Childhood & Early Life
Owen Willans Richardson was born on 26 April 1879, in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England. His father, Joshua Henry Richardson, was a salesman in industrial tools. His mother’s name was Charlotte Maria Richardson. He had a sister, Charlotte Sara Richardson, who later married his doctoral student, Clinton Davisson.
Owen Richardson spent his early years near Leeds. Later the family shifted to a small mining town called Askern, located close to Doncaster. There he attended parish school and his performance showed that he was far advanced for his age.
In 1891, he was admitted to Batley Grammar School in Yorkshire on full scholarship, graduating from there in 1897. In the same year, he won the Entrance Major Scholarship and entered Trinity College, Cambridge, with physics, chemistry and botany.
In 1900, Richardson obtained his B.Sc. degree with first class honors in Natural Science, receiving distinction in physics and chemistry. By now, he had come in contact with J. J. Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory and had become interested in his work on ‘cathode rays’ and subatomic electrical ‘corpuscles’.
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In 1900, soon after his graduation, Richardson was invited to stay back at Cambridge. He accepted the offer, choosing to work with Thompson on emission of electricity from hot bodies.
In 1901, he read two scientific papers before the Cambridge Philosophical Society. In one of them, read on 25 November, he established a law governing emission of electricity. It later became well-known as ‘Richardson’s Law’.
These papers made young Richardson quite famous and in 1902 he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College. Much later, he also won the Nobel Prize because of this work.
Meanwhile, he continued his work on the same subject. At the same time, he collaborated with H. A. Wilson and H. O. Jones on other studies in physical and organic chemistry. His works during this period earned him a D.Sc. from the University College London.
In 1906, he left Cavendish Laboratory and joined Princeton University, New Jersey, U.S.A, as Professor of Physics. He remained here until 1914, working mostly on thermionic emission, photoelectric action, and the gyromagnetic effect.
Sometimes he worked alone and at other times, he collaborated with others, perfecting instruments and making experiments. He also published many papers during this period. In one such article, published in 1909 in Philosophical Magazine, he first coined the term ‘thermionics’.
Sometime now, he also began writing his first book, ‘The Electron Theory of Matter’. Published in 1914, the book mainly consists of articles developed from lectures given to graduate students at Princeton. For many years, it was considered as a classic text book for students working on radio and electronics.
In 1911, Richardson was elected a member of the American Philosophical Society. Subsequently, he started thinking of taking up American citizenship. However, on receiving an offer from King’s College, London in 1913, he abandoned the plan. In the same year, he was also elected a Fellow at Royal Society.
In 1914, Richardson went back to England to become Wheatstone Professor of Physics at King’s College, University of London. He remained there until his retirement in 1944.
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During this period, he worked on various subjects such as thermionics, photoelectric effects, magnetism, the emission of electrons by chemical action, the theory of electrons, the quantum theory, the spectrum of molecular hydrogen, soft X-rays, the fine structure of Ha and Da.
During World War I, he became involved in secret military research into telecommunication and production of wireless telegraphy and telephony. In spite of that, he managed to publish a few works concerning spectroscopy; also on Bohr’s theory of the atom, and Einstein’s analysis of the photoelectric effect.
In 1921–1922, he was appointed as the President of Section A (physics) of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. All along, he continued his teaching assignments, finally relinquishing it in 1924.
In 1924, he was appointed as the Yarrow Research Professor at the Royal Society and also as the Director for Research in Physics at King’s College. From 1926 to 1928, he served as president of the Physical Society.
Later when the World War II broke out, he reduced other engagements and began working on matters of military importance such as radar, sonar, electronic test instruments, and associated magnetrons and klystrons.
Richardson retired in 1944 and shifted to his country home in Hampshire. However he continued working from there and his last paper, with E. W. Foster, appeared in 1953.
All through his life, he guided many research students many of whom later became Nobel laureate. Among them were: A. H. Compton (1927), C. J. Davisson (1937), and Irving Langmuir (1932).
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1906, Richardson married Lilian Maud Wilson, the sister of well-known physicist Harold Wilson, who was also his colleague at the Cavendish Laboratory. The couple had two sons and a daughter. One of them was Harold Owen Richardson who specialized in Nuclear Physics. Lilian died in 1945.
Later in 1948, Richardson married Henriette Rupp, who was also a physicist.
Richardson died on 15 February 1959, in his home in Alton, Hampshire, England.
Emission law, which he proposed in 1901, has been named 'Richardson’s Law' after him.