Swann, William Francis Gray

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(b. Ironbridge, Shropshire, England, 29 August 1884; d. Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, 29 January 1962)

experimental physics, theoretical physics.

Swann’s chief contributions to physics lay in experimental and theoretical studies of cosmic radiation, theoretical research in electromagnetic theory and relativity, and work in the philosophy of physics.

He received his higher education at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, University College, King’s College, and the City and Guilds College of London Institute. In 1910 he was awarded the Doctor of Science degree by the University of London. In 1913 Swann went to the United States to become chief of the physics division of the department of terrestrial magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, where he remained until 1918. For the next nine years he taught physics at the University of Minnesota, the University of Chicago, and at Yale University, where he was director of the Sloane Physics Laboratory from 1924 to 1927. In the latter year Swann became director of the Bartol Research Foundation of the Franklin Institute, the laboratory of which had recently been built on the campus of Swarthmore College. He remained there for the rest of his life, retiring officially in 1959 but staying on as emeritus.

Swann early became interested in geophysics, particularly in regard to the earth’s magnetism and atmospheric electricity; and his bibliography shows many papers in the field during the period from 1909 to 1930. The interest in atmospheric electricity naturally led to a growing concern with cosmic radiation, a field he entered vigorously around 1922 and to which he devoted a large part of his research energy. In this area he was equally at home in both theory and experiment, and his frequent summaries of progress were extremely stimulating to all workers in the field. He made the Bartol Research Foundation into one of the world’s great centers in cosmic ray studies, a field in which he maintained interest for the rest of his life.

Swann’s early fascination with the fundamental problems in physical theory provided by relativity led to many papers on the relation between the latter and electromagnetism and electrodynamics. He was highly critical of most presentations of this subject and was never satisfied until he had probed to the bottom of every difficulty. This attitude induced a concern for the general problems of the philosophy of physics. His lectures in this discipline, always in great demand, led to the preparation of his highly successful book The Architecture of the Universe (1934), in which the basic ideas of relativity, thermodynamics, statistical mechanics, and quantum mechanics were set forth with great clarity and charm.

A talented cellist, Swann was a founder and conductor of the Swarthmore Symphony Orchestra. He was a member of the American Philosophical Society and was also prominent in the affairs of the American Physical Society, serving as its president from 1931 to 1933. He received several honorary degrees and was awarded the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal of the Franklin Institute in 1960.


I. Original Works. Swann’s complete bibliography includes two books and 263 articles. The complete list of papers is available from the Barton Research Foundation of the Franklin Institute, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania. The following selection is intended to illustrate the breadth of his work.

The books are The Architecture of the Universe (New York, 1934) and Physics (New York, 1941), written with Ira M. Freeman.

Earlier papers include “The Fitzgerald-Lorentz Contraction, and an Examination of the Method of Determinig the Motions of Electrons When Considered Simply as Singularities, Moving so as to Satisfy the Electromagnetic Scheme,” in Philosophical Magazine, 6th ser., 23 (1912), 86–95; “On the Earth’s Magnetic Field,”ibid., 24 (1912), 80–100; “The Atmospheric Potential Gradient, and a Theory as to the Cause of Its Connection With Other Phenomena in Atmospheric Electricity, Together With Certain Conclusions as to the Expression for Electric Force Between Two Parallel Charged Plates,” in Terrestrial Magnestism and Atmospheric Electricity, 18 (1913), 173–184; “On the Origin and Maintenance of the Earth’s Charge. Part I,” ibid., 20 (1915), 105–126; “The Penetrating Radiation and Its Bearing Upon the Earth’s Electric Field,” in Bulletin of the National Research Council. Washington, no. 17 (1922), 54-77; and “The Fundamentals of Electrodynamics, Part Il,’ in Bulletin of the National Research Council on Electrodynamics of Moving Media, on Electrodynamics of Moving Media, no. 24 (1922), 5–74; “The Relation of the Restricted to the General Theory of Relativity and the Significance of the Michelson-Morley Experiment,”in Science, 62 (1925), 145–148; “The Possibility of Detecting Individual Cosmic Rays,” in Journal of the Franklin Institute, 206 , no. 6 (Dec. 1928), 771–778; and “Relativity and Electrodynamics,” in Review of Modern Physics, 2 , (July 1930), 243–304.

Later papers are “Electrons as Cosmic Rays,” in Physical Review, 41 , no. 4 (15 Aug. 1932), 540–542; “On the Nature of the Primary Cosmic Radiation,” ibid., 43 , no. 11 (1 June 1933);“The Relation of the Primary Cosmic Radiation to the Phenomena Observed,” ibid., 46 , no. 9 (1 Nov. 1934), 828–829; “The Corpuscular Theory of the Primary Cosmic Radiation,” ibid., 48 , (15 Oct. 1935), 641–648; “Cosmic Ray Observations in the Stratosphere,” In Contributed Technical Papers. Stratosphere Series (National Geographic Society, no. 2 (1936), 13–22, written with G. L. Locher, W. E. Danforth, and C. G. and D. D. Montgomery; “The Electrodynamic Force Equation in Its Bearing Upon the Evidence for the Existence of a New Cosmic Ray Particle,” in Physical Review, 52 , no. 5 (1 Sept. 1937), 387–390; “Showers Produced by Penetrating Rays,” in Physical Review, 56 , no. 4 (15 Aug. 1939), 378;“The Significance of Scientific Theories,”in Philosophy of Science, 7 , no. 3 (July 1940), 273–287; “The Relation of Theory to Experiment in Physics,” in Review of Modern Physics, 13 , no. 3 (July 1941), 190–196; “Mass-Energy Relation in Quantum Theory,”in Physical Review, 109 , no. 3 (Feb. 1958), 998–1008; and “Certain Matters in Relation to the Restricted Theory of Relativity, With Special Reference to the Clock Paradox and the Paradox of the Identical Twins. I. Fundamentals,” in American Journal of Physics, 28 no. 1 (Jan. 1960), 55–64.

II. Secondary Literature. A biographical sketch by Martin A. Pomerantz is in Yearbook. American Philosophical Society (1962), 178–184. There is also a sketch in Current Biography, 1960, 417–419, with photograph.

R. B. Lindsay

Swann, William F(rancis) G(ray)(1884-1962)

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Swann, William F(rancis) G(ray)(1884-1962)

Physicist and educator who wrote on parapsychology. He was born on August 29, 1884, at Ironbridge, Shropshire, England. He studied at the Royal College of Science, London; University College; King's College; the University of London; and City and Guilds of London Institute. Swann was an authority on cosmic radiation and atomic structure and was head of the Bartol Research Foundation of Franklin Institute at Swarthmore for 32 years. He had previously taught at the Royal College of Science, London and at the University of Sheffield.

Early in his career he was successively employed as the head of the physical division of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institute, Washington, D.C.; the University of Minnesota (1918-23); the University of Chicago (1923-24); and Yale University (1924-27). His interest in parapsychology was by way of physics and philosophy. He died January 29, 1962, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.


Pleasants, Helene, ed. Biographical Dictionary of Parapsychology. New York: Helix Press, 1964.

Swann, William F. G. "Is the Universe Planned?" Journal of the Franklin Institute (May 1953).

. "The Known and the Unknown." Journal of the Franklin Institute (May 1955).

. "Nature and the Mind of Man." Journal of the Franklin Institute (June 1956).

. "Reality, Imagery and Fantasy." Journal of the Franklin Institute (May 1957).

. "The Science of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow." Journal of the Franklin Institute (March 1960).

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