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The Cavendish Laboratory

But the history of science shews that even during that phase of her progress in which she devotes herself to improving the accuracy of the numerical measurement of quantities with which she has long been familiar, she is preparing the materials for the subjugation of new regions, which would have remained unknown if she had contented with the rough guide of the earlier pioneers" James Clerk Maxwell’s Inaugural Lecture, 25 October 1871


This archive contains the first and second releases of historic photographs of people, equipment and events, mostly from the early history of the Cavendish Laboratory up to about 1970.  There are many classic photographs of equipment used in the pioneering discoveries made by members of the Laboratory.  The preservation of the most important of these in an accessible digital Photographic Archive has been a priority as we begin a new phase in the history of the Laboratory with the rebuilding of the whole Laboratory to be completed in 2022.  We wish this material to be made widely available to all interested parties.

The present collection is the legacy of generations of photographers who recorded equipment, buildings and events for posterity.  The core of the present collection is a sequence of over 1800 glass plates and film negatives compiled in the 1970s by the Laboratory Photographer at the time Keith Papworth (hence the P numbers).  In addition, there are thousands of photographs from the later period.

After a number of trials, we selected a sample of about 500 images of historical importance from the Papworth catalogue, including all the images in the Cavendish Snapshot Albums from about 1927 to 1937.  All the black and white images have been professionally scanned at very high resolution.

This list was then supplemented in two ways.  First, we added in black and white and coloured images up to about the mid-1970s when Keith Papworth’s list begins to peter out.   Second, we went through Malcolm Longair’s Maxwell’s Enduring Legacy: a Scientific History of the Cavendish Laboratory (CUP 2016) and made sure all the images in that book up to the mid-1960 were included.

The first and second releases include 406 images, 367 black and white and 39 in colour. The black and white images correspond to 351 P numbers because several of the P number files include more than one tab which are labelled (a), (b) and (c). 

For permission to use and reproduce any of these images, we follow the procedures established by the University Library’s Cambridge Digital Library.  Once you have selected the image of interest, please click on it to find how the material can be used and if fees are payable, which is generally only for material to be used from commercial purposes.

Design for the new Cavendish Laboratory