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Diffraction Grating, Rowland & Goniometer

Rowland Diffraction Grating

A Diffraction grating consists of a plate (reflective or transparent) engraved with an extremely large number of fine parallel lines. It is used to analyse spectra by dispersing the light (say from a star) into its component colors or wavelengths. In the 1870’s spectroscopy had serious limitations as the diffraction gratings were relatively imprecise. Rowland in 1882 invented a ruling engine that produced spectra of superb resolution and accuracy. This ruling engine contained a screw of extreme accuracy. This main screw moved the grating an extremely small distance between each line to be ruled.

Henry Augustus Rowland (1848-1901) was born in Pennsylvania and, after refusing to follow family tradition by becoming a clergyman, he attended Rensselaer Polytechnic in Troy, New York. In 1870 he completed a degree in civil engineering. After a short period away from the university he returned in 1872 as an instructor of physics.

Rowland shared many similarities with the University of Melbourne’s Professor T.H. Laby, particularly his love of research. Like Laby, Rowland felt that although teaching was important it was not the sole purpose of an academic institution. Rowland is said to have had ‘little interest in or talent for lecturing; instead … [he was] committed to raising the level of pure research in America’i. It is for perhaps this reason that in 1874 he was accepted as chair in physics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore. Johns Hopkins, which has been described as ‘America’s first true research institution’ii, allowed Rowland to pioneer new experiments and theories.

Apart from the invention of his diffraction grating, Rowland is also remembered for experiments with electricity, magnetics and heat. He also became ‘an authoritative figure for the absolute value of the ohm’ iii. Rowland’s work did not go unnoticed and he was repeatedly acknowledged for his efforts. In 1890 he received a gold medal at the Paris Exposition for his gratings. He was also awarded the Rumford and Draper medals by the National Academy of Science for his accomplishments in research.

This engraving process used for the production of diffraction gratings is related to the production of graticules. Graticules are ‘small discs inscribed with measuring marks or scales for determining the size, distance, or position of objects’iv .

From February 1942 the Botany School at the University of Melbourne became the main graticule producer for Australia during the Second World War. Under the directive of the Optical Munitions Panel part of the Botany School became known as the ‘Graticule Annexe’. The project was supported not only by the Botany staff and students but also members of the Chemistry and Zoology departments. The Physics Laboratory at the University of Western Australia also assisted. Their work was particularly useful in relation to binoculars. Over 15,000 binoculars were requisitioned from the public for use by the military during the Second World War. Many of these needed graticules inserted into them to bring them up to standard .v

Jacqueline Eager
Student Projects Placement, Cultural Collections 2005

iStuewer, R.H., 'Henry Rowland:the ruler of the grating', Physics World, July 2001, p.47.

iiAPS News,op cit, p.3.

iiiAPS News,op cit, p.3.

iv Faculty of Science at the University of Melbourne, 'Optical Munitions Panel (1940-1945)',, accessed on 26.08.2005.

v'Optical Munitions Panel', Vol. 3 of Laby Files, Physics Museum's archive, University of Melbourne, p.9.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 3-2.obj

Country of manufacture: U.S.A.

Stereoscope with lid (and wooden oddment)

Olive green enamelled stereoscope enclosed in olive green wooden hinged box. Two test stereoscopic pictures of a rhino also kept in box. A wooden oddment (10 cm) is also enclosed.

Periscope component

Used as a periscope instrument. Twin pair of periscope components made of iron and covered in olive green enamel.

Spectrograph, Double Prism Optical

Double Prism Optical Spectrograph made of standing L-shaped metallic base in grey enamel which supports a brass collimator/telescope abutting a wooden box containing two prisms and camera. Tradition has it that it was designed by Laby but there is no supporting evidence.

Country of manufacture: United Kingdom, England

Lens with box and lid

Round glass lens stored in rectangular cardboard box with lid and supported by cotton wool.

Slide, Grayson Test plate with case

Test plate rectangular glass slide with rulings under circular cover glass within yellow circle and brown border enclosed in red hinged box with blue lining. Described as “A sample Microscope slide - Test plate with rulings from 30,000 to 120,000 per inch”. This is the only surviving ruling reaching up to 120,000; hence is both unique and valuable.

Country of manufacture: Australia

Slides, Test with box

8 micrometer (microscope) test slides stored in wooden box with storage slots. Cardboard label inside box: “From Melbourne University Physics Dept Museum. Probably Grayson trials or William Stone” “ Microrulers/W S” on lid

Slide with box and lid

Slide showing Wallace’s Replica of Rowland’s Plane.

Country of manufacture: USA

Optical flat with box

No image

Blank clear slide with cardboard box. Loose paper with slide “Plane parallel flat for adjustment of spectrometer”.

Engine, Micro-ruling engine, Wm Stone #1

First micro-ruling engine made (1934), by Stone, with flat rectangular iron base and wheel mechanism. A scriber made of a gramophone needle is in place over the glass slide on a ruling table. A second holder for a diamond lies beside the instrument.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 46-1.obj

History of object: From attached information on display: This engine was designed to explore the nature and magnitude of mechanical defects in ruling engines. It was used to cut simple rulings for the calibration of microscope fields of view.

Country of manufacture: Australia

Engine, Micro-ruling engine, Wm Stone #2

Second micro-ruling engine (1934) erected on a wooden base. A simple steel cutter is in place over the glass slide on the ruling table.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 47-1.obj

History of object: The advance mechanism on the large brass wheel does not seem to have been completed.

Country of manufacture: Australia

Diffraction Grating with cover

Diffraction grating, 1-3/4in x 1in ruled on 2-1/4 in. disk of speculum metal, recessed in 2-1/2 in. dia. brass holder, itself mounted on a flat, round base with three levelling screws. Cylindrical brass lid.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 48-1.obj

Country of manufacture: Australia

Glass microscoepe slide, 3 Abbe calibration microrulings

Glass slide with three “silver ” circles enclosed in small hinged brown leather box lined with black velvet. No calibration ruling details available.

Country of manufacture: Germany

MicroscopeSlides with box

2 slides (54.1 & 54.2) wrapped in paper and stored in a small hinged metal chemist’s pill box (54.3). ;Also an unidentified 8.5 cm (graphite?) stick (54.4) Slide 54.1 is wrapped in paper and identified as “very precious”. On the slide is printed: ONE INCH divided into hundredths. In ink: “Dup. Beck. Retain.” Next: 1-14 in. cover glass. Then printed: Ruled on glass. H.J. Grayson. No. 2 Slide 54.2 is also wrapped in paper. Ruling can be seen under 3/4 iin. cover glass. Carries labels: “760 or 1/60 xxxx” and “60,000 # good”. On the wrapping paper: “Grayson Test Ruling, given to me by the late Mr W Stone.” Signed: W.M. Holmes, 18.9.50 In differnet penmanship: “Labelled 60,000 gtooves #. White sticker with red bars. Placed in display cabinet 13.8.71 J J McNeill.(All this transcription by EGM)

Microscope rulings, 7 with box

7 flat discs (battery like) with diffraction gratings (55.1-55.7). surface rectangular rulings extend mostly 15mm . stored in specially converted metal hinged cigarette box (55.8) with wooden compartments

Polarimeter #1 part A

#S 66&67 CONSTITUTE A SET Brass cylindrical optical element erected on wooden rectangular base.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 66-1.obj

Polarimeter #1 part B

Brass cylindrical optical element erected on wooden rectangular base.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 67-1.obj

Polarimeter #2 part A

Brass cylindrical optical element erected on wooden rectangular base.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 68-1.obj

Polarimeter #2 part B

Brass cylindrical optical element erected on wooden rectangular base.

Three Dimensional Object (requires Quicktime): 69-1.obj

Optical glass specimen

Optical Glass

In 1941 optical glass began to be manufactured in Australia. Previously, Australia had acquired its optical glass from France. This supply however ceased in 1940 due to the Second World War. As optical glass was required for a variety of optical equipment, such as anti–tank guns and telescopes, it was necessary for the armed forces to have a constant supply. Isolated from the rest of the world the Australian Government needed to utilise its own resources. In response to this crisis Prime Minister Robert Gordon Menzies initiated the establishment of the Optical Munitions Panel (OMP). The role of the OMP was to discover ways in which Australia could create its own optical munitions. The panel, which operated from 1940 to 1945, was at first chaired by T.H. Laby from the University of Melbourne and then from 1944 by Kerr Grant. The project employed scientists from all over the country.

The role of developing optical glass was given to E. J. Hartung. Like Laby, Hartung was from the University of Melbourne. There he held the positions of lecturer in Chemistry from 1919-1924, Associate Professor from 1924-1927 and then Professor from 1927-1954. As countries such as New Zealand and the United States of America had both established optical glass industries in similar pressured circumstances Hartung felt the task to be plausible. He quickly began experiments and trials using ‘local raw materials for the crucibles and melts’i . For production of his work he employed the industrial capabilities of the Australian Window Glass Company of Sydney. Hartung’s dedication resulted in unprecedented success. Along with those assisting him, he was able to achieve the desired results in just ten months. It had been predicted by British experts that the production of optical glass in Australia would take approximately four years ii.

Australia’s speedy and cost effective manufacture of optical glass received world-wide acclaim. Countries such as India, the Union of South Africa and the United States of America were so impressed that they placed orders for both optical glass and samples of Australian optical munitions. Unfortunately however some orders were unable to be filled due the small nature of the Australian operation. Although the production of optics did not continue on such a scale after the war, the development of high quality optical glass under such strained conditions is still looked upon as a major scientific achievement for Australia.

Jacqueline Eager
Student Projects Placement, Cultural Collections 2005

iUniversity of Melbourne, 'Ernst Johannes Hartung',accessed 26.08.2005


Country of manufacture: Australia

Optical glass specimen

Glass rectangular slab consisting of 15 plates “welded/squashed together”. Slab is concave at top. See no 70 for details.

Photograph, Optical munitions & Prof. Laby

Professor T.H. Laby

With a lecture theatre at the University of Melbourne named after him, as well as the Laby medal awarded to an outstanding physics student each year, it is quite clear that Thomas Howell Laby was an extraordinary man in the field of physics. His personal passion for the advancement of the science and his dedication to research left the University of Melbourne a somewhat changed place. Despite having priorities that often differed from the norm, many past students and colleagues have recorded their admiration for the professor who has become a legendary figure in the University of Melbourne’s School of Physics.

Early life

Laby’s early life does not contain the prestige that one may have expected. Far from being born into a scholarly environment, Laby was born in Creswick, Victoria in 1880 to Thomas James Laby, a prosperous flour–mill owner and his Welsh born wife, Jane Eudora. He was the third child in the family, having two elder sisters. After his father made an unfortunate business decision the family moved to a dairy farm that Laby’s mother ran due to his father’s ill health. Thomas James died when Laby was eight years old leaving his mother, with minimal income, to raise the children alone.


Laby’s schooling lacked stability resulting in his never passing a matriculation examination. Despite this hurdle, and also not having an undergraduate degree, in 1898 he was employed as a junior in the chemistry laboratory at the New South Wales Department of Agriculture. This led to a position as a junior demonstrator in the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney between 1900 and 1904. Whilst in this post his devotion to physics was evident to those around him. At the University of Sydney he was able to attend undergraduate science classes. In 1905 he was rewarded for his dedication by becoming a recipient of the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship.

The scholarship enabled him to further his academic career in England where he studied under Sir J.J. Thomson, Professor of Experimental Physics at Cambridge. Through numerous scholarships, such as the Joule Studentship of the Royal Society, Laby was able to remain in England and continue his research until 1909. Throughout his Bachelor of Arts research degree, Laby’s dedication to experimentation and research was noted by many. Sir J.J. Thomson wrote of Laby ‘I have been greatly impressed by Mr Laby’s skill as an experimenter, in fact I do not remember after a long experience anyone who has excelled him in this respect’i . Laby was gaining quite a reputation having also excelled in chemical research whilst at the University of Sydney.

Although busy with his work Laby made the most of his European location. He visited the Continent four times during his student years spending most of his time in Berlin and Zurichii . In 1909 he decided to leave England to take up an appointment as Chair of Physics at Victoria University College, Wellington, New Zealand. It was during his time in New Zealand that the first edition of Tables of physical and chemical constants and some mathematical functions was published in 1911.

Melbourne University

When Professor Thomas Lyle took early retirement in 1915 Laby was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy (i.e. Physics) at the University of Melbourne. He held this position until his retirement in 1944. From 1926 – 29 he also held the position of Dean of the Faculty of Science.

At the University of Melbourne Laby placed immeasurable importance on research activity. He believed that, along with teaching, experimentation and research should be a priority in a university. Through his research Laby promoted areas such as precisions physics, radio physics, x- rays as well as atomic and nuclear physics. The research that Laby pursued was not undertaken purely for academic interest as it also led to practical uses in the community. One such accomplishment was the invention, with Osborne and Masson, of the anti- gas box respirator, also known as the ‘Melbourne University Respirator’, for use in the First World War. Another accomplishment was assisting in the organization of the radium supply for hospitalsiii . The University of Melbourne’s website contains a full list of Laby’s work within the university.

Laby is also remembered for encouraging a large portion of his undergraduate students to continue their study at the Department of Natural Philosophy by completing Master of Science degrees. At the time Australian universities were focused primarily on undergraduate training and so Laby’s interest in further study and research was admirable. He was also successful in convincing his friend Ernest Rutherford, the Director of the Cavendish Laboratory, to supervise many of his students for their PhD degrees in the United Kingdom. This was most fortunate for Laby’s students as PhD degrees were not yet part of the Australian curriculum. Many students were able to do this by receiving the Exhibition of 1851 Science Research Scholarship that Laby had himself won in 1904.

The manner in which Laby inspired his students is quite intriguing. As Laby’s first love was research his teaching methods often differed from other lecturers. For instance, he felt that examinations were ‘utterly over rated as a test of education and of human ability’ discarding all practical examinationsiv . Professor Oliphant, who was Assistant Director of Research at Cavendish Laboratory, described Laby’s lectures as ‘somewhat uninspiring’ believing that it was not his classes that persuaded students to become physicists but his pure love of the discipline’v . It was Professor Oliphant’s belief that Laby inspired students by illustrating Australia’s need for physics and its future importance for the country. He concluded that what made Laby an exceptional teacher was his ‘ability to inspire a love of physics in others, to engender a desire to emulate Laby’s own achievements’vi .

Laby and the Scientific Community

As well as his university commitments Laby contributed to the larger scientific community. He assisted in the establishment of the Australian Radio Research Board (RBB) and played a vital role on the Board from 1929 to 1941. In 1939 Laby was also appointed the first President of the Australian Branch of the Institute of Physics. The Institute was established to connect and support Australian physicists. It also aimed to promote the field in the general community.

As World War II encroached upon Australian life, Laby attempted to find ways in which his research and physics as a whole could assist the war effort. At the beginning of the war Laby, along with A.D. Ross of the University of Western Australia, had offered his skills to the government. For some time Laby had seen the threat Germany posed to the rest of the world and as early as 1910 had written articles on the possibility of conflict in both Australian and New Zealand publicationsvii . However it was not until the fall of France in 1940 that physicists were called upon to create optical glass and a variety of devices, using optics, for the war effort. To oversee this task the Prime Minister established the Optical Munitions Panel (OMP) of which Laby was chairman from 1940 to 1944.

The Family Man

Although it may appear that Laby’s life was wholly devoted to his love of science he did find time for a social life and a family. Whilst in London he met Beatrice Littlejohn and in 1914 they were married. Daughters, Jean and Betty, were born to the couple in 1915 and 1920. Ed Muirhead, former Head of the School of Physics, paints a rosy picture of the Laby family writing that ‘he [Laby] was supported through the whole of his professional career especially in the latter period of indifferent health’viii . This nurturing environment allowed the girls the opportunity to pursue their academic interests in a male dominated field. Both girls become educated individuals in their own right, with Jean following her father into physics and Betty becoming a statistician. Dr Jean Laby, who studied underneath her father, has been described as ‘probably Australia’s sole women atmospheric physicist of her generation’ix .

Laby’s friends also thought of him as a kind and inspirational man. In an obituary notice the Hon. Mr Justice Nicholas discusses his friend’s personality with warmth and affection. He states ‘If one were to particularize Laby’s outstanding qualities… they would be his integrity of mind, his humour and his enthusiasm. His humour was constant and universal’x . Within two years of his retirement Laby passed away. He died on the 21st June 1946 aged sixty-six. After suffering a long illness he had been hospitalised for the final three months. Not only was he mourned in Australia, his loss was felt overseas. On the 24th of June 1946 an obituary was published in The Times where his work and foresight into the uses of physics were praisedxi .

The 1914 advertisement for Melbourne’s Natural Philosophy Chair stated that the new professor would need to ‘devote the whole of his time to the work of his department’. Whilst the writers of the advertisement were most likely referring to the professors working hours, T.H. Laby clearly devoted his entire life to the field of physics. He worked harder than most and produced results that exceeded expectation. Laby’s work was not only admired by his fellow physicists but, though its practical uses in Australia, it was appreciated by the pubic as well.

Jacqueline Eager
Student Projects Placement, Cultural Collections 2005

iT.H. Laby, 'Application for the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Melbourne', 22.09.1914, p.7. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.


iiiMassey, H.S.A., "Professor T.H. Laby, F.R.S.', Nature, Vol. 158, No. 4005, August 1946, p.2.

ivPicken, D.K., 'T.H. Laby', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol. 5, May 1948, p.754. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.

vOliphant, Professor M.L.E., 'Laby's place in physics' in Picken, D.K., 'T.H. Laby', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol 5, May 1948, p.753. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.


vii'Dr T.H. Laby, F.R.S. Natural Philosophy at Melbourne University', The Times, 24.06.1946. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.

viiiMuirhead, E., A Man Ahead of his Times: T.H. Laby's Contribution to Australian Science, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 1996, p. 7.

ix Australian Academy of Science, 'Interview with Dr Jean Laby', accessed on 26.08.2005

xPicken, D.K., "T.H. Laby', Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society, Vol 5, May 1948, p 752. Physics Museum Archive, the University of Melbourne.

xiThe Times, op cit.

Photograph,Optical munitions & Prof. Hartung

Black and white photo of Professor Hartung working with optical glass. Glued on cardboard backing with red border.

Photograph, Optical munitions & E.R. Johnson

Black and white photograph of Dick Johnson using a polarimeter. Photo is glued on cardboard backing with red border.

Periscope, Optical munitions : part of prototype tank ..

Metal hollow vessel with glass insert opens at one end. At opening metal round plate is perpendicular and has brass cylinder attached.

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Created: 12 May 2003
Authorised by: Head, School of Physics
Maintained by: Museum Curator (pslyons @