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Marsden Plaque

This web page marks the occasion of the unveiling of a commemorative plaque to Sir Ernest in Rishton, Lancashire on September 6th 2002.

On the 6th September 2002 Sir Ernest Marsden was honoured by the Lancashire and Cumbria branch of the Institute of Physics for the work which he had carried out in the discovery of the nucleus of the atom by erecting a plaque outside his birthplace at 68 Hermitage Street in Rishton.

Click here to read the related press coverage of this event.

Dr Peter Ferguson unveils the plaque.

The plaque was officially unveiled at 13:00 on the 6th September, there was an officially gathering in Rishton Library first were introductions were officially made. The numbers totalled over 50 people with a lot of the Marsden family present from across the Country, some meeting for the first time. The library also did their part by erecting a display of the mans work and life.

This was followed by the unveiling, when Hermitage Street was closed to traffic while the Mayor and Dr. Ferguson, Chairman of the I. O. P. did their duties. Other notably attendees that day included Greg Pope who was the Labour member of Parliament for the Borough of Hyndburn (even if he did turn up late, then left immediately after the plaque was unveiled!!!)

The ceremony was performed by Dr P. Melville, Director of International Affairs of the (UK) Institute of Physics (on behalf of the Chief Executive), in the presence of The Worshipful the Mayor of Hyndburn, Councillor Mrs S. K. Hayes and Mr G. Pope, MP for Hyndburn.

Professor Chris Walton and Myself at the Dunkenhalgh.

The large gathering then proceeded to the Dunkenhalgh hotel were speeches were made, and talks given from several Universities, and other institutions, as well as the apology from New Zealand printed below. An excellent day out and superbly executed by the Institute of Physics.

 Although not named after Ernest Rutherford, the great man played an important role in Marsden’s life, first of all helping to make Marsden’s scientific reputation and then starting him on the path that would see him become the pre-eminent figure in New Zealand science.

Ernest Marsden

Born at 68 Hermitage Street, Rishton, Lancashire, in 1889 to a poor family the young Marsden, like Rutherford before him, won scholarships to attend grammar school and gain entry to Manchester University. It was here the two men met. Rutherford had returned to Britain from Montreal and Marsden was in his honours year. Rutherford suggested a project to investigate the backwards scattering of alpha particles from a metal foil. He did this in conjunction with Hans Geiger, of Geiger counter fame, and it proved to be the key experiment in the demise of the plum pudding model of the atom leading directly to Rutherford’s nuclear atom.

Rutherford also recommended Marsden for the position of physics professor at what is now Victoria University in Wellington. And after serving with the New Zealand Engineers in France (and receiving the Military Cross) he undertook a wide range of research, from cosmic rays to fossil fuels. Significantly he was able to lead a successful lobby for a new physics lab. In 1922 he joined the department of education before moving to the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research (D. S. I. R.) in 1926.

Sir Ernest Marsden

In his first 20 years as head he started to establish divisions to provide a scientific footing to the country’s main source of income, farming. There was Grasslands, Crop Research, Entomology, Plant Disease, Botany, Fruit Research, and the Soil Bureau. Wool Research Organisation and the Dairy Research Institute became independent, highlighting Marsden’s ability to get both private and public funds. After 1935 he moved the D. S. I. R. to provide the same service for industry in general.

The war years saw him start on the path that saw him become New Zealand’s scientific liaison officer in London in 1947. Prior to that he had spent the war developing the new radar technology, and to do this successfully he often travelled to Britain to keep abreast of the latest findings. His role as the liaison officer saw him build contacts and serve on numerous international committees.

Even after retiring in 1954 he served on many advisory committees. Although he died in 1970 his name is still synonymous with excellence in New Zealand science thanks to the Marsden Fund, a government sponsored fund to provide money for local cutting edge research.

An inconvenient gas

Lord Rayleigh was working on the definitive density of nitrogen when he found a difference in the density of nitrogen prepared from the atmosphere and that prepared from various compounds. He was so perplexed that he wrote to Nature seeking advice from the readers. Ramsay and Crookes became interested in the problem.

Rayleigh undertook a literature search. Again Rayleigh had difficulties. The only definitive work in the field was over 100 years old and was written in "terms of the phlogiston theory". No doubt, Rayleigh took a deep breath and prepared to do some interpreting as scientific terms and theories change over time.

Here is Cavendish’s summary:

" …if there is any part of the dephlogisticated air of our atmosphere which differs from the rest and cannot be reduced to nitrous acid, we may safely conclude that it is not more than 1/120 part of the whole."

Rayleigh became fascinated. He repeated Cavendish’s experiments. He investigated the gas so formed. Ramsay, Crookes and even James Dewar were also interested in the gas. Finally Rayleigh and Ramsay announced the discovery of argon to the Royal Society on 31 January 1895. Spectroscopic evidence was an important tool in the later period of investigation.

Dewar and others would not concede the possibility of a monatomic gas.

Rayleigh, a physicist, was unwilling to change his findings to fit argon into the "Periodic Table".

The "Table" was empirically not mathematically based.

Rayleigh returned to physics "where second rate men seem to know their place".

What happened to "young Marsden"?

Greg Pope MP, Mr Duckworth, Angela, unknown, and Paul Wilkinson represent the local people at the unveiling.

Ernest Marsden was in his honours year when Hans Geiger, his supervisor, approached the Prof (Rutherford) for a suitable project.

Marsden ended up working on the gold leaf / alpha particle project.

After graduating, Marsden went to London but soon returned to Manchester to continue work with Geiger and Rutherford.

There is supposed to be a Chinese curse "May you live in exciting times".

Marsden lived in exciting times. He helped form the modern concept of the atom.

What did happen to "young Marsden"?

I asked John Packer (Emeritus Professor of Chemistry, University of Auckland). Here is his reply.

Dear Bernard,

"Young Marsden" first held the chair of physics at Victoria University of Wellington (I think this is correct) and then became head of our D. S. I. R., our equivalent to your CSIRO (but no longer in existence). After he retired from that he was NZ science liaison officer in London for a while, because I met him in that capacity when I first went to London as a member of the NZ Defence Science Corps to do my PhD. I tried ringing our physics nuclear man but did not get an answer. I shall try again later and if I find the above information is incorrect I shall let you know. I have never heard of Jim Stephenson, but I shall make inquiries. Unfortunately the people who would best know are dying off or dead!

Best wishes,


School Lab were Marsden was taught.

Marsden's School - Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School (Blackburn)

Ernest Marsden was a student at Queen Elizabeth's Grammar School (Blackburn) between 1901 and 1906.This picture was sent by John S. Read who was a pupil at the school between 1954 and 1961 and later a teacher there for 30 years. He retired in 2000 but keeps in close contact with the school in the capacity of honorary archivist. Amongst the archives he found a prospectus which included this photograph. He says the room is now the staff common room and there are still one or two relics of its former use. Several items which can be identified in the photograph are still in the possession of the physics department at the school: Whimshurst machine, wet Leclanche and Daniell cells, Helmholtz coils.

Sir Ernests Marsden's desk in New Zealand.

Dr. Steve Thompson, Chief Executive of The Royal Society of New Zealand kindly sent this photograph with the following note.

I am very pleased to forward to you a .jpg of Ernest Marsden's desk, currently housed in Science House in Wellington. New Zealand. The desk was refurbished with a new top several years ago, and served as the daily working desk for the Chief Executive of the Royal Society of New Zealand until the year 2000. Over time, it became a little unsuited to a computer environment, and now sits in the Council Room of the Royal Society's premises. Dr. Rachel Averill and Dr. Peter Gilberd, currently Royal Society staff members working with the modern-day Marsden Fund (under which government provides some NZ$30 million annually to research on the basis of its excellence) are holding a portrait of Sir Ernest, which also hangs in Science House. I wish you the very best of weather for your unveiling of the plaque in Rishton on September 6. Professor Kelly will be an able representative of the Royal Society of New Zealand, but I am only sorry I could not also be there to witness the event.

Sir Ernest Marsden studied Physics at Manchester University. While he was there, he carried out an undergraduate research project proposed by Professor Ernest Rutherford in 1909.

The experiment involved counting tiny flashes of light produced by high speed subatomic (alpha) particles fired at thin metal foils which subsequently hit a zinc sulphide screen. Ernest Marsden had to peer through a microscope pointing towards the screen while sitting in a darkened room. Although the nature of alpha particles and atoms was unclear at that time, it was believed that the positively charged alpha particles would only be deflected by a small amount.

The Mayor and Dr peter Ferguson at the unveiling.

The big surprise in his data was that the occasional alpha particle was deflected by much more than a few degrees. In fact something like I in 10000 were deflected by more than 90 degrees for gold foils of about 1 micron thickness. Such large scattering angles implied an extremely tiny nucleus of positive electric charge inside the atoms in the foil. When Rutherford worked through the details in 1911, the change in his handwriting in his notebook showed he was really shocked - the nucleus had to be smaller than I divided by I followed by 14 zeros (10 to the power minus 14 metres).

Thus Ernest Marsden’s experiment led to the discovery of the atomic nucleus and a new picture of the atom. Later work showed that alpha particles are the nuclei of helium atoms, produced in the radioactive decay of unstable heavy nuclei.

Other physicists went on to develop highly accurate theories of atoms, nuclei, solid state physics and chemistry - all because of the new picture of the atom made possible by a physicist who did not even have a degree to his name at the time!

Much of the credit for the nuclear model of the atom has rightly gone to Lord Rutherford who has some considerable name recognition in the UK. With this plaque, the Institute of Physics hopes that Sir Ernest Marsden will become better known in the country in which he was born.

Sir Ernest Marsden, as an undergraduate student at Manchester University, performed the famous alpha particle scattering experiment under Rutherford in 1909 which led Rutherford to propose his nuclear model of the atom two years later.

The crowd and photographers at the unveiling.

The experiment involved counting tiny flashes of light produced by alpha particles fired at thin metal foils subsequently hitting a zinc sulphide screen. Marsden had to peer through a microscope pointing towards the screen while sitting in a darkened room. The big surprise was the occasional alpha particle that was deflected by much more than a few degrees. In fact something like 1 in 20000 were deflected more than 90 degrees for gold foils of about a micron thickness. Such large scattering angles implied an extremely tiny nucleus of positive electric charge inside the atoms in the foil. When Rutherford worked through the details, the change in his handwriting in his notebook shows he was really shocked - the nucleus had to be smaller than 1/100 000 000 000 000 metres across.

Marsden later emigrated to New Zealand and had a very distinguished career in Physics.

Follow this link to hear an audio clip of Marsden (and other luminaries) at the 1961 Rutherford Jubilee Conference http://www.hep.man.ac.uk/~robin/htmls/audio.archive.html.

Institute Of Physics

The Institute of Physics is an international learned society and professional body for the advancement and dissemination of physics, pure and applied, and promotion of physics education. It has its headquarters at 76 Portland Place in London. The web site is http://www.iop.org .

The Lancashire and Cumbria branch represents the Institute locally and s run by elected volunteers. Our web site is http://lancashire.iop.org .


Lunching at the Dunkenhalgh

The Lancashire and Cumbria branch of the Institute of Physics would like to thank everyone who has played a part in proposing, researching, making, erecting and unveiling this plaque, especially:-

Mr George Duckworth

Mr Malcolm Cooper

Mrs Sue Lippmann and her staff at the Institute of Physics,

Mr Gary Wilkinson

Bumham Signs


Dr Steve Thompson and his staff at The Royal Society of New Zealand

and, of course,


for attending this special ceremony!


Plaque photo by Bill Wilkinson, Lancashire Life Magazine, October 2002.

www.phil.canterbury.ac.nz/HPS/halloffame/marsden.html -  now defunct.


http://lancashire.iop.org/meets02/marsden-plaque.htm (no longer available)

Lancashire & Cumbria Branch of the Institute of Physics.