The little-known story of Ernest Rutherford's secret anti-submarine work in WWI

by Frank Duffield / 23 April, 2017
A World War I-era submarine with which Rutherford experimented in the development of sonar.

A World War I-era submarine with which Rutherford experimented in the development of sonar.

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Famous for his work splitting the atom, Kiwi Ernest Rutherford also distinguished himself in secret anti-submarine research that helped the Allies win WWI.

This month marks the centenary of the United States entering World War I. Immediately after the US declared war, the British and French governments sent a high-level delegation to Washington to liaise with their new ally. The leader of the team was Ernest Rutherford, the New Zealand-born scientist who was to split the atom, becoming, in the words of his biographer, John Campbell, the world’s first successful alchemist.

Rutherford’s high standing in the US scientific community was no doubt a factor in his being chosen for this role. But there was another reason. US entry into the war had been provoked by the devastating impact of Germany’s resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare on America’s merchant fleet. Before being sent to Washington, Rutherford had been leading research into submarine defence.

This secret work was not discussed in Rutherford’s official biography. Now a cache of notes and letters relating to the work has come to light at the University of Manchester, where he was professor of physics at the outbreak of the war.

Rutherford in 1908. Photo/Getty Images

This material provides a first-hand glimpse of the man, confirming assessments of his character made by others and providing further evidence of his scientific versatility and experimental genius.

When WWI broke out, Rutherford was already renowned, having won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for research into “the chemistry of radioactive substances”. He had established the phenomenon of the half-life of radioactivity and overturned old ideas about the life of the Sun. Newspaper headlines chronicled the “postponement of doomsday”. A bemused winner, Rutherford said the award constituted the most rapid conversion ever of a physicist into a chemist.

In July 1914, Rutherford started on a long-planned visit to Sydney to attend a major scientific conference. From Sydney he went on to New Zealand, where he was given several civic receptions. In Christchurch, students from Canterbury College, his alma mater, hauled his car through the streets. The Christchurch Star, on October 12, 1914, announced his reception alongside reports of the capture of ”beautiful Antwerp” by German forces.

When Rutherford returned to Manchester, he found a depleted laboratory with many men now in the services. One of his team, James Chadwick, a future Nobel laureate in Berlin on a fellowship at the start of the war, was interned for its duration. His most promising student, Henry Moseley, was killed by a sniper’s bullet at Gallipoli. Rutherford went public in trying to persuade the authorities to post young scientists away from the frontline, but was accused by some of lacking public spirit.

Rutherford’s chance to prove otherwise came when he was appointed to the Board of Invention and Research (BIR) established by the Royal Navy to solicit scientific expertise on tactical and technical naval problems. Admiral of the Fleet Jackie Fisher was chairman. He had recently resigned as First Sea Lord, the result of a disagreement with his political boss, a young Winston Churchill, over the Gallipoli campaign.

Fisher and Rutherford were both whirlwinds. Fisher was identified at a young age as the most remarkable midshipman. Argumentative, energetic and reform minded, he went on to dominate and radically reform the Navy. When a researcher at Cambridge, Rutherford was described as having “more enthusiasm [and] ability for original research” than had ever been seen. A future Nobel Prize winner said of him, “I abandoned all to follow [Rutherford]. For more than two years, scientific life became hectic to a degree rare in the lifetime of an individual.” But where Fisher was divisive and created enemies, Rutherford, in contrast, engendered devotion in those who worked with him.

At the first meeting of the BIR in July 1915, Fisher rejected the notion that the committee should simply sift ideas. “Men invent, monkeys imitate,” he had said when appointed. The Navy did not like this, but Rutherford relished the attitude and set about planning research on submarine defences, an area far removed from nuclear physics but requiring urgent work. The scientist, who was in his mid-forties, impressed with his undaunted approach to this radical change of focus.

Inside a British E-class submarine.

Inside a British E-class submarine.

An ear out for subs

He soon produced a report on countering submarine warfare, concluding that acoustic detection was the way forward. His case was compelling and the report was accepted. He immediately set up tanks in his Manchester laboratory to measure frequencies of metal diaphragms in water. Before long the basement of the laboratory was one large water tank, and the sensitivity of such diaphragms had been increased tenfold.

In September 1915, Rutherford visited an experimental station, Hawkcraig, on the Firth of Forth, where hydrophonic research was done, but lack of interest among naval chiefs had resulted in little progress. He produced a proposal, “written in plain English that the Admiralty would understand”, for a detailed acoustic research programme. It was accepted.

With funding and a ship secured, Rutherford persuaded two young University of Manchester researchers, Harold Gerrard and Albert Wood, to work at Hawkcraig. The recently found Manchester papers belong to Tom Gerrard, Harold’s son. From December 1915 to April 1916, Rutherford sent a series of 40 letters and notes from Manchester to Gerrard and Wood in Scotland with detailed instructions, often scrawled in pencil, for doing experiments based on his laboratory work.

He regularly visited Hawkcraig and often took part in sea trials. On one occasion he brought with him an official of the BIR committee, Sir Richard Paget. Paget had an extraordinary ability to identify frequencies by ear and Rutherford inveigled him into being hung overboard from a dinghy to establish whether a submarine generated a unique “signature’’ of frequencies. It did not.

In this period, Rutherford worked for six months without a break. But it soon became evident that more progress required a better understanding of the actual service conditions of the Navy and the methods already in use to detect submarines. Rutherford pressed successfully for this, once again in the face of naval opposition. In early 1917, the work was moved to the Navy’s main submarine base, with an expanded team.

It was at this time that Rutherford visited the US, and his close involvement in experimental work on submarines now ended. His US visit was a great success, resulting in ongoing co-operation between the US and Britain on submarine research. Rutherford also developed links with several scientists who were to play key roles in the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb.

Rutherford continued as a member of a joint British-US anti-submarine committee when he returned to Britain. But he was freer to turn again to his nuclear research. In late 1918, he telegraphed an apology to the committee. He would be delayed, he said, as he needed to complete experiments in Manchester that evening in which he believed he had succeeded in “exploding” the atomic nucleus. He added, “If this were true, its ultimate importance is far greater than that of the war.” He was right on both counts, although in 1919, he merely “chipped” the atom. True splitting was to come in the early 1930s.

First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill in 1913. Photo/Getty Images

Hiring a cambridge “lidy”

In 1919, Rutherford was appointed director of the Cavendish Laboratory, where 20 years earlier his colonial background had denied him a fellowship. At his welcome dinner, the students greeted him with a song that neatly captured his character, and his colonial background. It included the following:

When he first did arrive here,

He made everything alive here,

For, said he, the place will never do at all;

I will make it nice and tidy,

And I’ll hire a Cambridge “lidy”

Just to sweep the cobwebs from the wall.

At the Cavendish, Rutherford led a team of outstanding researchers to win a global race to achieve, in 1932, the first full splitting of the atom and the first experimental proof that E=mc2, bringing with it the implication that nuclear fission, if controlled, created a huge new source of energy.

Notwithstanding this intensive effort, Rutherford carried out another great public service. Throughout his research life, his reputation attracted top young scientists. No fewer than 11 Nobel Prize winners can be counted among his students and colleagues and he maintained a network of contacts that included Marie Curie, Hans Geiger, Niels Bohr and Chaim Weizmann, an eminent chemist who became the first president of Israel.

When Hitler took power in Germany, anti-Nazi and Jewish scientists were soon being forced out of universities and research institutes. Rutherford worked to place some of these scientists in the UK. When approached by William Beveridge, then principal of the London School of Economics, he agreed to lead a public campaign to raise funds for this work. In October 1933, he chaired a public meeting in London’s Albert Hall attended by 10,000 people. Albert Einstein and Weizmann were the two main speakers.

Of Rutherford and Einstein, Weizmann was to later say, “As scientists, the two men were contrasting types – Einstein all calculation, Rutherford all experiment … There was no doubt that, as an experimenter, Rutherford was a genius, one of the greatest.” What he observed was demonstrated from the outset of Rutherford’s career. In his first teaching role, at Canterbury College, he delighted his students by building a radio transmitter and receiver. This was four years after Heinrich Hertz had discovered radio waves and years before Guglielmo Marconi secured a patent for radio transmission.

Rutherford, right, and Niels Bohr. Photo/Getty Images

Down-to-earth achiever

Rutherford met an untimely death in 1937. Harking back to his rural New Zealand background, he took to pruning trees in his garden and ruptured his intestines in a fall. Yet his legacy was also to make a significant contribution to the Allied cause in World War II.

The work he initiated in Manchester in 1915 formed the basis on which anti-submarine sonar and asdic technologies, crucial in the later war, were developed, although Rutherford was quick to give much of the credit for this research to another colleague and friend from that time, the French scientist, philosopher and Nazi resister Paul Langevin. Moreover, the effectiveness of America’s submarine fleet, building on the co-operation with Britain established by Rutherford, was a key factor, not well enough recognised, in enabling the US to recover quickly from Pearl Harbour and vanquish the Japanese Navy.

At the time of his death, Rutherford was pressing the British Government to establish an integrated national approach to research and development in co-operation with the armed services. It seems clear that had he lived, Britain would have been much better placed to mobilise its scientific resources when war broke out.

Rutherford’s biographies and the testimonies of the many scientists with whom he worked demonstrate not only his pre-eminence as a researcher but also his ability to instil great enthusiasm and loyalty among his colleagues and students. He inspired a remarkable number to achieve greatness in their own right. The public and the private record of his work during WWI confirm this assessment.

Rutherford brought his unique personality to making a globally significant contribution in two fields of research and to two world wars. All this was achieved with a down-to-earth colonial manner, a boisterous style and, to the end, an unmistakably Kiwi accent.

Frank Duffield is an Honorary Fellow at the University of Auckland.

This article was first published in the April 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.

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