whilst he was working at the Cavendish Laboratory he obtained definite evidence of the existence of two Isotopes(1) of the noble(2) gas Neon.

(1) The six noble gases are found in group 18 of the periodic table. These elements were considered to be inert gases until the 1960s when it was found that Xenon formed a Fluoride; since then chemical compounds have been formed with most of the noble gases with the possible exception of Helium.

(2) An Isotope is any of two or more forms of a chemical element, having the same number of protons in the nucleus, or the same atomic number, but having different numbers of neutrons in the nucleus or different atomic weights. There are 275 isotopes of the 81 stable elements in addition to over 800 radioactive isotopes and every element has known isotopic forms. Isotopes of a single element possess almost identical properties.

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The Best of Friends


MS 3782_12_76_189 First page

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Small, 1775, page 1 [MS 3782/12/76/189]

It was reported by Fox News on 5 July 2016 that a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1815 had been found by a family in the U.S.A. among papers in their attic. It was put up for sale at a price of $325,000.

You do not, however, have to pay anything like that sum to see a letter from Jefferson, as one exists in Birmingham, within the Papers of Matthew Boulton [MS 3782/12/76/189] and it is free to view!

This letter, dated 7 May 1775, accompanied three dozen bottles of Madeira which Jefferson was sending by ship to Dr. William Small in Birmingham.

‘I hope you will find it fine as it came to me genuine from the island and has been kept in my own cellar eight years.’

Jefferson continues with news of continuing warfare between British troops and the fighters for American independence and with the failure of peace negotiations.

He finishes:

‘…but I am getting into politics tho’ I sat down only to ask your acceptance of the wine & express my constant wishes for your happiness…….I shall still hope that amidst public dissension private friendship may be preserved inviolate, and among the warmest you can ever possess is that of…..Th. Jefferson.’

MS 3782_12_76_189 Second page

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. William Small, 1775, page 2 [MS 3782/12/76/189]

Unfortunately, the letter and gift arrived after Small’s death, which had occurred on 25 February 1775, and of which Jefferson was unaware.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (adopted 1785). He was the third President of the United States, 1801-1809. How did he know Dr Small? Continue reading

How do we teach our children?

The Young Naturalist, Parker Collection [087.1/098]

The Young Naturalist, Parker Collection [087.1/098]

 The Parker collection of books and games  was an obvious place to start when exploring our collections for references to geology and nature that might appeal to young people.

The collection tells us much about the education of children during the Victorian period; what was seen as suitable for children to study and access for entertainment.  Much of the collection is dominated by religious texts which were designed to teach children how to behave. This was reflective of what was generally available for children at this time.  However, there are games and texts that tell a different story of education for children, ideas that are reflected in other archive collections from the Victorian period.

The Young Naturalist is a  game which was produced in 1860 and introduces children to subjects  about the natural world.   It is a beautifully illustrated card game with a set of 5 subject cards: ‘Entomology’ ( study of butterflies);  ‘Ornithology’ (study of birds);  ‘Ichthyology'(study of fish); ‘Conchology’ (study of shells); ‘Zoology’ (study of animals).   The box also includes a large set of picture cards with coloured illustrations relating to these subjects and a set of small picture cards printed with illustrations that relate to the main subject categories. These include subjects like Malacology (study of molluscs including snails and octopus), Geology and Mineralogy as well as Meteorology, Astronomy and even Phrenology (the study of the brain by measuring parts of the skull).

2. Ichthyology 3. Conchology 4. Meteorology

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