Sir John Sealy Edward Townsend (6B30)

Date of Birth: 7 Jun 1868
Date of Death: 16 Feb 1957
Generation: 8th
Residence: Oxford
Father: Professor Edward (Iney) Townsend [6B20]
Mother: Judith Eleanor Anne Townsend [372]
  1. Lambert, Mary Georgiana
  1. Lieut Colonel Edward Walter [6B41]
  2. John Henry [6B42]
See Also: Table VIB ; Scrapbook ; Lineage ; Ancestors' Tree ; Descendents' Tree

Notes for Sir John Sealy Edward Townsend. FRS. See also

Married 5 July 1911. Mary Georgiana Lambert was the younger daughter of Peter Fitzwalter Lambert (1) JP of Castle Ellen,(1a) Co Galway. See Burke's Irish Landed Gentry 1912 - Lambert of Castle Ellen.

John was born in Galway and educated at Corrig School following which he entered Trinity College, Dublin, as a scholar in 1888 where he studied mathematics, mathematical physics and experimental science. Page 297 of the Trinity College Calendar 1906 records that he qualified BA with First Class Honours in Winter 1890 and MA in Winter 1894. Arthur Humphrey Townsend [6C17] and John's brothers Edwin Hotham Townsend [6B29] and William Richard Townsend [6B31] were undergraduates at the same time.

For the next five years John taught mathematics but, disappointed at failing to gain a fellowship at Trinity, Dublin, he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1895 as a pensioner.

Under JJ Thomson's guidance John took up research on gaseous ions and in 1897 he became the first person to measure elementary ionic charge. This led to his election to the Clerk Maxwell scholarship in 1898 and appointment to a research Fellowship at Trinity in 1899. In 1900 he was appointed Assistant Demonstrator at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge. In November that same year, having failed to be elected to the chair of physics at Glasgow and Liverpool Universities, John was appointed Fellow and Wykeham Professor of Experimental Physics, New College, Oxford and was admitted to the Royal Society as a Fellow in 1903. Until 1914 he was a leader in his field of research though he was not without rivals who attacked his theories.

From 1915 to the end of the war John worked on wireless telegraphy at Woolwich as a major in the Royal Naval Air Service. After the war he became an isolated figure who lost contact with former colleagues but continued his research on the ionization of gases. He ignored the findings of other researchers and viewed the world through his increasingly outmoded terminology, rejecting vehemently the theories of relativity and quantum physics. By 1930 John was very much out of touch with current thinking on physics as a whole and by 1941 his career at Oxford was over, though he continued to live in Oxford until his death.

Along with Sir Archibald Geikie (Chairman), Sir John Ross, Arthur Everett Shipley and John Joly, John was appointed a Commissioner "to consider the application which has been made by the University of Dublin for financial assistance from the State and for this purpose to inquire into the financial resources of the University and of Trinity College, Dublin, into the administration and application of those resources, into the constitution of the University, and the College, and to make recommendations" in March 1920. (2)

He was Chevalier de La Legion d'Honneur (3), a Member of Institute of France (Hon DSc Paris), a Member of the Academy of Science and a Member of the Franklin Institute. John was knighted (4) in 1941. He wrote three books; "Electricity in Gases" (1915), "Electrons in Gases" (1947) and "Electromagnetic Waves" (1951).

Whilst John's argumentative nature was embarrassing in formal university business, his gifts as a raconteur made him good company. He was passionate about riding, shooting and fox hunting and frequently rode his horse to his laboratory. His distant cousin Richard Baxter Townsend [5D15] was a Tutor at Wadham College at the same time John was at New College. A laboratory at Oxford University has been named after him.

John's last residence was 55 Banbury Road, Oxford. He died in the Acland Nursing Home and was buried at St Philip and James, Oxford on 20 February 1957. His estate was valued at £1735 and probate was granted on 6 May 1957. His wife Mary was awarded the OBE (1957); she was also Mayor of Oxford and a JP.

In her autobiography, ‘Anything Once’, Dorothy Petrie Carew (nee Townsend) [6A29] recalls visiting John and Mary at Oxford whilst she was an undergraduate at Somerville College - "They were both most kind to me and I met many interesting people at their house."

(1) Peter was born on 8 December 1848 and married Julia Mary, eldest daughter of Col Henry Alexander Hewetson, of Auchnacloy, Co Dublin. He was High Sheriff in 1891and died on 24 February 1894. ‘Slater’s Royal National Directory of Ireland, 1894’ records under the heading ‘Athenry, Co Galway - Private Residents’ - “Lambert Peter F. JP. Castle Ellen.”

(1a) The entry for Castle Ellen in the University of Galway Landed Estates Database records "Castle Ellen was built in 1810. It is described as the property of Captain Lambert in the Ordnance Survey Field Name Books. At the time of Griffith's Valuation it was owned by Walter Lambert and was valued at £21. In 1906 it was owned by the representatives of Peter F. Lambert at which time it was valued at £35. It is still extant and occupied.

(2) London Gazette 31825 page 3302 dated 16 March 1920.

(3) London Gazette 31592 of 7 October 1919.

(4) London Gazette 35029 of 31 December 1940, Page 2.

See Who Was Who 1951-1960, where his recreations are given as tennis, fishing and riding.

See also the Dictionary of National Biography 2004.