The birth of crystallography

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William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg were a father and son teamTheir research at Leeds led to the development of x-ray crystallography

X-ray crystallography has been recognised as the third most important British innovation of the 20th century in the Great British Innovation Vote

"Why water boils at 100º and methane at -161º, why blood is red and grass is green, why diamond is hard and wax is soft, why glaciers flow and iron gets hard when you hammer it, how muscles contract, how sunlight makes plants grow and how living organisms have been able to evolve into ever more complex forms … the answers to all these problems have come from structural analysis."

Max Perutz, July 1996, copy in Perutz papers, Churchill College, Cambridge

William Henry and William Lawrence Bragg were a father and son team who, in 1912-1913 developed the technique of X-ray crystallography during research carried out at the University of Leeds.

The X-ray crystallography technique they developed has been enormously significant, both in academic research and more widely in industry. Although scientists before the Braggs had known that molecules were made up of atoms, they previously had no way of knowing how, exactly, those atoms were arranged in space.

Beginning in 1912, and working in part in the Leeds physics laboratory, the Braggs showed that X-rays - still relatively new to science - held the key. Through a combination of careful experimentation and ingenious mathematics, the Braggs found that they could infer the ordered structure of atoms from the patterns made by X-rays.

The Braggs' research has significance not only within the confines of crystallography, but more broadly across science, engineering and societal boundaries. Since so many materials can form crystals, including salts, metals and minerals, it is one of the most widely used analytical techniques in science and engineering and has been fundamental to the development of various scientific fields within industry, including microelectronics, pharmaceuticals, aerospace and power generation