Glazebrook, Richard Tetley

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Glazebrook, Richard Tetley

(b. West Derby, Liverpool, England, 18 September 1854; d. Limpsfield Common, England, 15 December 1935)


The eldest son of Nicholas Smith Glazebrook, a surgeon, and Sarah Anne Tetley, Glazebrook was educated at Dulwich College until 1870, then Liverpool College, and in 1872 entered Trinity College, Cambridge. He received his B.A. as fifth wrangler in 1876 and his M.A. in 1879. After working under Maxwell at the Cavendish Laboratory from 1876 until Maxwell’s death in 1879, he stayed on under Rayleigh and in 1880 was appointed demonstrator (with Napier Shaw). Glazebrook was a college lecturer in mathematics and physics (1881–1895) and university lecturer in mathematics (1884–1897).

Although he was disappointed in not being elected to succeed Rayleigh when the latter resigned in 1884, Glazebrook remained at the Cavendish Laboratory and was appointed assistant director in 1891. In 1895 he took on additional duties as senior bursar of Trinity College. He resigned these last positions to become principal of University College, Liverpool, in 1898, with the understanding that he might leave if offered the directorship of the National Physical Laboratory, then being established. This in fact occurred, and he left the college on the last day of 1899, taking up his new position on the first day of the new year. He remained in this post until his retirement in 1919. Glazebrook was elected to the Royal Society in 1882 and received numerous other honors, including presidencies of the Physical Society (1903–1905), the Optical Society (1904–1905, 1911–1912), the Institution of Electrical Engineers (1906), the Faraday Society (1911–1913), and the Institute of Physics (1919–1921).

Glazebrook’s initial work under Maxwell was in optics, with considerable attention to electrical measurements. When Rayleigh became a member of the reconstituted British Association Committee on Electrical Standards in 1881, Glazebrook assisted him; and in 1883 he became secretary of the committee, a position he was to hold until 1913, when the work of the committee was taken over by the National Physical Laboratory. Glazebrook became increasingly interested in the precise measurement of electrical standards. This specialty, together with his talent as an administrator, made him an obvious candidate to head the National Physical Laboratory when it was formed.

As director of the new laboratory Glazebrook continued to press for the determination of the fundamental units for both scientific and industrial purposes. In 1909 work was begun in the field of aeronautics, leading to efforts that were greatly accelerated during the war.

Glazebrook was an accomplished experimentalist, and he wrote several physics textbooks which enjoyed widespread use. His true vocation, however, was scientific administration, as he demonstrated in leading the National Physical Laboratory through its first two decades.


I. Original Works. Glazebrook’s textbooks, each of which went through several editions, include Physical Optics (London, 1883); Laws and Properties of Matter (London, 1893); Heat (Cambridge, 1894); and Mechanics (Cambridge, 1895). Two of his articles of particular interest are “Life and Works of James Clerk Maxwell,” in Cambridge Review, 1 (1879), 70, 98–99, 118–120; and “The Aims of the National Physical Laboratory of Great Britain,” in Popular Science Monthly, 60 (Dec. 1901), 124–144, reprinted in Smithsonian Institution Annual Report (1901), pp. 341–357.

A list of Glazebrook’s pre-1900 papers is in the Royal Society, Catalogue of Scientific Papers. A bibliography of his books and papers is in Poggendorff, III, 526; IV, 504; V, 42; VI, 903–904. His correspondence is in the Public Record Office; the Royal Society; and the Forbes papers, University Library, St. Andrews, Fife.

II. Secondary Literature. Biographical information appears in Rayleigh and F. J. Selby, Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 2 (1936–1938), 29–56, with portrait; Proceedings of the Physical Society of London,48 (1936), 929–933; and W. C. D. Dampier, Dictionary of National Biography, 1931–1940 (London, 1949), pp. 343–344.

Bernard Finn