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James Arthur Pollock (1865–1922)

by J. B. T. McCaughan

This article was published:

James Arthur Pollock (1865-1922), physicist, was born on 17 November 1865 at Douglas, Cork, Ireland, second of three children of James Wheeler Pollock, damask manufacturer, and his wife Emma, née Brierley. With his elder brother Hugh he was educated at Manchester Grammar School, England. Matriculating at 14, he studied engineering at Queen's College, Cork (B.E., 1884, Royal University of Ireland). The decline in the family business led him to migrate to Sydney in January 1885; his family followed later.

In January 1886 Arthur Pollock was appointed second astronomical assistant to H. C. Russell, government astronomer. Specializing in physics and mathematics at the University of Sydney, in 1889 he graduated B.Sc. with the University medal and in 1890 was appointed demonstrator in physics—beginning a fruitful research association and lifelong friendship with Professor (Sir) Richard Threlfall.

His training at the Observatory led Pollock to excel in exact measurement: an accuracy of 1 part in 500,000 achieved for the relative value of the acceleration due to gravity astonished his contemporaries. In the 1890s he published jointly with Threlfall and worked independently in optics, using the Michelson-Morley technique, and on Hertzian (electromagnetic) waves. His characteristic reticence forbade him to publish corroborative work, even if achieved by independent methods.

In April 1899 he succeeded Threlfall as professor of physics. As a result of Marconi's success in wireless telegraphy, Pollock focussed on Hertzian waves. He published several papers, some with his demonstrator O. U. Vonwiller, and was awarded a D.Sc. in 1906. After publication in 1909 of several papers on the carbon arc (a source of intense illumination) done with senior students, he began his significant work on atmospheric ions. Following a conjecture of Rutherford, Pollock established that 'slow moving ions' were dust particles with an attached ion, both surrounded by water in the liquid phase; he further discovered a faster-moving ion in which the surrounding water was in the vapour phase. His other published work indicates a spread of interest and competence typical of that era, including vacuum technology, frothing of bubbles and an explanation of the crushing of a hollow lightning-conductor by a lightning discharge (a principle later incorporated in modern plasma physics). He was elected fellow of the Royal Society, London, on 2 November 1916.

As a teacher Pollock was conscientious, clear and precise, unfailingly ready to help students. A delightfully humorous portrait of him by students is in a series entitled 'My best lecture' in Hermes (July 1902). Christopher Brennan wrote of him: 'Small, neat, with ready smile and unfailing cheer, he moved among us daily, well known and well loved … I shall not soon cease to hear his clear musical tenor with its Irish intonation'. Although courteous and good humoured, he had an iron firmness and determination when following his considered judgement. He belonged to the Union Club from 1899. Excessively modest, Pollock did not shirk the work, but the limelight: he was secretary of the Royal Society of New South Wales for eleven years but steadfastly refused the presidency and nomination as dean of the faculty of science. He was president of section A of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science in 1909 and was a founder of the Australian National Research Council.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force in January 1916, he served in France in the Mining Corps with Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David. Pollock was attached to the 177th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, took charge of the Mining School at Proven, near Poperinghe, and was responsible for training Second Army tunnellers in 'listening', using apparatus that he had helped to design, to foil German countermining measures. As a result the biggest mining operation of the war went undetected and the German fortifications on the Messines and Wytschaete ridges in Belgium were destroyed on 7 June 1917. Pollock was mentioned in dispatches and later transferred to Bookham, near Farnborough, England, to study methods of orienting planes without direct observation of surface objects. He was promoted major on 1 November 1918.

Returning to Sydney in April 1919, Pollock resumed scientific work in acoustics based on his war experiences and worked on plans for the present physics building with Professor L. Wilkinson.

Unmarried, Pollock died in Sydney of infection of the hand and respiratory illness on 24 May 1922 and was buried in Waverley cemetery after an Anglican service at St Paul's College. His sister Annie (d.1952) bequeathed £30,000 to the university for physics research equipment.

Select Bibliography

  • J. McCaughan, ‘Physical development’, in D. Branagan and G. Holland (eds), Ever Reaping Something New (Syd, 1985)
  • Hermes (Sydney), Aug 1922, p 77, 80
  • Nature (London), 9 Sept 1922, p 359
  • Royal Society of London, Proceedings, 104, 1 Dec 1923, p 15
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal, 57 (1923), p 4
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 2 July 1953, p 111
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Apr 1899, 25 May, 22 June 1922
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 30 May 1922
  • Pollock papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

J. B. T. McCaughan, 'Pollock, James Arthur (1865–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 November, 1865
Douglas, Cork, Ireland


24 May, 1922 (aged 56)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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