Lamb, Sir Horace

(1849-1934), mathematician

by Sydney Chapman, rev. Julia Tompson

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Lamb, Sir Horace (1849-1934), mathematician, was born on 27 November 1849 at Stockport, Cheshire, the son of John Lamb and Elizabeth Rangley. His father, a cotton-mill foreman (said to have invented an improvement of the spinning machine), died while he was a child, and his mother married again. He was brought up by her sister, Mrs Holland, a kind but severely puritan lady. He was educated at Stockport grammar school, and then, for a year, at Owens College, Manchester, before entering Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was a scholar 1870-72, having matriculated in 1868.

Lamb was fortunate in his teachers. While at grammar school he came under the influence of the Revd Charles Hamilton, an admired headmaster who imparted to him an abiding interest in Greek and Latin poetry. At Owens College, where his main studies were in mathematics, he was taught by the iconoclastic Thomas Barker, and in Cambridge he attended the lectures of Maxwell and Stokes. He graduated in 1872 as second wrangler and second Smith's prizeman, and was made a fellow and lecturer of Trinity in the same year.

Lamb taught at Trinity College until 1875 when he married Elizabeth Mary (d. 1930), daughter of Simon Foot, a merchant from Blackrock, co. Dublin. She was a sister-in-law of his former headmaster, Charles Hamilton. They had four daughters and three sons, one of whom was Henry Taylor Lamb, a distinguished artist and portrait painter. The rule of celibacy was still in force in Cambridge colleges, and after their marriage they moved to Adelaide, Australia, where Lamb became professor of mathematics at the newly founded university. He held this post from 1876 to 1885, when he returned to Manchester to take up the chair of pure mathematics at Owens College, by then part of the newly incorporated Victoria University, which had been vacated by his former teacher Thomas Barker. He held this post until 1920.

Lamb was a talented and inspiring teacher, whose lectures to generations of mathematics, engineering, and physics students at Manchester were remembered for their lucidity and judgement. His most distinguished pupil was probably Arthur Eddington. Of his many books his most noted was Hydrodynamics (1895; 6th edn, 1932). This work, an extended version of an earlier Treatise on the Motion of Fluids (1879), was a seminal contribution to the field and is still in use; a model of clarity and acute scientific judgement, it has been held up as one of the finest texts in applied mathematics in the twentieth century.

In addition to hydrodynamics Lamb worked on acoustics, elasticity, and mechanics, and wrote a number of books and papers in these areas. He also wrote an introductory textbook, Infinitesimal Calculus (1897), especially noted for its combination of Lamb's usual clarity of expression with a high standard of mathematical rigour. His forte was the application of analysis to those physical phenomena in which wave transmission is a central feature, and he made significant and lasting contributions to the solution of many problems in this field. A triumphant example of the confidence of his approach to the many different areas of natural science that touched upon his interests is his 1904 paper 'On the propagation of tremors over the surface of an elastic solid' (PTRS, 203A, 1904, 1-42) which forms the basis of much modern work in theoretical seismology. His contemporaries admired his ability to keep up to date with new developments in a variety of sciences at the same time as he remained primarily a mathematician. Lord Rutherford is said to have identified Lamb as the closest approximation to an ideal university professor that he knew.

In 1884 Lamb was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, which awarded him a royal medal in 1902 and its highest accolade, the Copley medal, in 1923. Among his many other honours were a knighthood (1931) and the presidency of the British Association (1925), of the London Mathematical Society (1902-4)--he was awarded its De Morgan medal in 1911--and of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He received honorary doctorates from the universities of Glasgow, Oxford, Cambridge, Dublin, St Andrews, Manchester, and Sheffield.

On his retirement from Manchester, Lamb returned to Cambridge where Trinity College gave him an honorary fellowship and the university made him an honorary (Rayleigh) lecturer; he lectured there for fourteen years. He retained his high mathematical powers, which in most mathematicians wane with age, and continued to produce elegant and important papers. During the First World War he had given valuable help to the Admiralty and to aeronautical research, and he continued to serve the latter for a time (1921-7) as a member of the Aeronautical Research Committee. On many other councils and committees (as previously at Manchester during his long membership of the university senate) his wide knowledge and the wisdom of his outlook were highly esteemed.

Lamb travelled widely, especially in Italy and Switzerland, and was an early climber of the Matterhorn. He read much in French, German, and Italian, and had many artistic interests. His cultural hinterland is sometimes seen as the key to the 'artistry' of organization and exposition in his much emulated Hydrodynamics. A man of great personal dignity, conservative in temper, he was a good representative of the ideal of the secular scientist of broad culture that held sway in his day. He died at his home, 6 Selwyn Gardens, Cambridge, on 4 December 1934.


The Times (5 Dec 1934), 19
A. E. H. Love and R. T. Glazebrook, Obits. FRS, 1 (1932-5), 375-92
Venn, Alum. Cant.
R. Porter, ed., The Hutchinson dictionary of scientific biography, 2nd edn (1994)
A. Ben Menahem, 'A concise history of mainstream seismology', Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, 85 (1995), 1202-25
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1935)

JRL, lecture notes |  Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratories, Cambridge, Massachusetts, letters to Lord Rayleigh
CUL, corresp. with Lord Kelvin
CUL, letters to Sir George Stokes

H. Lamb, oils, before 1913, Manchester University
W. Stoneman, photograph, 1922, NPG
Lafayette, photograph, repro. in Love and Glazebrook, Obits. FRS
H. Lamb, pencil drawing, Trinity Cam.
Maull & Fox, photograph, RS
photograph, RS

Wealth at death  
£27,617 12s. 6d.: probate, 4 Feb 1935, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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