Barnes, Howard Turner

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(b. Woburn. Massachusetts, 21 July 1873; d. Burlington, Vermont, 4 October 1950)


One of three children born to William Sullivan Barnes and Mary Alice Turner. Howard Barnes moved to Montreal in 1879 when his father became minister of the Unitarian chinch there. He received private elementary schooling and also attended the High School of Montreal. Barnes entered McGill University in 1889, when the English-language institution projected a high profile in the natural sciences. He remained affiliated with McGill for the rest of his career. Barnes married Ann Kershaw Cunliffe in 1901. She died in 1912. leaving him with four small children. Their two sons, William Howard Barnes (1903–1980) and Thomas Cunliffe Barnes (b. 1904), enjoyed notable careers in science. Wilfred Molson Barnes, Howard’s brother, was a distinguished artist.

Barnes ascended the academic ladder at a time of great expansion in physics. He received a Bachelor of Applied Sciences degree in 1893, became demonstrator in chemistry in 1894. picked up a Master of Applied Sciences degree in 1896, and then advanced to a demonstratorship in physics. He fell into the tradition of making precision electrical and physical measurements, which was then represented by one of the two Mactlonald professors of physics, Cambridge-trained Hugh L. Callendar. In 1898 Ernest Rutherford arrived from Cambridge to succeed Callendar. The following year Barnes was rewarded for his diligence in following Callendar’s lessons by winning his way to Britain as a Joule Scholar of the Royal Society of London. He returned to become lecturer in physics in 1900. McGill awarded him a D.Sc. in the same year—an honorific title that paved the way for his being named assistant professor in 1901 and associate professor in 1906. In 1907 Barnes succeeded to Ernest Rutherford’s Macdonald professorship, and in 1909 he took over responsibility for the Macdonald Physics Building when the director, John Cox, the second Macdonald Professor of Physics, retired to England. At a time when subatomic physics and quantum theory were making great advances. Barnes persuaded his colleagues of the significance of traditional calorimetry. Once he carried Mucdonald’s name after his own. the expected designations fell his way: fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1908 and fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1911. In 1912 he reached the pinnacle of his career as Tyndall Lecturer at the Royal Institution in London.

All Barnes’s published research may be traced to his initial work under Callendar on constant-flow precision calorimetry. Although in principle easy to grasp, the technique requires much experimentalingenuity. In essence, a known amount of electrical energy is added to a mass of flowing liquid, whose specific heat is to be determined by measuring its rise in temperature. Attaining a precision of one part in 105 required accurate knowledge of potentials of standard electrochemical cells and resistances, and, as well, use of extremely sensitive platinum resistance-thermometers. Barnes perfected the technique and measured the specific heat of water from the supercooled state to 100° C with un-precedentedprecision. The constant-flow calorimeter that he pioneered is today a compact and self-contained instrument routinely used by chemists. Barnes branched out from calorimetry to consider problems in physical chemistry, such as turbulence and the nature of electrolytes, and he collaborated with Rutherford on measuring the heat effects of radium in equilibrium with its radioactive decay products.

Early in his career Barnes measured the temperature of the nearby St. Lawrence River and Lachine Rapids under winter conditions. He found that very small ice crystals are formed in cold weather, especially in rapids or swiftly moving water under cloudy skies. This form of natural ice. called frazil, can attach itself to existing ice and rapidly precipitate ice jams. Barnes spent much of his later career studying frazil and other forms of ice. On the basis of temperature and depth profiles of the St. Lawrence River between the Great Lakes and Quebec City, he proposed to channel river water, relatively warm from the lakes, through the shallower parts of the system to retard freezing (a procedure that was not adopted in construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway), His observations on thermal gradients in ice masses led to a simple and successful technique for breaking up ice jams by setting off small, intense chemical explosions.

Funding for physics at McGill evaporated following the decision of the discipline’s principal Maecenas, Sir William Macdonald, to turn his philanthropic interests toward funding McGill’s agricultural college, which bears his name. In 1914 Barnes resolved to accept a chair of physics at the new University of British Columbia, a satellite of McGill then about to declare its institutional independence, but shortly thereafter he changed his mind. From 1915 to 1917 he was under medical care for a nervous breakdown, although his health remained good enough during part of the war years for him to engage in some military research. He resigned his Macdonald chair in 1919, receiving an annual pension of $1, 700; the Macdonald Physics Building purchased his library and apparatus. Between 1923 and 1926 he received an annual honorarium of $500 for his ice research, and from around 1924 he once more held the title of professor. Theresearch arrangement ended in 1932, and the following year he became an emeritus professor.

Barnes’s life illustrates the scientific calling in Canada during the first part of the twentieth century. In his research he contributed to a number of areas of physics, although his discoveries cannot qualify as epoch making. In administration he demonstrated no extraordinary cunning. His honors were garnered within a network of “old boys.” Although he did turn his skills toward investigating a problem of great practical concern in a cold climate—ice formation and how to deal with it—no school followed in his wake. His career began and ended in a British imperial setting, but he came into and left the world in the United States.


I. Original Works. Barnes’s publications are listed in standard bibliographies, such as Poggendorff. Several boxes of administrative correspondence are located in the McGill University Archives. Record Group 2. carton 63, folders 1107 and 1109 have provided biographical information for the present entry. The private archives of the Barnes family are held by Thomas W. Barnes of Beaconsfield, Quebec. The Unitarian Church of Montreal holds material concerning the Reverend William Sullivan Barnes.

II Secondary Literature. Obituaries include J. S. Foster in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London. 8 (1952–1953), 25–35; and A. Norman Shaw in Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, ser. 3. 45 (1951), 77–81. See also John L. Heilbron. “Physics at McGill in Rutherford’s Time,” in Mario Bunge and William R. Shea, eds., Rutherford and Physics at the Turn of the Century (New York. 1979), 42–73: and Lewis Pyenson. “The Incomplete Transmission of a European Image: Physics at Greater Buenos Aires and Montreal, 1890–1920,” in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 122 , no. 2 (1978), 92–114.

Lewis Pyenson
James Sangster