S2A3 Biographical Database of Southern African Science

Schonland, Dr Sir Basil Ferdinand Jamieson (physics)

Born: 5 February 1896, Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, South Africa.
Died: 24 November 1972, London, United Kingdom.
Active in: SA.

Basis Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland, physicist, was the eldest son of Professor Selmar Schonland*, botanist, and his wife Flora Day, born MacOwan. He was educated at St Andrews College School in Grahamstown, obtained a first-class pass and was the top candidate in the matriculation examination of the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1910. Continuing his studies at Rhodes University College he was awarded the BA degree with honours in physics by the University of the Cape of Good Hope in 1914. In April 1915 he moved to Cambridge, where he entered Gonville and Caius College and studied under the well-known physicists E. Rutherford and C. T. R. Wilson. He obtained a first in Part 1 of the mathematical Tripos and was awarded an Exhibition scholarship for one year; however, World War I (1914-1918) intervened and in July 1915 he was gazetted as a temporary second lieutenant in the Royal Engineers. During 1916 he served in France in command of a team laying communication cables. This was dangerous work and he was severely concussed by shrapnel. He developed an interest in all forms of communication and after three years in France he had a company of 100 men, supervised eight wireless stations, held the rank of acting Major and chief instructor, and was decorated as an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), Military Division. In 1919 he published an account of the development of field wireless sets in France during the war in the journal Wireless World.

After being demobilized in March 1919 he spent a few months in South Africa before returning to Cambridge, where he obtained a first in Part II of the natural science Tripos in 1920. This was followed by a period of research in the Cavendish Laboratory on the scattering of ß-rays by metals. In April 1922 he returned to South Africa to take up an appointment as senior lecturer in physics at the University of Cape Town, under Professor Alexander Ogg*. He continued his research on ß-rays, published several papers, and in 1924 was awarded the PhD degree by the University of Cambridge. In addition to his flair for research he proved to be an excellent lecturer.

Next he switched his research efforts to the study of thunderstorms and the detailed structure of lightning strikes, a topic to which he made major contributions. As there were but few thunderstorms in Cape Town his observations were made on the farm belonging to his father in law, James Craig*, near Somerset East. During the vacation of 1925-1926 Schonland, assisted by Mr. John Linton, set up an intricate apparatus to measure the electric fields of thunderstorms, consisting of a capillary electrometer and an antenna with a copper ball 30 cm in diameter. Craig became an enthusiastic participant in the work. Their observations proved conclusively that the base of most thunderclouds carries a negative electric charge, which supported the theory of Professor C. T. R. Wilson of Cambridge (who's apparatus they had copied) that thunderstorms are bipolar, with a positively charged region located above a negatively charged region. They measured the mean moment of the charge brought to ground during lightning discharges (at 94 Coulomb-kilometer), and established that the fair weather electric field never exceeded 60 volts per meter. Their results were written up in an important paper, "The electrical fields of South African thunderstorms", with Craib as co-author, and published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1927, Vol. 114A, pp. 229-243). The work was continued during 1927 and additional equipment set up to study the positive ion current drawn up from the Earth by the negatively charged cloud base, leading to two further publications in the same journal the next year.

In December 1927 Schonland was awarded an 1851 Exhibition scholarship to visit Cambridge for a year in order to study the passage of cathode rays (electrons) through thunderclouds. The work required a special type of electroscope, which he designed in the Cavendish Laboratory. He continued his research in the physics department of the University of the Witwatersrand during the summer of 1929-1930 and two years later published a book on Atmospheric electricity (1932). At that time he was invited to become a member of the Lightning Investigation Committee of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers and was made chairman of its research sub-committee. With Mr. H. C. Collens of the Victoria Falls and Transvaal Power Company he succeeded in obtaining useful photographs of lightning strokes on the Witwatersrand during the summer of 1932-1933 with a rotating lens camera. The photos showed that many strokes consist of a 'leader' descending from the cloud followed by a much stronger 'main stroke' returning to the cloud, and allowed their velocities to be measured. The findings were published in "Progressive lightning" in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1934) and several other papers.

In 1936 Schonland succeeded Ogg as professor of physics at the university of Cape Town. He was such an outstanding candidate that the post was not even advertised. However, he resigned his position within a year. During 1936-1937 he spent part of his time in setting up the Bernard Price Institute (BPI) of Geophysical Research in the grounds of the University of the Witwatersrand and was appointed its first Director and as professor of geophysics, positions he held until 1954. The institute was founded to conduct pure scientific research in geophysics, including both atmospheric electricity and seismology. Schonland continued to publish his work on lightning and associated phenomena with several collaborators, particularly Dr. D. Malan and Mr. H. C. Collens. In 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II (1939-1945) he set up and led a unit in the institute called Special Signals Services with a team of experts to study the newly discovered technique of radio direction finding, or radar. The first local radar transmitter and receiver were completed and the first echo seen on the receiver screen in December 1939. The next year radar equipment was installed along the coasts of South Africa and present Namibia. From 1941 Schonland was on war service in England and rose to the rank of Brigadier Scientific Adviser to General Montgomery.

After the war, in December 1945, Schonland became the first president of the newly created Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). He first studied similar organizations in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and based the CSIR on his resulting insights. He also published another book, The flight of thunderbolts, in 1950. He resigned as president and in 1951 returned to the BPI to continue his research on lightning with various collaborators. Three years later he accepted an appointment as deputy director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, England. He became its director in 1958, serving until his retirement in 1961. In his later life he suffered from poor health, but published his third book, The atomists in 1968.

Schonland was an outstanding director of scientific research, with plenty of common sense, a directness of approach and a quick understanding of scientific problems and principles. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1938 and was knighted in 1960. He was a Fellow also of the Royal Society of South Africa from 1924 and served as secretary for six years from about 1928. He received honorary doctoral degrees from the universities of Cambridge, the Witwatersrand, Southampton, Cape Town, Natal and Rhodes University and became the first chancellor of the latter institution in 1951. In 1941 he was awarded the South Africa Medal (gold) of the South African Association for the Advancement of Science and served as president of the association in 1952. In 1943 he received the Chree Medal of the Physical Society of London, in 1945 the Hughes Medal of the Royal Society of London, in 1949 the Silver Medal of the Royal Society of Arts and in 1950 the Elliott Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute of Pennsylvania.

Schonland married the historian Isabel Marian ("Ismay") Craib in 1923 and they had a son and two daughters.

List of sources:

Allibone, T. E. Basil Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland. Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, 1973, Vol. 19, pp. 629-653.

Cockbain, T. G. E. Radar development in South Africa with special reference to air defence. Transactions of the South African Institute of Electrical Engineers, 1979, Vol. 70, pp. 82-96.

Dictionary of South African biography, Vol. 5, 1987.

Honours conferred on members. Journal of the Chemical, Metallurgical and Mining Society of South Africa, 1943, Vol. 43, pp. 173-174.

Murray, B. K. Wits, the early years. A history of the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and its precursors, 1896-1939. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1982.

Nicolaysen, L. and Jones, M. Bernard Price Institute for Geophysical Research and the Department of Geophysics, University of the Witwatersrand. In: C. R. Anhaeusser (ed.) A century of geological endeavour in southern Africa, 1895-1995 (pp. 273-285). Johannesburg: Geological Society of South Africa, 1997.

Phillips, H. The University of Cape Town, 1918-1948: The formative years. Cape Town: University of Cape Town, 1993.

Proctor, A. E. A review of the history of lightning research in South Africa. Elektron, 1992, Vol. 9(10), pp. 13-15.

Sir Basil Schonland: a tribute. Scientiae, November/December 1972, pp. 4-5.

Standard Encyclopaedia of Southern Africa (SESA). Cape Town: NASOU, 1970-1976.

University of the Cape of Good Hope. Calendar, 1917-1918.

Compiled by: C. Plug

Last updated: 2022-03-16 11:38:09