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Royal Institution of Great Britain

Dewar, Sir James (1842-1923)


Reference code(s): GB 0116 James Dewar Collection

Held at: Royal Institution of Great Britain

Title: Dewar, Sir James (1842-1923)

Date(s): 1852-1950

Level of description: Collection (fonds)

Extent: 5.33 metres

Name of creator(s): Dewar, Sir James (1842-1923). Knight. Chemist.


Administrative/Biographical history:

James Dewar was born the son of Thomas Dewar, vintner and innkeeper, and Ann Eadie in Kincardine-on-Forth, Scotland. As a child he attended local schools such as the Dollar Academy and he also learnt the art of violin making. In 1858 he attended Edinburgh University under James David Forbes, Professor of Natural Philosophy and Lyon Playfair, Professor of Chemistry. He became an assistant to Lyon Playfair from 1867 to 1868, subsequently becoming assistant to Alexander Crum Brown from 1868 to 1873. In 1867 he invented a mechanical device to represent Alexander Crum Brown's graphic notation for organic compounds. He worked on heat, chemical reactions, atomic and molecular weight determinations and spectroscopy. In 1869 he became a lecturer at the Royal Veterinary College of Edinburgh. In 1871 he married Helen Rose Banks. In 1873 he became assistant chemist to the Highland and Agricultural Society. He was elected Jacksonian Professor of Natural Experimental Philosophy, Cambridge, in 1873, and became Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at The Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) in 1877. At the RI, Dewar worked on cryogenics and from 1877 to 1904, he wrote 78 papers on the subject of spectroscopy with George Downing Liveing. During the course of his work on cryogenics he invented the silver vacuum vessels known as the Dewar or Thermos flask. In 1878 he achieved the liquefaction of oxygen. From 1892 to 1895, he worked with A. Fleming, Professor of Electrical Engineering at University College London. He worked on conduction, thermo electricity, magnetic permeability and dielectric constants of metal and alloys. In 1896 he became Director of the Davy-Faraday Research Laboratory at the RI. He worked on the liquefaction of gases and in 1898 he liquefied hydrogen. He was a member of the Explosives Committee from 1888 to 1889, inventing cordite with Sir Frederick Abel. From 1904 to 1914, he worked on low temperature calorimentry investigations; he later studied bubbles and thin films and infrared radiation from the sky by day and night. In 1904 he was knighted. He gained several awards for his work such as the Davy medal, the Copley medal and the Rumford medals of the Royal Society; the Albert medal of the Royal Society of Arts; and the Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize for 1900-1904 of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He died, in office, in 1923.


Scope and content/abstract:

Papers of Sir James Dewar include: (DI-DII) correspondence and general papers relating to membership of institutions, scientific work and the views of individuals, written papers. (DIII) Biographical papers and cuttings 1911-1925 and personal and (DB11) biographical papers c.1891-1924, relate to Dewar and his work. (DIII) Photographs 1890-1894, relate to various aspects such as rooms in the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI) and apparatus; (DE15) photographs and reprints including discourses 1875-1923 include an album of photographs of soap films, reprints of Dewar lectures at the RI, notes on courses and lectures by Dewar and others such as John Tyndall. Notebooks relate to (DIII) experimental observations 1907-1909; (DB4) notebooks on radiation, dissociation, analyses; (DB5) low temperature work 1874-1919, notebooks and other papers; (DB6) spectroscopy notebooks 1879-1912; (DB7) rare gases 1885-1923, notebooks and papers; (DB8) laboratory apparatus notebooks, 1881-1905; (DB9) notebooks and papers on bubbles, 1917-1923; (DB10) notebooks on the work of Marcellin Berthelot and Henri Moissan, 1907; (DE10) lecture notebooks and experimental notes 1869-1918, relate to topics such as hydrogen, thermal values, latent heat and decomposition of gases. Notes on lectures include (DIV) lecture notes and lists 1878-1891, relates to soap bubbles, and Christmas lectures at the RI; (DB3) lecture notes 1877-1906, relates to lectures at the RI; (DE16) lecture notes and correspondence 1885-1940, relates to lectures at the RI including Christmas lectures and correspondence of various recipients particularly with William J. Green. (DE14) Discourses 1894-1923, relate to the Friday Evening Discourses at the RI as well as other notes on experiments. Various forms of notes include: (DB1) general laboratory notes 1864-1923, on temperature, thermo electric properties, analysis of water; (DB2) sound experiments; (DV) notes on scientists and scientific work 1845-1903, relate to Dewar; (DE1) experimental notes 1904-1922 and (DE2) 1919-1923, relate to topics such as dielectric constants of liquid hydrogen, soap films, vacuum tubes, radium, low temperature and radiation from the sky; (DE3) laboratory notes 1897-1930, (DE4) 1914-1920, (DE7) pre-1900 and (DE8) 1875-1910, relate to topics such as silvered vacuum flasks, specific heats, diffusion, apparatus, charcoal absorption and spectroscopic examination of gases; (DE5) bubble measurements 1815-1822, notes and observations; (DE13) experimental notes and correspondence 1893-1922, relate to topics such as densities at low temperature, charcoal, soap film and gases; (DE6) miscellaneous experimental notes 1878-1922 and (DE9) miscellaneous notes 1871-1925, relate to topics such as critical temperature of gases, radiation curves and bubbles. (DE11) Reprints 1866-1913, relate to issues such as Friday Evening Discourses at the RI, the Michael Faraday Centenary of 1891, Christmas lectures at the RI and notes and reports on experiments. (DE12) Royal Institution 1885-1924, relates to messages and letters to, from or concerning Dewar, his role at the RI and general administrative issues. (DE17) Diplomas, drawings and graphs relate to Dewar's Fullerian Professorship at the RI, apparatus and experiments. (DG1-DG3) W. J. Green papers include correspondence, notes, photographs and notebooks on experimental discussions and personal issues such as health. (DCI) Scott controversy 1911, Gordon case 1912-1917, (DCII) early Scott case 1891-1892 and Ruhemann controversy 1890-1891, correspondence and papers. (DVI) J. E. Petavel papers - St Louis exhibition 1904, relates to the reproduction of Dewar's low temperature work for the exhibition with notes on the exhibition. (DVII) War work 1915-1918, includes letter and papers on work for the war effort, World War One.


Language/scripts of material: English

System of arrangement:

As outlined in the scope and content field.

Conditions governing access:

Access to bona fide researchers by appointment with the Keeper of the Collections or the Assistant Archivist, the Royal Institution of Great Britain (RI).

Conditions governing reproduction:

Reproduction of material is permitted at the discretion of the Keeper of the Collections, RI.

Physical characteristics:

Finding aids:

Catalogue at the RI including microfiche copy of the catalogue by the National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the UK and Ireland (9 fiche).


Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information:


Archival history:

Immediate source of acquisition:

Dewar's medals, diplomas, scientific papers and apparatus were bequeathed to the RI upon the death of Lady Dewar in 1935.


Existence and location of originals:

Existence and location of copies:

Related material:

Other correspondence and papers of Sir James Dewar are located at: London University Imperial College Library (reference: B/Armstrong; B/Playfair); Royal Geographical Society; California Institute of Technology Archives; Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives (reference: Add 7342; 7656; 7653; 7654) and the Science Museum Library (reference: MS 566). The Royal Institution of Great Britain holds portraits, spectroscopic equipment and early cryogenic apparatus including the Dewar flask known as the 'Thermos' flask, of Sir James Dewar.

Publication note:



Archivist's note: Sources: Catalogue at the RI. Description compiled by Miss Ivone Martins, Assistant Archivist, RI.

Rules or conventions: Compiled in compliance with General International Standard Archival Description, ISAD(G), second edition, 2000; National Council on Archives Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names, 1997.

Date(s) of descriptions: January 2001.

Cryogenics | Freezing | Physical processes
Experiments | Research work
Spectrometers | Laboratory equipment | Scientific equipment | Equipment

Personal names
Armstrong | Henry Edward | 1848-1937 | chemist and educationist
Bragg | Sir | William Henry | 1862-1942 | Knight | physicist
Crookes | Sir | William | 1832-1919 | Knight | chemist
Dewar | Helen Rose | d 1935 | née Banks | wife of Sir James Dewar, chemist
Dewar | Sir | James | 1842-1923 | Knight | chemist
Dickson | James Douglas Hamilton | 1849-1931 | physicist
Flack | Martin | fl 1917 | Captain
Gordon | J W | fl 1912-1915 | member of the Committee of Visitors at the Royal Institution of Great Britain
Green | William J | 1884-1974 | laboratory assistant at the Royal Institution of Great Britain
Harrison | E | fl 1917-1918 | Lieutenant Colonel
Hill | Leonard | fl 1917-1918 | physician
Liveing | George Downing | 1827-1924 | chemist
McKendrick | John G | fl 1873-1924 | Professor
Moissan | Henri | 1852-1907 | French chemist
Onnes | Heike Kamerlingh | 1853-1926 | Dutch physicist
Percy | Henry George | 1846-1918 | 7th Duke of Northumberland x Northumberland | 7th Duke of
Thomson | William | 1824-1907 | 1st Baron Kelvin | physicist x Kelvin | 1st Baron

Corporate names
Davy Faraday Research Laboratory
Ministry of Munitions
Royal Institution of Great Britain
War Office

Cambridge | Cambridgeshire | England | UK | Western Europe | Europe
London | England | UK | Western Europe | Europe
Scotland | UK | Western Europe | Europe