Every Forward Thinker needs a place to develop a sense of scientific exploration and investigation. For the young James Alfred Ewing, that place was the family attic in Dundee.

“In a family whose chief interests were clerical and literary I was a ‘sport’ who took his pleasure in machines and experiments. My scanty pocket-money was spent on tools and chemicals,” he wrote in An Engineer’s Outlook, published in 1933. These were used for experiments at the top of the house, some of which resulted in “hair-raising and hair-singeing explosions”.

He was perhaps a little too forward thinking for the family cat, who he said “found herself an unwilling instrument of electrification and partner in various shocking experiences”.

Such cruel experimentation would be completely unacceptable today, but the early forays into trial and error provided a rich basis for a subsequent career spanning everything from magnets and seismography to decryption and education.

“Little science was then taught at school, and that little so badly that a boy whose bent was scientific found means to learn for his own pleasure what otherwise would have been a task,” he wrote. “It was in this irregular fashion that I began to explore the pleasant borderland of physics and engineering where I have roamed happily for many years.”

Seismic change

Born in 1855 to a minister of the Free Church of Scotland, the eventual Sir James was awarded the first engineering scholarship to study at the University of Edinburgh. After he graduated, he worked as an assistant to Professor Fleeming Jenkin and Sir William Thomson in their work on submarine telegraphy, taking part in the laying of cables to Brazil and Montevideo.

In 1878 he went to Japan to become professor of mechanical engineering at the Tokyo Imperial University, where he worked on seismology using instruments he had designed himself for absolute measurement of earthquakes. He also began his studies on the molecular theory of magnetism.

In 1883 he became professor of engineering at University College, Dundee, and then in 1890 became professor of mechanism and applied mathematics at Cambridge, where he was heavily involved in the formation of the engineering ‘tripos’.

In 1903, the Admiralty sought his advice on their new scheme of naval education, and he was later appointed director of the programme. He also became a member of the explosives committee and of the Ordnance Research Board, and was instrumental in establishing, developing and heading the Room 40 Admiralty office after the start of the First World War, which was predominantly responsible for decrypting intercepted German naval messages.

In 1917 the group deciphered the ‘Zimmerman telegram,’ which was thought to be about a German plot to assist Mexico in taking US territory. Ewing earned nicknames such as ‘the cipher king’ and ‘eavesdropper Ewing,’ according to the IMechE archive.

Magnetic presence

Sir James was the author of many papers, especially on magnetism. He coined the term hysteresis, in which there is a lag between input and output in a system, such as magnetic induction lagging behind the magnetising force.

In 1916, he was appointed principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Edinburgh. He retired in 1929 and lived in Cambridge, where he focused on the Low Temperature Research Station.

A member of the IMechE since 1891, he became honorary fellow in 1933, two years before his death. The James Alfred Ewing medal is named after him, and is presented by the Institution of Civil Engineers for special meritorious contributions to the science of engineering.

Thanks in part to Sir James’s lifelong dedication to engineering and academia, today’s Forward Thinkers – and their cats – can enjoy a much more straightforward path through engineering education.

extracted from IMechE website - read more here

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