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Schuster, Arthur


(b Frankfurt, Germany, 12 september 1851; d. Yeldall, near Twyford, Berkshire, England, 14 October 1934) physics, applied mathematics.

Schuster was the son of Francis Joseph Schuster, a well-to-do Jewish textile merchant with business connections in Great Britain. After the Seven Weeks’ War the family firm moved to Manchester, England, when Frankfurt was annexed by Prussia. Schuster, baptized as a young boy, was educated privately and at the Frankfurt Gymnasium. He attended the Geneva Academy from 1868 until he joined his parents at Manchester in the summer of 1870.

By the age of sixteen Schuster had developed an interest in physical science, mainly through Henry Roscoe’s elementary textbook on spectrum analysis. His parents saw at once that he lacked enthusiasm for business: and they consulted Roscoe, then professor of chemistry at Owens College, Manchester, who arranged for Schuster to enroll as a day student in October 1871. He studied physics under Balfour Stewart and was directed in research in spectrum analysis by Roscoe. Within a year he produced his first research paper, “On the Spectrum of Nitrogen.” Again at Roscoe’s suggestion, Schuster enrolled at Heidelberg under Kirchhoff and received his Ph.D. after a less-than-brilliant examination in 1873.

Schuster served at Owens in 1873 as unpaid demonstrator in the new physics laboratory and later, at the request of Lockyer, joined an eclipse expedition to the coast of Siam. Upon his return to England in 1875, Schuster remained at Owens for a semester and then joined Maxwell as a researcher at the Cavendish Laboratory, where he remained for five years, ultimately joining Lord Rayleigh in an absolute determination of the ohm.

In 1879 Schuster applied for a post at Mason Science College. Birmingham, but was rejected in favor of his friend J. H. Poynting. Two years later, when a professorship of applied mathematics was founded at Owens. Schuster was selected for the chair over his former student J. J. Thomson and Oliver Lodge. Subsequently he was rejected as Rayleigh’s successor at the Cavendish in 1884; but after Balfour Stewart’s death in 1887 he succeeded in the following year to the chair of physics at Manchester.

At the beginning of his Owens College career, Schuster resumed his interest in what was by then termed “spectroscopy.” In an important paper. “On Harmonic Ratios in the Spectra of Gases” (Proceedings of the Royal Society, 31 [1881], 337–347), he refuted G. J. Stoney’s explanation of spectral lines that used simple harmonic series by demonstrating statistically that the spectra of five chosen elements conform more closely to a random distribution than to Stoney’s “law.” He concluded, however, that “Most probably some law hitherto undiscovered exists which in special cases resolves itself into the law of harmonic ratios.” In 1897 Schuster independently discovered and published the relationship known as the Rydberg-Schuster law, which relates the convergence frequencies of different spectral series of the same substance.

Schuster’s interests led him to investigate the spectra produced by the discharge of electricity through gases in otherwise evacuated tubes. Such electrical discharges were imperfectly understood, and he began a series of detailed investigations that led to his Bakerian lectures before the Royal Society in 1884 and 1890. Schuster’s findings were of major importance: he showed that an electrical current was conducted through gases by ions and that once a gas was “dissociated” (ionized), a small potential would suffice to maintain a current.

Schuster was also the first to indicate the path toward determining the ratio elm for cathode rays by using a magnetic field, a method that ultimately led to the discovery of the electron. In 1896, shortly after the appearance of Roentgen’s researches, he offered the first suggestion that X rays were small-wavelength transverse vibrations of the ether.

Schuster’s interests were too wide-ranging to give even a brief account here. His work on terrestrial magnetism, however, deserves special notice. In 1889 he showed that daily magnetic variations are of two kinds, internal and atmospheric. He attributed the latter to electric currents in the upper atmosphere, and the former to induction currents in the earth. In a later estimate of the ionization of the upper atmosphere he helped lay the groundwork for the studies of Heaviside and Kennelly.

In 1907 Schuster resigned his chair at Manchester and secured Ernest Rutherford as his successor, thus reinforcing Manchester’s prominence in physical research.

Elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1879, Schuster served twice on its Council and was secretary from 1912 to 1919. He was founder and first secretary of the International Research Council and served as president of the British Association in 1915. He was knighted in 1920.

A man of remarkable originality and ingenuity, Schuster often pointed the way toward novel areas but left the task of reaching research summits to others, a pattern perhaps inevitable in a period of exploding possibilities for one of such wide interests and perception.


I. Original Works. A record of Schuster’s scientific papers from 1881 to 1906 is in The Physical Laboratories of the University of Manchester (Manchester, 1906), 45–60: papers published to 1901 are listed in the Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, VIII, 899: XI, 359–360: XVIII, 623–625. Schuster’s major books include Spectrum Analysis, 4th ed. (London, 1885), written with H. E. Roscoe; Introduction to the Theory of Optics (London, 1904; 3rd ed., 1924); The Progress of Physics During 33 Years (1875–1908)(cambridge, 1911): and Biographical Fragments (London, 1932). With Arthur Shipley he wrote Britians Heritage of Science (London, 1917), a fascinating Victorian of the history of science.

II. Secondary Literature. On Schuster’s life and work the following are of special value: G. C. Simpson, “Sir Arthur Schuster, 1851–1934,” in Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, 1 (1932–1935), 409–423: “Sir Arthur Schuster, FRS,” in Nature, 134 (1934), 595–597; and his article in Dictionary of National Biography; G. E. Hale, “Sir Arthur Schuster,” in Astrophysical Journal, 81 (1935), 97–106: R.S. Hutton, Recollections of a Technologist (London, 1964), pp. 103–106: and J. G. Crowther, Scientific Types (London, 1968), 333–358. See also Manchester Faces and places, IV (1892–1893), 158–159; and Commemboration of the 25th Anniversary of the Election of Arthur Schuster, F.R.S., to a Professorship in the Owens College (Manchester, 1906).

On Schuster’s work see Edmund Whittaker, History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity, I (New York, 1960). pp. 355–360: Norah Schuster, “Early Days of Roentgen Photography in Britain,” in British Medical Journal (1962), 2 , 1164–1166: D. L. Anderson, The Discovery of the Electron (Princeton, 1964), pp. 30, 42, 74: and William McGucken, Nineteenth-Century Spectroscopy (Baltimore, 1969), passim.

On Schuster at Owens, see P. J. Hartog, The Owens College Manchester (Manchester, 1900), pp. 54–59: and H. B Charlton, Portrait of a University (Manchester, 1951), pp. 78–84.

Robert H. Kargon

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