Scope and Contents
This collection contains the papers of Harold Albert Wilson who was the first professor of physics at Rice Institute. Wilson was best known for his work on flames which continued to be his primary interest throughout his life. Included are: Wilson's scientific papers (off-prints only); manuscript of bibliography of the H. A. Wilson scientific papers; "Catalogue of Apparatus," photographs, certificates, awards, news clippings and letters to Norman Hurd Ricker, first person to hold three Rice degrees.
Permission to publish from the Harold Albert Wilson Papers, MS 303, must be obtained from the Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University.
Harold Albert Wilson was born in York, England on December 1, 1874. Wilson's interest in engines and machines came from playing with a working model of a railway locomotive his father gave him about the time he entered kindergarten. Under the influence of his father, he began to experiment with chemistry at an early age when Wilson received Bloxham's Chemistry from him and bought a box of chemical apparatus from a pawnshop. Later, Wilson taught himself glass blowing which he admitted helped him in much of his research.
He graduated from a private preparatory school called St. Olave's at age 17 but stayed on as a mathematics teacher for two years. Afterward, he attended Victoria University in Leeds where he studied mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. Wilson received first class honors in chemistry in the London intermediate B.Sc. and scholarships from both London and Leeds for two years. Three years later, Wilson obtained a first class in the ordinary London B.Sc. in applied mathematics, chemistry, and physics. While studying in college, he was able to conduct more research and published a small paper in the Chemical News on the size of atoms. He also worked with professors at Cambridge on the conductivity of flames containing salts. In 1897, he decided to work under J. J. Thomson at the Cavendish at Cambridge for a research degree which he received in 1899. Afterward, Wilson went to Berlin to work in a laboratory until he received the Allen Scholarship to go back to Cambridge eight months later. In 1901, he was awarded the Clerk Maxwell Studentship and elected to a Fellowship in Trinity College. In 1904, he received a vacant Lectureship at King's College in London where he was soon appointed as Chair. From the Principal, Wilson was able to receive money to increase the space for research at King's College. In 1906, Wilson was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1909, he accepted a professorship in Applied Physics at McGill University in Montreal.
In 1912, the new Rice Institute of Houston, TX offered Wilson a Professorship which he took partly because he was interested in helping to start a new university. At that time, the physics department was temporarily housed in the mechanical building until 1914 the physics building proper was finished under Wilson's supervision. It came with an apparatus and teaching cost of several hundred thousand dollars. During WWI, Wilson assisted the United States Navy as a technical expert on anti-submarine devices. Wilson invented binaural listening devices for locating submarines. He published a paper at New London, CT which provided much insight on sound receivers. Shortly after accepting his position at Rice Institute, Wilson married Marjorie Patterson Smyth, who was a gold-medalist in mathematics and physics at McGill, by whom he had two sons and two daughters.
Wilson quickly gained a high reputation as a teacher at Rice and established a research school which also gained a high reputation as it grew. In 1925, he left Rice Institute for Chair of Natural Philosophy in Glasgow; however, the pensions offered at British universities were not satisfying to Wilson's needs so he accepted President Lovett's offer to come back to Rice. He was offered his professorship back which also came with a position as a consultant physicist to Humble Oil and Refining Co. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1931. During World War II, Wilson was one of the senior scientists to develop the atomic bomb in Chicago.
Wilson was appraised as an excellent teacher by both his colleagues and students. He also enjoyed teaching immensely and was loved by his students. He retired in 1947, at age 70 but continued teaching a small class out of his home in special and general relativity until his late 80's. Wilson's work was a contribution to the development of Rice Institute to a University making Rice an important center for research.