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I was very excited recently to discover that a colleague was descended from Charles Heycock, who more or less founded Materials Science in Cambridge. However, Heycock’s significance for me is that he entered, and published from, Maxwell’s Cavendish Laboratory aged 17 while still at school. He exemplifies Maxwell’s open door policy at the Cavendish (provided you were male).

This prompted me to post up an analysis of those we know were doing experimental work in Maxwell’s Cavendish, plotted against their year(s) pre or post graduation and their subject. The results are remarkable and show very clearly the impact of the Cambridge system on experimenter numbers.


On the chart, zero represents their graduation year. Thus, -1, -2… etc are undergraduates at one, two, … etc years before graduation. 1, 2, … etc are postgraduates at one, two, … etc years after graduation.

The majority of postgraduates were mathematicians. They were hanging around Cambridge seeking research topics that would earn them a College fellowship in a year or two’s time. There was no such incentive for Natural Science postgraduates. In 1870 the University Reporter commented that some colleges would consider themselves ‘guilty of extravagance’ in appointing scientific fellows.

Conversely, the undergraduates were mostly studying Natural Sciences. From 1874 on a practical exam in physics had been included in the Natural Sciences course, providing an incentive for students to take an interest in experimental physics – though it is important to note that the students included in the chart here were doing research not a practical physics course. No mathematicians are recorded as doing experimental work while undergraduates. Although physical subjects had been added into the Maths Tripos in 1873, students very rapidly realised that there was so much choice in the question paper that they had no need to study physics in order to do well. Nor did they need practical work. Physics was removed again in 1882 to the postgraduate Part III of the Maths Tripos.

Thus the chart echoes George Bettany’s lament to Nature in 1874,

‘The great hindrance to the success of the Cavendish Laboratory at present is the system fostered by the Mathematical Tripos. The men who would most naturally be the practical workers in the laboratory are compelled to refrain from practical work if they would gain the best possible place in the Tripos list. Very few have courage so far to peril their place or to resign their hopes as to spend any valuable portion of their time on practical work… For a man to do practical work in physics at Cambridge implies considerable exercise of courage and self-sacrifice.’

And what of Charles Heycock? He is the “non-Cambridge” undergraduate at <-4. He was 17 when he worked in the Cavendish with Arthur Clayden (an undergraduate) on the spectrum of indium. He didn’t enter the University for another year, and subsequently read Natural Sciences, graduating with a first class degree in chemistry and physics. He became a FRS and founder of Cambridge’s Department of Materials Science.