Charles Thomson Rees Wilson

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Charles Thomson Rees Wilson
CTR Wilson.jpg
Wilson in 1927
Born Charles Thomson Rees Wilson
(1868-02-14)14 February 1868
Glencorse, Scotland
Died 15 November 1959(1959-11-15) (aged 90)
Carlops, Scotland
Nationality Scottish
Fields Physics
Institutions Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Alma mater Owens College
Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
Academic advisors J. J. Thomson
Doctoral students Cecil Frank Powell
Known for Cloud chamber
Notable awards

Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, CH, FRS[1] (14 February 1869 – 15 November 1959) was a Scottish physicist and meteorologist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his invention of the cloud chamber.[2][3]

Education and early life[edit]

Wilson was born in the parish of Glencorse, Midlothian to Annie Clark Harper and John Wilson, a sheep farmer. After his father died in 1873, he moved with his family to Manchester. With financial support from his step-brother he studied biology at Owens College, now the University of Manchester, with the intent of becoming a doctor. In 1887, he graduated from the College with a BSc. He won a scholarship to attend Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge where he became interested in physics and chemistry. In 1892 he received 1st class honours in both parts of the Natural Science Tripos.[4][5][6]


Wilson was made Fellow of Sidney Sussex College, and University Lecturer and Demonstrator in 1900.[3] He thereafter became particularly interested in meteorology, and in 1893 he began to study clouds and their properties. He worked for some time at the observatory on Ben Nevis, where he made observations of cloud formation. He then tried to reproduce this effect on a smaller scale at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, expanding humid air within a sealed container. He later experimented with the creation of cloud trails in his chamber caused by ions and radiation.

Awards, honours and legacy[edit]

Wilson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1900.[1]

For the invention of the cloud chamber he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1927[6]. Despite this great contribution to particle physics, he remained interested in atmospheric physics, specifically atmospheric electricity, for his entire career[7][8]. For example, his last research paper, published in 1956 when he was in his late eighties (at that time he was the oldest FRS to publish a paper in the Royal Society's journals), was on atmospheric electricity.[9]

The Wilson crater on the Moon is named for him, Alexander Wilson and Ralph Elmer Wilson.[10] The Wilson Condensation Cloud formations that occur after large explosions, such as nuclear detonations, are named after him.[11] The Wilson Society, the scientific society of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge is named for him[12], as is the CTR Wilson Institute for Atmospheric Electricity, the Atmospheric Electricity Special Interest Group of the Royal Meteorological Society.

The archives of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson are maintained by the Archives of the University of Glasgow.[13]

Personal life[edit]

In 1908, Wilson married Jessie Fraser, the daughter of a minister from Glasgow. The couple had 2 daughters and one son. He died at his home in Carlops on 15 November 1959, surrounded by his family.[4]


  1. ^ a b Blackett, P. M. S. (1960). "Charles Thomson Rees Wilson 1869–1959". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. Royal Society. 6. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1960.0037. 
  2. ^ Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, Isaac Asimov, 2nd ed., Doubleday & C., Inc., ISBN 0-385-17771-2.
  3. ^ a b Charles Thomson Rees Wilson's biography
  4. ^ a b Longair, Malcolm S. (2006). "Wilson, Charles Thomson Rees (1869–1959),". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 28 January 2017. 
  5. ^ "Wilson, Charles Thomson Rees (WL888CT)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  6. ^ a b "C.T.R. Wilson - Biographical". Nobel Media AB. Retrieved 2017-01-28. 
  7. ^ Harrison, Giles (2011-10-01). "The cloud chamber and CTR Wilson's legacy to atmospheric science". Weather. 66 (10): 276–279. doi:10.1002/wea.830. ISSN 1477-8696. 
  8. ^ Aplin, Karen L. (2013-04-01). "CTR Wilson – Honouring a Great Scottish Physicist". Weather. 68 (4): 96–96. doi:10.1002/wea.2095. ISSN 1477-8696. 
  9. ^ Wilson, C. T. R. (1956-08-02). "A Theory of Thundercloud Electricity". Proceedings of the Royal Society of London A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. 236 (1206): 297–317. doi:10.1098/rspa.1956.0137. ISSN 1364-5021. 
  10. ^ "Planetary Names: Crater, craters: Wilson on Moon". Retrieved 2017-01-28. 
  11. ^ Glasstone, Samuel; Dolan, Philip J., eds. (1977). The effects of nuclear weapons (3rd ed.). Washington: U.S. Department of Defense. p. 45 – via HATHI Trust. 
  12. ^ "About | Wilson Society". Retrieved 2017-01-28. 
  13. ^ "Papers of Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, 1869-1959, Nobel Prize winner and Professor of Natural Philosophy, University of Cambridge - Archives Hub". Retrieved 2017-01-28.