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History of the Institute of Physics

The Institute of Physics was once two bodies, the Physical Society and the Institute of Physics, until they merged in 1960.


The Physical Society of London was established in 1874, after Professor Frederick Guthrie, of the Royal College of Science, and his assistant, William Barrett, wrote to physicists to suggest a “society for physical research”.

Founding members of the Physical Society

The original membership of 29 was a diverse group and open to women from the start. It included schoolteachers and amateur scientists as well as eminent professors. Members called themselves Fellows of the Physical Society of London. 

The first president was JH Gladstone, with Guthrie becoming ‘Demonstrator’ of the Society and later President. The annual subscription was one pound, about £100 in today’s money. This remained unchanged for 22 years, when it was raised to two guineas. 

Society meetings

At first, meetings occurred fortnightly at the Royal College of Science and Imperial College in west London. In 1894 the Chemical Society invited the Physical Society to host meetings at Burlington House in the centre of the city. This meant the number of presentations fell, because it was difficult to move equipment and apparatus across the capital. By 1910 almost all meetings were again at Imperial College.

Annual exhibition

The Society held its first annual exhibition of scientific apparatus in 1905. The exhibition grew in size and popularity and was held every year, other than during the first and second world wars.

Guthrie Lectures and society awards

The first of the Society's special lectures, the Guthrie Lecture, was in 1914. The lectures later became the Society's Medal Awards.

Formation of the Institute of Physics

In 1917, the Council of the Physical Society started looking at how to improve the professional status of physicists. They consulted with the Faraday Society, the Optical Society and the Roentgen Society. In 1920, the Institute of Physics was incorporated by the Board of Trade. 

The Royal Microscopical Society and the Roentgen Society were its associate societies. Sir Richard Glazebrook was the first president and in 1920 Sir Joseph Thompson was elected its first honorary fellow.

The Institute of Physics first met on 27 April 1921.

Publications from the Institute of Physics and Physical Society

The Institute published the first issue of the Journal of Scientific Instruments in May 1922. Regular publication continued the next year. The Society also produced Reports on Progress in Physics, an annual publication that first appeared in 1934.

Physical Society jubilee celebrations

In 1924 The Physical Society celebrated its jubilee with a banquet at the Connaught Rooms in London. His Royal Highness the Duke of York was the principal guest .

The Society and the Institute working together

The Society and Institute shared their administration. The first secretary was FS Spiers who worked from the offices of the Faraday Society. 

In 1927, the Institute moved to 1 Lowther Gardens, which they acquired rent-free from the Royal Commission that had organised the Great Exhibition. 

A registrar was appointed and a members' library opened. HR Lang became the secretary in 1931 as an interim measure - his appointment was to last 30 years.

Establishment of international branches and specialist groups

The Society established branches in Australia and India. In 1932 the first UK branch opened in Manchester. The Colour Group was the first applied physics group, followed by the Optical Group in 1942 and the Low Temperature Group in 1945.Find out more about our groups today.

During the second world war, the Institute temporarily moved to the University of Reading. The Secretary of the Physical Society and a small staff stayed at 1 Lowther Gardens. After the war, the Institute returned to London, first in Albemarle Street, then Belgrave Square from December 1946.

First merger talks

There were talks about merging the two organisations in 1946 and 1947 but nothing came of them. 

Paper shortages and publishing activity

Around the same time, there were proposals for the Society and Institute to start a new journal in applied physics. These failed because post-war paper rationing made this impractical.

In 1949, Proceedings was split into two sections. Section A was atomic and sub-atomic physics and section B was macroscopic physics. This split was intended to speed up the time between submitting a paper and publication. Members received one part free and could subscribe to the other at a reduced rate. 

Publication costs continued to rise and in January 1953, publication subscriptions were separated from membership subscriptions. 

Expansion in publishing activity took place in 1950 when the physics in industry section of Journal of Scientific Instruments became the British Journal of Applied Physics. A monthly Bulletin was also launched.

Graduate memberships and examinations

In 1949 the graduate grade of membership was introduced and in 1952 graduate examinations started.

Merger talks reopened

By 1960 the Faraday Society, the Royal Meteorological Society and the British Institute of Radiology had withdrawn from the Institute. Sir Neville Mott, the Society President, re-opened the debate about a merger between the Institute and the Society in 1957. This eventually took place in 1960 with the new organisation called The Institute of Physics and the Physical Society. 

This unwieldy name continued until the acquisition of the Royal Charter in 1970 using the title ‘Institute of Physics’. Sir John Cockcroft was the first President of the combined Society and Institute. The offices in Lowther Gardens became the editorial offices and Belgrave Square became the Institute's headquarters. At the time of the merger there were just over 9,000 members.