Ernest, Lord Rutherford: Father of the Atom

This page will help you learn about the life of Ernest Rutherford, who became one of the most famous scientists in world history. 

The Tasman District Council now maintains the impressive, interactive memorial as a treasured reserve. If you haven't paid a visit yet, this unique international tourist site really is a must for locals and visitors alike and a great educational experience for the whole family. Rutherford's Birthplace is well signposted and is located just off the main highway in Brightwater, on Lord Rutherford Road, just 10 minutes drive from Richmond.

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Early Life

Lord Rutherford photoErnest, Lord Rutherford, the man who became known as the 'Father of the atom' was born in Brightwater in 1871. He was one of twelve children born to James and Martha Rutherford.

His father worked as a wheelwright, engineer and flax miller and the family moved according to his work.

Ernest's early schooling took place at Foxhill School, where he received his first science book.  One of the experiments in the book was about using the speed of sound to determine the distance to a firing cannon. He used this knowledge to surprise his family, by estimating the distance to a lightning flash.

It may also have been this book that inspired him to build a miniature cannon out of a hat peg, a marble and blasting powder. Unsurprisingly, it blew up - happily, without causing any injury.

Pursuing Knowledge

The Rutherford family moved to Havelock where Ernest flourished at Havelock School with the help of the local teacher. In 1887, on his second attempt, Ernest won a scholarship to Nelson College.  He boarded there for three years and in 1889 he became Dux of the School, which earned him the nickname 'Quacks'.  Again on a second attempt, he won a junior scholarship to The University of New Zealand, which he took at Canterbury College in Christchurch.

During his years at Canterbury, he completed a Bachelor of Arts, a Master of Arts with double first class honours in Mathematics and Physical Sciences and a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Geology. He also started his own research into the high frequency magnetisation of iron. Rutherford continued to work on this invention after he was accepted to Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory in 1895.  In 1896 he began to work on the conduction of electricity in gases and utilised the newly discovered radioactivity to aid this research. He named the two distinct rays emitted from radioactive material, alpha and beta particles.

Making Discoveries

In 1898 Ernest accepted a chair in Physics at McGill University in Montreal Canada. There he demonstrated the principle that went on to become the basis of the modern smoke detector. He discovered a radioactive gas, later to be called radon. He explained radioactivity as the spontaneous disintegration of atoms for which he was awarded the 1908 Nobel Prize for Chemistry.

At the turn of the century Rutherford travelled back to New Zealand to marry Mary Georgina Newton, the daughter of his landlady in Christchurch. They went on to have one daughter, Eileen.

In 1907 it was back across the Atlantic to Manchester University from where in 1911, he determined the nuclear structure of atoms. In 1917 he split the atom, the work for which he is best known the world over.

During his lifetime he earned the titles Baron, Sir and Lord and undertook some of the most ground-breaking experiments of his generation. His was on an amazing journey of scientific discovery.

Later Years

While Rutherford's career flourished he faced sadness with the death of his only daughter Eileen aged just 29. She died nine days after the birth of her fourth child in 1930, just two days before Christmas - a tragedy that overshadowed celebrations of his elevation to the House of Lords announced at New Year.

Rutherford died in 1937, aged 66 from complications arising from a strangulated hernia and his ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey among the great British scientists. He was remembered not only as one of the best scientists of his generation but also by those who knew him as a big blustering noisy man, kind and much loved.

Lady Rutherford returned to New Zealand and lived in Christchurch until her death in 1954. Rutherford's legacy continues with many buildings named in his honour around the world, his face has appeared on stamps in Sweden, Russia, Canada and New Zealand and of course he graces our one hundred dollar note, a fitting memorial for a man who did so much to put science and New Zealand on the global map.

Rutherford's Birthplace

The birthplace of Tasman's most famous son is now fittingly marked but this wasn't always the case. The house Ernest was born in, which stood on the present site, was demolished around 1921.  It wasn't until 1953 that an international fundraising effort was mounted to honour Rutherford's memory.  The New Zealand appeal was opened with the erection of a rather modest concrete slab with a bronze plaque on the side of the road near his birthplace.

That was how things stayed until 1971, the centenary of Rutherford's birth when Professor Peter Fowler FRS, Rutherford's eldest grandson reported on the poor state of the site at a family gathering.  The relatives undertook to raise the funds to help the Waimea County Council (now Tasman District Council) purchase the site in order to preserve it.  However, after it was purchased there were no funds to build any kind of memorial so it was left alone for many years.

In the late 1980s The Rutherford Birthplace Project was started by Dr John Campbell of Canterbury University, Ross Moore, the Executive Officer of the Royal Society of New Zealand and Ken Shirley who was the local MP at the time.  They offered to raise the money and do the work to build what they thought was a fitting memorial to New Zealand's most famous son.  dSissons and Conway of Nelson did the landscape design and Baric Design, also from Nelson, made the display panels from information supplied by Dr Campbell who had made a comprehensive study of Rutherford's life and work.

After an investment of $500,000 the site was ready for its grand opening on 6 December 1991. 

It is now a tranquil haven where the story of Rutherford's life and work is told through a series of display panels and sound stations, all in a beautiful garden setting.  At the top of the raised area of the site there is a small bronze statue of a child stepping out into the future.


1871       Born in Brightwater on August 30th

1877       The family moves to Foxhill where Ernest attends Foxhill School until 1883

1883       The family moves to Havelock in the Marlborough Sounds and Ernest continues his education at Havelock School until 1886

1887       Ernest wins a scholarship to Nelson College where he stays until 1889

1890-94 Attends Canterbury College on a University of New Zealand Junior Scholarship

1892       Completes his Bachelor of Arts

1893       Completes his Master of Arts with double first class honours in Mathematics, Mathematical Physics and Physical Science

1894       Completed his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Geology

1895       Awarded an Exhibition of 1851 Scholarship to go anywhere in the world to carry out research of importance to New Zealand's industries.

1895-98 Ernest uses the scholarship to go to Cavendish Laboratory Cambridge University

1896       Sets a world record for the longest distance over which wireless waves were detected. He is also invited to work with JJ Thompson on electrical conduction in gases.  This research leads to the discovery of the electron, the first object lighter than the atom

1898       Rutherford discovers rays from radioactive materials are of two main types, which he names alpha and beta.

1898-1907 McDonald Chair of Physics at McGill University, Montreal, Canada

1899       Demonstrates the principle which is the basis of the modern smoke detector. In the same year he discovers a radioactive gas, later named radon.

1901       Receives a DSc from the University of New Zealand, now Doctor Rutherford

1902       Announces formally that radioactivity is a manifestation of sub-atomic charge.

1903       Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of London

1904       Awarded the Rumford Medal, his first major science prize

1907-19 Moves back to England and works at Manchester University

1908       Is awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and invents the Rutherford-Geiger detector of single ionising particles

1911       Announces the nuclear model for the atom

1914       Knighted. Now Sir Ernest Rutherford

1915-1917 Undertakes pioneer work on acoustic methods of detecting submarines to help in the First World War effort

1917       Rutherford splits the atom by changing nitrogen into oxygen becoming the world's first successful alchemist

1919-37 Returns to Cambridge University as the director of the Cavendish University

1919       Elected an inaugural Fellow of the New Zealand Institute, now the Royal Society of New Zealand

1920       Predicts the existence of the Neutron

1925-30 President of the Royal Society of London

1925       Receives the Order of Merit

1929-37 Chairman of the Advisory Council of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research

1931       Raised to the peerage at New Year, and becomes Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson

1931- 33 President of the Institute of Physics

1933-37 President of the Academic Assistance Council

1937       Ernest, Lord Rutherford of Nelson dies aged 66 on 19 October.  His ashes were interred at Westminster Abbey.