Owen Willans Richardson

Sir Owen Richardson

Niels Bohr and Richardson (right) at the 1927 Solvay conference
Born Owen Willans Richardson
(1879-04-26)26 April 1879
Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England
Died 15 February 1959(1959-02-15) (aged 79)
Alton, Hampshire, England
Nationality United Kingdom
Fields Physics
Education Batley Grammar School
Alma mater
Doctoral advisor J. J. Thomson[1]
Doctoral students
Known for Richardson's law
Notable awards

Sir Owen Willans Richardson, FRS[2] (26 April 1879 15 February 1959) was a British physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1928 for his work on thermionic emission, which led to Richardson's law.[3][4][5][6][7][8]


Richardson was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, England, the only son of Joshua Henry and Charlotte Maria Richardson. He was educated at Batley Grammar School and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained First Class Honours in Natural Sciences.[9] He then got a DSc from University of London in 1904.[9]

Owen Willans Richardson (1928)

After graduating in 1900, he began researching the emission of electricity from hot bodies at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, and in 1902 he was made a fellow at Trinity. In 1901, he demonstrated that the current from a heated wire seemed to depend exponentially on the temperature of the wire with a mathematical form similar to the Arrhenius equation. This became known as Richardson's law: "If then the negative radiation is due to the corpuscles coming out of the metal, the saturation current s should obey the law ."[10]

Richardson was professor at Princeton University from 1906 to 1913, and returned to the UK in 1914 to become Wheatstone Professor of Physics at King's College London, where he was later made director of research. He retired in 1944, and died in 1959. He is buried in Brookwood Cemetery.

He also researched the photoelectric effect, the gyromagnetic effect, the emission of electrons by chemical reactions, soft X-rays, and the spectrum of hydrogen.

Richardson married Lilian Wilson, sister of his Cavendish colleague Harold Wilson, in 1906, and had two sons and a daughter. Richardson's own sister married the American physicist (and 1937 Nobel laureate) Clinton Davisson, who was Richardson's PhD student at Princeton. After Lilian's death in 1945, he was remarried in 1948 to Henriette Rupp, a physicist.

Owen Willans Richardson had a son Harold Owen Richardson who specialized in Nuclear Physics and was also the Chairman, Physics Department, Bedford College, London University and later on became emeritus Professor at London University.


Richardson's grave in Brookwood Cemetery

Richardson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (FRS) in 1913,[2] and was awarded its Hughes Medal in 1920. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1928, "for his work on the thermionic phenomenon and especially for the discovery of the law named after him".[11] He was knighted in 1939.


  1. Rayleigh (1941). "Joseph John Thomson. 1856-1940". Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society. 3 (10): 586–609. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1941.0024.
  2. 1 2 3 Wilson, Wm (1960). "Owen Willans Richardson 1879-1959". Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society. Royal Society. 5. doi:10.1098/rsbm.1960.0016.
  3. Nobel Foundation (1928). "Owen Willans Richardson: The Nobel Prize in Physics 1928". Les Prix Nobel. Retrieved 2007-09-17.
  4. Richardson, OW (1921), "Problems Of Physics", Science (published 30 September 1921), 54 (1396): 283–91, Bibcode:1921Sci....54..283R, doi:10.1126/science.54.1396.283, PMID 17818864
  5. Richardson, OW (1913), "The Emission Of Electrons From Tungsten At High Temperatures: An Experimental Proof That The Electric Current In Metals Is Carried By Electrons", Science (published 11 July 1913), 38 (967): 57–61, Bibcode:1913Sci....38...57R, doi:10.1126/science.38.967.57, PMID 17830216
  6. Richardson, OW (1912), "The Laws Of Photoelectric Action And The Unitary Theory Of Light (Lichtquanten Theorie)", Science (published 12 July 1912), 36 (915): 57–8, Bibcode:1912Sci....36...57R, doi:10.1126/science.36.915.57-a, PMID 17800821
  7. Richardson, OW; Compton, KT (1912), "The Photoelectric Effect", Science (published 17 May 1912), 35 (907): 783–4, Bibcode:1912Sci....35..783R, doi:10.1126/science.35.907.783, PMID 17792421
  8. Owen Richardson's Nobel lecture on thermionics, December 12, 1929
  9. 1 2 "Richardson, Owen Willans (RCRT897OW)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  10. O. W. Richardson (1901) "On the negative radiation from hot platinum," Philosophical of the Cambridge Philosophical Society, 11 : 286-295; see especially p. 287.
  11. Nobel prize citation, Nobel foundation website
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