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Glazebrook, Sir Richard Tetleylocked

  • Russell Moseley

Sir Richard Tetley Glazebrook (1854–1935)

by Olive Edis, 1915

Glazebrook, Sir Richard Tetley (1854–1935), physicist, was born on 18 September 1854 at West Derby, Liverpool, the eldest son of Nicholas Smith Glazebrook, surgeon, and his wife, Sarah Anne, daughter of Richard Tetley, also of Liverpool. He was educated at Dulwich College, Liverpool College, 1870–72, and Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1872, where he was elected a major scholar in 1875 and a fellow in 1877. He was fifth wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1876 and after graduation he studied physics under James Clerk Maxwell in the newly opened Cavendish Laboratory. When Lord Rayleigh succeeded Clerk Maxwell as director in 1880 Glazebrook was appointed as a demonstrator at the Cavendish, a post he held alongside a college lectureship in mathematics and physics and a university lectureship in mathematics. His research became increasingly concerned with electrical standards and in recognition of this work he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1882 at the age of twenty-eight. He married Frances Gertrude Atkinson of Leeds in 1883; they had three daughters and a son.

When Rayleigh retired from the Cavendish professorship in 1884 Glazebrook hoped to be appointed as his successor but he was passed over in favour of Sir J. J. Thomson. This was a serious disappointment to Glazebrook, who had been Rayleigh's choice as his successor, but he remained at Cambridge, becoming assistant director of the Cavendish in 1891 and, four years later, bursar of Trinity College. In 1898 he was offered the post of principal of University College, Liverpool, which he accepted on the understanding that he would resign should the current campaign for a National Physical Laboratory be successful and he was to be offered the position of director. The following year the National Physical Laboratory was created under the control of the Royal Society, supported financially by a Treasury grant in aid, and Glazebrook accepted the post of its director in June 1899.

The National Physical Laboratory was to be based at Kew observatory but public opposition to an extension of that site meant that much of Glazebrook's time was spent at first in finding alternative accommodation. Eventually the offer of Bushy House, Teddington, was accepted and the ground floor and cellars were converted into laboratories while the upper parts became the Glazebrooks' private residence. In the early years of the laboratory's existence Glazebrook's efforts were frequently directed towards persuading a reluctant Treasury that a higher level of funding was required if all the demands placed on the new institution were to be met. The Treasury view was that the laboratory should become financially self-supporting and this inevitably meant that large volumes of routine, commercial testing were undertaken in order to generate income. Glazebrook fought hard to ensure that such work did not displace more fundamental, industrially oriented research but the tension between short- and long-term research lasted throughout his directorship. None the less, progress was made, often thanks to substantial gifts from individuals which a reluctant Treasury was persuaded to match. New buildings were provided for electrical work, metrology, and engineering and in 1908 Alfred Yarrow funded a tank for pioneering experimental work on models of ships which provided important data for the shipbuilding industry. The embryonic aeronautics industry also benefited from work at the laboratory which began in 1909, at the request of R. B. Haldane, then secretary of state for war.

By the outbreak of the First World War Glazebrook's leadership had established the National Physical Laboratory as a permanent feature of the scientific landscape. New buildings to accommodate work in optics and metallurgy meant that the range and scale of the laboratory's activities were now considerable. In the face of Treasury indifference and, on occasion, outright opposition to certain aspects of the work of the laboratory this was a significant achievement. The war brought fresh challenges. In the first months Glazebrook lost one-quarter of his staff and the work of the laboratory became increasingly dominated by the demands of the war: gauges for munitions production had to be tested in growing numbers (over one million by the end of the war) while fundamental research had to be undertaken on the production of optical glass and other products formerly obtained from Germany, on aeronautical problems arising from the introduction of new types of aircraft, and on radio communications. The laboratory grew rapidly as a result of these activities. Glazebrook realized that the scale of its work was such that the Royal Society could no longer be financially responsible for it and towards the end of the war discussions were held with the newly created Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR) with a view to the laboratory being funded in future through the department while the Royal Society continued to advise on its scientific programme. Glazebrook was particularly closely involved in what were often difficult negotiations with the DSIR as he attempted to ensure that financial control by the new department did not lead to control of the laboratory's scientific programme. Although he achieved some success relations between Glazebrook and officials of the DSIR were frequently strained. On reaching retirement age in 1919 he decided to stand down from the directorship of the laboratory although he let it be known that in other circumstances he would have been prepared to remain in post and guide the laboratory into the post-war era.

At the age of sixty-five Glazebrook's energies were undiminished. From Bushy House he moved to Cambridge, where he edited the Dictionary of Applied Physics, and then to London where from 1920 to 1923 he was Zarahoff professor of aviation at Imperial College. In 1924 he settled at Limpsfield in Surrey. His involvement with the National Physical Laboratory was maintained through his membership of its general board and, from 1925 to 1932, the chairmanship of its executive committee. His work for the Royal Society included two periods as vice-president (1919–20 and 1924–8) as well as serving as its foreign secretary between 1926 and 1929; the society awarded him the Hughes medal in 1909 and a royal medal in 1931. He was appointed CB in 1910 and after being knighted in 1917, KCB in 1920, and KCVO in 1934. He was awarded honorary degrees by the universities of Manchester, Oxford, Edinburgh, and Heidelberg.

Glazebrook was one of the foremost scientific figures of his day. He was, at various times, president of the Physical Society, the Optical Society, the Faraday Society, the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the Institute of Physics. Although he continued to publish throughout his life—two papers on electrical standards were received by the Proceedings of the Physical Society only nine days before his death—his place in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century physics owes more to his vision of the role and application of science in a modern industrial society and his ability to put that vision into practice. His contemporaries recalled Glazebrook as a tall, spare figure: 'the precise and curiously clipped diction … the steel spectacles removed with a sudden, almost nervous, jerk and used to emphasise a point in the argument' (Proceedings of the Physical Society, 933). His commitment to his work left little time for recreation although he enjoyed an annual mountaineering holiday in Switzerland and he played golf until the end of his life. He died at Limpsfield on 15 December 1935.


  • Lord Rayleigh [R. J. Strutt] and F. J. Selby, Obits. FRS, 2 (1936–8), 29–56
  • Proceedings of the Physical Society, 48 (1936), 929–33
  • R. Moseley, ‘Science, government and industrial research: the origins and development of the National Physical Laboratory, 1900–1975’, DPhil diss., U. Sussex, 1976
  • The Times (17 Dec 1935)


  • ICL, corresp. and papers relating to Imperial College
  • RS
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. and papers, DSIR10/20
  • U. Lpool, corresp. and papers relating to University of Liverpool
  • BL, corresp. with Macmillans, Add. MSS 55215–55217
  • Bodl. Oxf., notes relating to supply of munitions and corresp. with Viscount Addison
  • CUL, corresp. with Lord Kelvin
  • CUL, corresp. with Lord Rutherford
  • CUL, letters to Sir George Stokes
  • U. Cam., Trinity College, corresp. with Joseph John Thomson
  • UCL, corresp. with Sir Oliver Lodge


  • O. Edis, photograph, 1915, NPG [see illus.]
  • H. de T. Glazebrook, oils, 1919, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, Middlesex
  • W. Stoneman, two photographs, 1919–31, NPG
  • J. E. Cluysenaar, bas-relief, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, Middlesex
  • O. Edis, prints, NPG
  • photograph, repro. in Obits. FRS, 28
  • photograph, National Physical Laboratory, Teddington, Middlesex
  • photograph, RS

Wealth at Death

£30,835 12s. 10d.: probate, 2 March 1936, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]