Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

Significant Scots
Professor Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

Career and Genealogy of Professor Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1868-1959) of Glencorse, Midlothian, the, as yet, only Scottish Nobel Prize winner.

Professor Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, CH, FRS (14 February 1869 – 15 November 1959) was a Scottish physicist and meteorologist who received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the cloud chamber.



Ancestral data relating to Charles' paternal Wilson line and their spouses, authenticated by Birth, Marriage, Death and Census registration images, reveal that his roots from the mid-1700s lay in Peebles-shire, and then in Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and Midlothian in the 1800s before his own birth in Glencorse, Midlothian in 1869 from his father's second marriage . After his father's death in 1872, Charles, along with some of his siblings, and some of his step-siblings, moved at least temporarily to Manchester with his mother Annie Clark (Harper) Wilson, to live with, or near, her Harper parents and some of her siblings who were still involved in shipping business enterprises. Charles' school education was so successful in Manchester at Owens College, that he went up to Cambridge University aged 19 years in 1888. By at least 1891, Charles' mother was back 'living on her own means' in Penicuik, Scotland, and Charles appears with her there, probably on Easter vacation from Cambridge, in the 1891 Census, and then again in the 1901 Census at his medical practitioner brother Doctor George Harper Wilson's home at Glencorse House, Northgate, Peebles.

However, if we now go back to the 1700s, we can trace much of what led up to the aforesaid upheavals from the deaths in 1869 and 1872 of, not only Charles' grandfather John Wilson Snr., but also his father John Wilson Jnr. Charles, as a mere baby at this time, would have been blissfully unaware of these sad events.

Charles' Great Grandparents, Farmer James Wilson and his wife, Margaret Crawford of Peebles.

Now, in the 1841 Census we see John, b.1819, living with parents John Wilson and Margaret Finlayson et al.

And again in the 1851 Census

Later, that year, John Wilson Jnr. marries Marion McLean.

John Wilson Snr. becomes a widower in 1855.

John Wilson Jnr. becomes a widower in 1861.

John Wilson Jnr. re-marries, an Annie Clark Harper in 1863.

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson is born in 1869.

John Wilson Snr. dies later in 1869

All seems back to normal in the 1871 Census, but in fact John Wilson Jnr. is fighting a cancerous lip.

John Wilson Jnr. dies in 1872.

Piecing together the movements of Charles' mother, siblings and step-siblings during the 1870s starts with the information in the 1871 Census for Chorlton, Manchester where Charles' maternal grandparents, John and Helen Harper are living in retirement with some of their own middle-aged unmarried offspring and three Wilson teenage children from the Wilson-McLean marriage, including eldest son, John born in 1852.

And it is living with this John Wilson at 155 Lloyd Street, Chorlton, Manchester in 1881, that we find 12 year old Charles, 14 year old brother George and 16 year old sister Helen.

Meantime, also in the 1881 Census, their mother, Annie (Harper) Wilson (1839-1922) and her own very recently widowed mother Helen (Wilson) Harper (1805-1898) are seen to be visiting a Stewart family in Riccarton, Ayr, Scotland. Annie's father, Helen's husband John (1800-1881) had died in Chorlton in February, 1881. Presumably both ladies had decided to have a holiday break from Manchester to revive their spirits in the 'auld country'.

In the 1891 Census for Bank House, Penicuik, Annie has her own three grown-up children, Helen, George and Charles with her, plus step-son William, and step-daughter Isabella.

Then, in the 1901 Census Annie and her three offspring are together at Glencorse House, Northgate, Peebles.

Marriage of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson to Jessie Fraser Dick

Death of Annie Clark (Harper) Wilson

Career of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson:
'The Man Who Made Clouds'
By Steven Brocklehurst [December, 2012]

The only Scottish-born physicist ever to have won the Nobel Prize for Physics, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, was inspired by the cloud formations he had witnessed on Ben Nevis. He started out attempting to recreate clouds in his laboratory, but his invention and experiments led on to massive strides in the science of particle physics.

The search for the Higgs Boson at the Large Hadron Collider is the latest stage in the hunt for answers about fundamental particles of life. However, in the late 19th Century, very little was known about protons, neutrons and electrons. Photons, neutrinos, muons and quarks were a long way from being discovered.

Dr Alexander Mackinnon, honorary research fellow (Physics and Astronomy) at the University of Glasgow, says Wilson's cloud chamber, which he developed over almost 20 years, "made things visible whose properties had only previously been deduced indirectly. When the cloud chamber was invented people already had a pretty rough idea of what an electron was and how it would behave. For 40 years, the cloud chamber was the most important instrument for studying sub-atomic particles. In a cloud chamber they could actually see those things happening. They could check they were true and in due course, when they discovered other sorts of particles, they could inspect their properties visually.

Dr Mackinnon also says that for a period of about 40 years after it was perfected in about 1911, the cloud chamber was the most important instrument for studying sub-atomic particles. It was superseded in the 1950s by the Bubble Chamber, which used liquid hydrogen, and then by later technologies. However, its use coincided with an age in which massive strides were made.

Wilson was given the Nobel Prize in 1927 "for his method of making the paths of electrically charged particles visible by condensation of vapour" - but essentially it was for his invention of the cloud chamber.

It all began back in September 1894, when the 25-year-old son of a farmer from Glencorse, near Edinburgh, had been working at the meteorological observatory in the Scottish Highlands. He was struck by the beauty of "glories" - coloured rings surrounding shadows cast on mist and cloud.

Wilson's cloud chamber enabled the discovery of anti-matter particles. When he went back to Cambridge, where he had been at university, he set to work at the Cavendish laboratory, with the aim of making clouds. He found that if you had air saturated with water vapour in a sealed container and suddenly expanded the volume in which it was contained, you could get clouds to form. His experiments coincided with the discovery of x-rays. He found that when he fired them into his chamber, it clouded up more quickly than it did through expansion.

Alan Walker, an honorary fellow of the School of Physics and Astronomy at Edinburgh University, says, "Wilson made possible the pioneering work for looking at the tracks of particles. A lot of particle physics discoveries in the 1930s, 40s and 50s were done with cloud chambers. Before him there was nothing. Nobody could actually track particles at all. We had really only just discovered the electron, in fact. So it actually was very early days when he was doing this.

Of course, he wasn't particularly interested in particles, he was interested in cloud. He wanted to make artificial cloud and then discovered this effect. Who would have thought that sitting on the top of Ben Nevis being in wonder at the clouds would have ended up actually laying the foundation of discovering things at the very small level. That must have been quite something to have gone from just being interested in clouds to ending up inventing something which was the birth of particle physics."

Deaths of Charles and Jessie

Return to our Significant Scots page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus