Sir James Alfred Ewing

ANNIVERSARIES SERIES – Sir James Alfred Ewing

Sir James Alfred Ewing
Sir James Alfred Ewing

This month we celebrate 130 years since the birth of Sir James Alfred Ewing. Ewing was born in 1855, and was both member and honorary fellow of the Institution.

He was born in Dundee, and was awarded the first engineering scholarship to study at the University of Edinburgh. After he graduated, he worked as an assistant to Professor Fleeming Jenkin and Sir William Thomson in their work on submarine telegraphy, and took part in the laying of cables to Brazil and Montevideo.

By 1878 he went to Tokyo to become professor of mechanical engineering and the newly established Tokyo Imperial University. It was here that he worked on seismological matters using instruments he had designed himself, for absolute measurement of earthquakes – including the Press-Ewing seismograph.
He also began his studies on the molecular theory of magnetism and on hysteresis. In 1883 he became professor of engineering at University College, Dundee, and then in 1890 became professor of mechanism and applied mathematics at Cambridge. He was said to have a heavy involvement with the forming of the engineering tripos. It was whilst at Cambridge that he developed several important types of apparatus for measuring permeability and hysteresis. During this time he also published The Steam Engine and other Heat Engines. He also held a professorial fellowship at King’s in 1898.

Come 1903 the Admiralty sought Ewing’s opinion on their new naval education and he was later appointed Director of Naval Education. He also became a member of the Explosives committee and of the Ordnance Research Board.

After the breakout of WW1 in 1914, he was instrumental in establishing, developing and heading up the office known as “Room 40” at the Admiralty. Named after his admiralty room number, this group were predominantly responsible for decrypting intercepted German naval messages. In 1917 they deciphered the Zimmerman telegram, which was thought to be about a plot with Germany assisting Mexico to gain US territory) – which was held as one of the great successes of Room 40. Ewing earned nicknames such as ‘the cipher king’ and ‘eavesdropper Ewing’.

In 1916, he was appointed Principal and Vice- Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh, but his work on the admiralty prevented him from taking up his new duties for another year. After the war, his efforts were mostly focused on the reconstruction of the University of Edinburgh. In 1923 he became chairman of the Bridge Stress Committee appointed by the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

Ewing retired in 1929 and lived at Cambridge, where he turned his attention to the work of the Low Temperature Research Station. He also supervised researches carried out at the National Physical Laboratory on refrigerants, a subject on which he had done valuable work when he was younger, and he was a member of the Committee on the Mechanical Testing of Timber, appointed in 1929.
Sir Alfred Ewing’s connection with the Institution of Mechanical Engineers dates back to 1891, when he was elected a Member. He delivered a lecture on “Structure of Metals” to the Graduates’ Section He was made a Freeman of the City of Edinburgh in 1929, and in 1933 he was presented with the Freedom of his native city of Dundee.

He received many honours including Companion of the Bath in 1907 and Knight Commander in 1911. He had been a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1887, receiving the Royal Medal eight years later for his research work on magnetism, and he was President of the Royal society of Edinburgh from 1924-29. In addition he was an Honorary Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers and a Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. He was the author of many papers, especially on magnetism, and of well-known textbooks on the steam engine, thermodynamics, refrigeration, and the strength of materials.

The James Alfred Ewing medal is named after him, and is presented by the Institution of Civil Engineers to engineers who they feel make special meritorious contributions to the science of engineering in the field of research.

Ewing died on 7 January 1935.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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