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Sir Basil Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland

(1896-1972), Physicist and meteorologist

Sitter in 1 portrait

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Sir Basil Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland, by Walter Stoneman - NPG x185184

Sir Basil Ferdinand Jamieson Schonland

by Walter Stoneman
bromide print, July 1957
NPG x185184


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Dr Brian Austin

30 January 2019, 22:11

Schonland was born in Grahamstown, South Africa in 1896. There he attended St Andrew's College and matriculated at the remarkably early age of 14. He read physics at Rhodes University and then went to Cambridge in 1915 to read part 1 of the mathematical tripos which he achieved that year. He then joined the British Army's Corps of Royal Engineers, was commissioned and served throughout the war as a wireless officer. At the war's end he was offered the position of Chief Instructor in Wireless of the Army but declined it in favour of returning to Cambridge to complete his PhD in the Cavendish Laboratory under Lord Rutherford. On his return to South Africa in 1922 he was appointed lecturer in physics at the University of Cape Town. Whilst there his research concentrated on the lightning discharge and in 1938 he was appointed professor of geophysics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and Director of the Bernard Price Institute of Geophysics. He made some of the earliest photographs of the lightning stroke and from these delineated its major components which he also named. In 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, at the request of Prime Minister J C Smuts, he set up a radar development programme at the University which produced its first operational radar just three months later. In 1941 Schonland went to England where he was appointed Superintendent of the Army Operational Research Group and in 1944 he became scientific adviser to General Montgomery's 21 Army Group with which he served during the advance through north-west Europe. After the war, and back in South Africa, he established the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and became its first president, serving for five years. He was then requested to return to England to become the deputy to Sir Cockcrcoft at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment in Harwell. In 1958 he succeeded Cockcroft as Director of Harwell. He was knighted in 1960 and died in 1972. He was awarded the OBE(mil) in 1919 which was converted to the CBE(mil) in 1945. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1938.

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