Ewing | Sir | James Alfred | 1855-1935 | principal, University of Edinburgh

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir James Alfred Ewing (1855-1935), principal of the University of Edinburgh from 1916, was born in Dundee, his father a minister in the Free Church of Scotland. As a child, he would frequently carry out "experiments" that led to "fearsome explosions" in his attic and the intentional administration of electric shocks. He attended West End Academy and Dundee High School, before going to study engineering at the University of Edinburgh, William Thomson, Baron Kelvin (1824-1907) and PG Tait (1831-1901) among his teachers.

During the long summer vacations of his university years, he assisted in the laying cables for the Great Western Telegraph Co during its wire laying expeditions, including one to Brazil. These expeditions were led by William Thomson and HC Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885), both of whom would have a significant impact on his life. It was on Jenkin's recommendation that Ewing was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Physics at the Imperial University of Tokyo, Japan, in 1878. After five years in the far East, Ewing returned to Scotland to take up the post of Professor of Engineering at University College Dundee (now the University of Dundee). In 1890, he was appointed Professor of Mechanism and Applied Mechanics at the University of Cambridge. He became Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Edinburgh in 1916.

Early in his career, while in Japan, Ewing studied the frequent earthquakes that occurred there, and invented instruments that were able to measure seismic activity. However, the bulk of his important work was carried out later in his life, when he was professor at Cambridge and finally Principal at Edinburgh. At Cambridge, he transformed his department into, effectively, a department of engineering, and increased its size. Ewing was, in 1890, asked by the Admiralty to establish a training program for officers in the navy, which contained a considerable element of engineering education. Ewing was also responsible for the report into the effectiveness of a proposed steam turbine power station at Cambridge. His favourable report led indirectly to the turbine's introduction as a mode of propulsion for navy ships. His most famous contribution to society, however, took place during the First World War, when he was placed at the head of 'Room 40', the British codebreaking operation. Messages decoded by his organisation led to the battles of Jutland and Dogger Bank. They also decoded the 'Zimmermann telegram', sent by the German foreign minister to his minister in Mexico, which made the United States join the war. The telegram had outlined a policy of encouraging Mexico to join the war in Europe, in return for German assistance in a planned invasion of the United States. Ewing resigned his position in 'Room 40' in 1917, because he found it impossible to carry out this job and that of Principal at Edinburgh at the same time.

In his tenure as Principal at Edinburgh, Ewing made numerous changes to the University, notably the establishment of a new science campus at King's Buildings, which allowed science and engineering, which had, to that date, been fairly weak at Edinburgh, to expand and evolve. This expansion was aided by his creation of several new chairs in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Ewing's main contributions to science were the discovery of hysteresis and the investigation of metals that have been streched. He discovered 'slip-bands', microscopic disruptions in the crystalline makeup of iron that has been streched beyond its elastic limit.


Alfred James Ewing was influenced while at university by physicists William Thomson (Baron Kelvin) and Peter Guthrie (PG) Tait and engineer Henry Charles (HC) Fleeming Jenkin.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

Treatise on Earthquake Management ( 1883)

Magnetic Induction in Iron and Other Metals ( 1891)

The Steam Engine and Other Heat Engines ( 1894)

The Strength of Materials (1899)

The Mechanical Production of Gold ( 1908)

Thermodynamics for Engineers (1920)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

CB, 1907 /KCB 1911 /FRS 1887/ FRSE 1878, /president, rse, 1924-1929/ 1929 - albert medal of the royal society of arts /1932 - president, BAAS/1878 (on jenkin's recommendation): appointed professor of mechanical engineering and physics at imperial university of tokyo /1883: professor of engineering, dundee/ 1890: appointed professor of mechanism and applied mechanics, uCamb /1903: director of naval education/ 1916 principal and v-c of UnivEd

1878: Appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering and Physics, Imperial University of Tokyo

1878: Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1883: Appointed Professor of Engineering, University College Dundee

1890: Appointed Professor of Mechanism and Applied Mechanics, University of Cambridge

1903: Appointed Director of Naval Education

1907: Created Comander of the Order of the Bath

1911: Created Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath (KCB)

1914-1917: Head of 'Room 40' military codebreaking unit

1916: Appointed Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Edinburgh

1924-1929: Elected President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1929: Awarded Albert Medal of the Royal Society of Arts


List of sources for the biographical information:

LG Wickham-Legg, Dictionary of National Biography 1931-1940, London, Oxford University Press, 1949)

Obituary Notices of Fellows of the Royal Society of London, No. 4, (London, Royal Society, 1935)