, , , , ,

I was asked recently about the rise to prominence in British physics of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge.

Certainly the Cavendish received a very good press from its alumni, former pupils and co-workers of its first professor, James Clerk Maxwell, and his successors Rayleigh, J J Thomson, and Rutherford, which ensured its prominence in history.  But is this a historical reconstruction? Or was the laboratory prominent from the time of its foundation in 1874, and if so, why?

I’ve been playing about with examining this using google’s Ngram viewer as a contribution to my forthcoming book chapter on Maxwell and the Cavendish. The Ngram measures the yearly count of a phrase, normalised by the number of phrases published in the year, in a corpus of over 5.2M books digitised by google up to 2009.[i]  It thus, potentially, gives a measure of how prominent a phrase (or institution) was in the public consciousness of the time. It is a very useful tool for tracking the frequency of certain types of phrases (and entirely useless for others).

Of course, the frequency of the phrase “Cavendish Laboratory” in absolute terms tells us little about the lab’s prominence – it needs to be compared to other laboratories.  The other obvious laboratory for comparison would be Sir William Thomson’s in Glasgow, or one of the London Colleges, but they lacked unique and distinctive names in the 1870s and hence could not be reliably tracked by Ngrams (I tried).  Oxford, however, had recently established a physical laboratory, the “Clarendon Laboratory”, and this served as a comparator.

Then, to test the hypothesis that the initial prominence of the laboratories might be linked with the prominence of their first directors, I threw “Clerk Maxwell” (professor at Cambridge) and “Robert Clifton” (professor at Oxford) into the mix. The caveat here is that there may be noise from other, non-related, Clerk Maxwells or Robert Cliftons (another reason for not trying to compare with William Thomson which is a much more common name).

Thus, the chart shows the Ngram comparing the phrases ‘Clerk Maxwell’, ‘Cavendish Laboratory’, ‘Robert Clifton’ and ‘Clarendon Laboratory’.


The Ngram shows how Maxwell’s public profile rose through the 1860s and 70s, until his death in 1879 and was followed by the profile of the Cavendish Laboratory after its foundation. However, Maxwell was much more in the public eye than was the Cavendish. Clifton, and the Clarendon, were much less prominent in the literature of the time, but there is less discrepancy between the lab and its professor.

It appears that the Cavendish Laboratory was prominent – at least compared to Oxford’s lab – from the time of its foundation, and its fame probably had a lot to do with the fame of Clerk Maxwell.

[i] J-B. Michel, Y. K. Shen, A. P. Aiden, A. Veres, M. K. Gray, W. Brockman, The Google Books Team, J. P. Pickett, D. Hoiberg, D. Clancy, P. Norvig, J. Orwant, S. Pinker, M. A. Nowak, and E.L. Aiden.’ Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books’. Science (Published online ahead of print: 12/16/2010)