Ernest Rutherford's early life

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Ernest, known as Ern within the family, was born at Spring Grove, near Brightwater in rural Nelson, on 30 August 1871. He was the fourth of twelve children by his parents, Martha and James. Martha, who arrived in Nelson as a Taranaki Refugee,  was a teacher at the local Fox Hill School and James was a wheelwright from Scotland. They lived on a 35 acre farm at Fox Hill, directly across the road from the church and near the School.

Rutherford Memorial, BrightwaterRutherford Memorial, Brightwater. Tasman District Council.
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Having such an amazing environment to grow up in for an actively minded Ernest was definitely a telling factor in his success as a scientist. This was evident when amongst a thunder and lightning storm Ernest's father, James awoke and went out onto the veranda to check his stock and found Ernest standing in his pyjamas talking to himself quietly. When James asked what he was doing, Ernest replied "counting".  Just as an another rumble shook the house, Ernest explained "if you count the seconds between the flash and the thunderclap and allow 1200 feet for each second for the sound to travel, you can tell how close you are to the storm centre."

James and Martha RutherfordJames and Martha Rutherford, [ca 1880s], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-6407-01 [Photographer unidentified]. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=23285
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Ernest's parents, along with his school teachers, were Ernest's biggest influences when he was growing up.  Mr H. Ladley was the headmaster at Fox Hill School. He noticed that Ernest was very interested in mathematics so Mr Ladley took it upon himself to give Ernest further homework and also issued him with a science book. This science book seemed to be the match that lit the fire for Ernest. He began by experimenting with the household clock. His father was very worried when he took it all apart, as the parts were all over the kitchen table. However, he then put it all back together himself.

Ernest also made his own cameras and other gadgets, which he used around the farm.

When Ernest was 11 years old, his father realised that the money coming in off the Fox Hill property was not enough to sustain a family of fourteen,  so he moved to Havelock to take up the job of flax milling (which was prosperous at the time). His Father and  Uncle set up a flax mill, operating by the Ruapaka Stream. Even though Ruapaka Stream was near enough to Havelock, Ernest's father did not come home during the week, only returning to Havelock on Saturday night to be with the family, see the Saturday night entertainment in town and go to church on the Sunday.

Rutherford family, 1880-6Collie, W :[Rutherford family group at Havelock], [1880-86?], Alexander Turnbull Library, PAColl-0091-2-001. http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=18897. l-r: Alice, Mary Thompson (cousin), Arthur (in front), Ernest (behind), Eve(in front in white), James (in chair) Nell (standing), Ethel (in front in white), Flo (in chair), George (immediately behind), Herbert (at rear), Martha (standing side on), Charles & Jim. Click image to enlarge

Although the move to Havelock gave the family a lot more money to live off, there were some huge setbacks during the time at Havelock.  Three of the children passed away, Percy being the first.  He died of whooping cough aged one year and  two days. The next to follow were three years later, Charles and Herbert aged ten (nearly eleven) and twelve years respectively. Their lives were cut short due to a dodgy fishing mission with other boys of their age. The astounding thing was that Ernest was supposed to accompany his younger brothers and friends on the fatal trip, but he was sent to the flax mill to deliver something so he was not able to join them.  Ernest was the person who delivered the terrible news to his mother when she was playing the piano to a group of girls who were all around for tea. Martha, Ernest's mother, never played the piano again, and Ernest and his brother Jim were made to have swimming lessons until they were fully able in the water.

Rutherford flax millLeggatt, T T :[The Rutherford flax mill at Pungarehu, run by James and later George Rutherford] / T T Leggatt Feb 28th 1890, Alexander Turnbull Library,  A-036-017 http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=30043.
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This tragic accident overshadowed Ernest's achievement of getting the Marlborough Scholarship to attend Nelson College. He achieved it on his second attempt, gaining 580 marks out of a possible 600. This was a huge credit to his mother and influential teacher Mr. Reynolds at Havelock School.

Ernest attended Nelson College from 1887 to 1889. It was a happy time for him. In fact in 1888 Ernest came top in  all of his subjects: classics, English, mathematics and French. The Headmaster summed up Ernest's achievements by commenting "Satisfactory in every way..." 

In 1889 Ernest returned as head boy and played in the first XV and Xl rugby teams.

Sir Ernest RutherfordSir Ernest Rutherford [Herbert photograph studios], Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-050243-F http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/ detail/?id=7208
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It was obvious that Ernest was going to achieve very highly in life. It wasn't a case of if he would it was when he would.

Ernest showed his academic flair once again by winning the Canterbury College scholarship, so he could further his studies. After gaining three degrees he was accepted to work at Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory, England, with Professor J.J. Thomson.   He then accomplished a feat no scientist had done yet:  split the atom.  For his efforts in the disintegration of elements and the chemistry of radioactive substances he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1908.  This was a massive accomplishment for a boy from Fox Hill School, Nelson, New Zealand.

Michael Limmer, Nelson College, 2009

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Comments

  • It helped me do a science project
    Thanks I needed an easy A+

    Posted by Grace , 06/05/2016 11:09am (1 year ago)

  • Helped me do my report!

    Posted by Wild Hatchet, 23/03/2016 5:08am (2 years ago)

  • That was very helpful. This type of written articles can inspire many students as well as teachers in various ways. Thanks

    Posted by Zubair Hossain, 12/02/2016 6:16pm (2 years ago)

  • This is a great description of his life. I find it all really interesting. I would've never known he had to take the test twice in order to get into Nelson College, and here I thought he was the smartest, most intelligent person I've heard of.

    Posted by AWESOMESAUCE, 09/05/2014 7:20am (3 years ago)

  • wonderful and very helpful thanks!

    Posted by dolphindave, 18/11/2013 2:23pm (4 years ago)

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Further sources - Ernest Rutherford's early life

Books

Articles

  • Campbell, J. (2001, June). The Atomic Physics maestro.World & I.16(6), p140-148. Retrieved ANZRC Ebsco database 16 January, 2010  
  • Campbell, J. (2015) WWI: Rutherford's war. Nelson historical society journal. 8(1), pp.61-68
  • Duffield, F. (2017, April 15-21) The importance of being Ernest. New Zealand Listener, 258(4011) p.26-29
  • Priestley, R. (2008 , November) Lord of the atoms. New Zealand Listener. 216 (3575), p.28-32,  
  • Short, C. (2008, November) Lord Rutherford's Legacy. Wild Tomato. 28, p.44-49
    http://www.wildtomato.co.nz/articles/lord-rutherfords-legacy.aspx  
  • Yarwood, V. (2005, November) The importance of being Ernest. New Zealand Geographic. 76, p.98-112

Other

New Zealand Film Archive - available to view on  MediaNet at Elma Turner Library, Nelson Public Libraries:

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