Preserving and Enhancing Access to the O. W. Richardson Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

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Joan M. Sibley, Senior Archivist, Archives & Visual Materials Cataloging, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin


 Amaldi Archives, Dipartimento di Fisica, Universita 'la Sapienza,' Rome, courtesy AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives.Thanks to support from the History Programs of the American Institute of Physics, the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin has completed a one-year project to prepare an online finding aid for the O. W. (Owen Willans) Richardson Papers and improve collection housing for long-term preservation. The Richardson Papers form part of the Center’s History of Science holdings, which also include papers of the Herschel Family and Albert Einstein.

The Richardson Papers were originally processed during the 1960s and described on over 8,000 catalog cards, which were reproduced in A Catalogue of the Sir Owen Richardson Manuscript Collection in the History of Science Collection, The University of Texas (1968). The new finding aid replicates and replaces information previously available only through the catalogue, offering the first online electronic, searchable description of the Richardson Papers.

The 153-page finding aid was created in accordance with current archival practices and cataloging standards and includes a biographical sketch, scope and content note, series descriptions, and a detailed folder-level container list, plus three indexes that further reveal the contents of the papers: an Index of Works by O. W. Richardson (600 items), an Index of Correspondents (nearly 1500 names), and an Index of Works by Others (over 1200 items).

O. W. Richardson (1879-1959) was the English physicist best known for his work on thermionics and the discovery of Richardson’s Law, for which he was awarded the 1928 Nobel Prize in Physics. The rehoused papers now occupy 114 boxes (49 linear feet) and include research notes and manuscripts of his writings, both published and unpublished; his outgoing and incoming correspondence; manuscripts and proofs received from his colleagues; and papers, theses, and dissertations from his students. In addition to Richardson’s work as a researcher, the papers also document his role as an educator and his work with students and faculty at several colleges and universities, his professional activities at conferences and in scientific organizations, as well as his work for various government agencies, especially during World War I and the years preceding World War II.

Richardson’s contributions to several branches of physics—photoelectricity, spectroscopy, ultraviolet and X-ray radiation, the electron theory, and quantum theory—are well documented in the papers. His correspondence files include letters from many distinguished physicists (almost all Nobel laureates in physics prior to 1950 are represented), chemists, electrical engineers, mathematicians, and other scientists. Among Richardson’s most frequent correspondents in the papers are Edward Victor Appleton, Niels Bohr, William Henry Bragg, Percy Maurice Davidson, Clinton Joseph Davisson, Gerhard Heinrich Dieke, James Hopwood Jeans, Ernest Rutherford, Frederick Steell Robertson, George Paget Thomson, and J. J. Thomson. The papers also include family correspondence, especially with his brothers-in-law, Clinton Joseph Davisson, Oswald Veblen, and Harold A. Wilson.

In addition to renowned scientists, the papers also include materials from many lesser-known figures who may be of interest, such as Eva Crane (née Widdowson, who earned a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, but became an expert on bees); R. A. Hull (who died climbing Mont Blanc); Lotte Kellner (a Jewish physicist who was disowned by her Nazi husband and found refuge at Imperial College London); Alice Leigh-Smith (the first British woman to receive a Ph.D. in nuclear physics); Alan Nunn May (a confessed and convicted Soviet spy); Emil Rupp (who recanted papers based on fictitious findings and experiments; his physicist wife Henrietta became Richardson’s second wife); and Harold Walke (who died after an electrical shock in his laboratory).

The Ransom Center offers more than 50 fellowships annually to encourage the use of its collections by funding research visits ranging from one to three months with stipends of $3,000 per month. Also available are $1,200 to $1,700 travel stipends and dissertation fellowships with a $1,500 stipend.