Natural Philosophy had been taught within the University from the start and the Chair of Natural Philosophy formed part of the Faculty of Arts when it was established as a distinct entity in 1708. The first Professor, Robert Stewart (1675–1758) had been a Regent since 1703. He had among his students for 1724, David Hume (1711-1776). He was succeeded by his son, John Stewart (1712-1759). In 1759, he was succeeded by Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), based on his talents rather than specific expertise. His lectures proved both popular and attractive. Ferguson moved to the Chair of Moral Philosophy in 1764 and was succeeded by James Russell (c1720–1773).
The appointment of John Robison (1739-1805) in 1774 was driven particularly by William Cullen (1710-1790), Joseph Black (1728-1799) and Principal William Robertson (1721-1793). Robison brought in lectures on a variety of topics such as mechanics, astronomy, optics and magnetism. His successor, John Playfair (1748-1819), had previously held the Chair of Mathematics as had Playfair's successor, Sir John Leslie (1766-1832). During this time it was recognised that students mathematical knowledge was frequently below what was required to comprehend lectures, though this was not a problem unique to Edinburgh.
In 1833, James David Forbes (1809-1868) was chosen to succeed Leslie, in competition with David Brewster (1781-1868), undertaking pioneering work on glaciers. He left to become Principal of the University of St. Andrews in 1859 and candidates to succeed him included Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901) and James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879). Tait was appointed and introduced practical teaching for students who were interested, procuring additional space for the purpose within the [[Old College] in 1868. When Anatomy moved to the new Medical School in 1884, further attic and cellar space became available.
In 1893, the Chair of Natural Philosophy moved into the new Faculty of Science but the department remained within the Faculty of Arts until the 1960s. In 1901, Tait was succeeded by James Gordon MacGregor (1852-1913) on whose watch the department moved out of Old College into new teaching and laboratory accommodation at High School Yards (completed 1906). MacGregor was succeeded, in 1913, by Charles Glover Barkla (1877-1944), whose work on x-rays was to gain him the Nobel Prize in 1917. He introduced an Honours School within the department.
Following the appointment of Norman Feather (1904-1978), major changes in the curriculum were undertaken. The undergraduate course was overhauled and joint honours with other departments such as Astronomy, Chemistry and Electrical Engineering offered. In 1949, Niels Bohr (1885-1962) was in Edinburgh to give the Gifford Lectures. Following that the department hosted an informal three-day conference on 'Elementary Particles', with over a hundred of the most eminent physicists in Europe attending.
In 1966, the department finally transferred to the Faculty of Arts and, in 1969, the department was formally retitled 'Physics'. In 1966 the Fluid Dynamics Unit was created under the directorship of Marion Amelia Spence Ross (1903-1994).
A second Chair was established in 1924, in memory of Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901). It was later retitled the Chair of Mathematical Physics. Its origins were in a lectureship in Applied Mathematics which was established in 1892 and held by Cargill Gilston Knott (1856-1922) and Robin Schlapp (1899-1991). By 1911, the idea of a 'Tait' Chair had emerged and money was raised towards it. The First World War delayed the implementation until 1923 and the appointment of Sir Charles Galton Darwin (1887-1962) who was in post the following year. Shortly afterwards, the idea of a dedicated Institute emerged as a place where "members spend their whole working day under one roof, deriving essential stimulus from constant close contact with each other" and the Tait Institute was born.
Mergers and Moves
In 1971, the departments of Physics and Mathematical Physics were combined. The departments left the central campus for the new James Clerk Maxwell building at King's Buildings, beginning in 1969 and completed in 1975. In 1993, the Departments of Physics and Astronomy were combined.
Chair of Natural Philosophy
Sir Robert Stewart (1675–1758), 1708-1742
John Stewart (d1759), 1742-1759, son of previous
Both were Baronets of Coltness (4th and 5th respectively) but neither assumed the title.
Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), 1759-1764
James Russell (c1720–1773), 1764-1773
John Robison (1739-1805), 1774-1805
John Playfair (1748-1819), 1805-1819
Sir John Leslie (1766-1832), 1819-1832
James David Forbes (1809-1868), 1833-1859
Peter Guthrie Tait (1831-1901), 1860-1901
James Gordon MacGregor (1852-1913), 1901-1913
Charles Glover Barkla (1877-1944), 1913-1944
Norman Feather (1904-1978), 1945-1975
William Cochran (1922-2003), 1975-
Tait Chair of Natural Philosophy
Charles Galton Darwin (1887-1962), 1924-1936
Max Born (1882-1970), 1936-1952
Chair retitled: Tait Chair of Mathematical Physics
Nicholas Kemmer (1911-1998), 1953-1979
Sir David James Wallace (1945-), 1979-1993
Richard Kenway, 1994-
William Cochran (1922-2003), 1964-1975 (Physics)
Peter S. Farago (1918-2005), 1967-1982 (Physics)
Roger Arthur Cowley (1939-2015), 1970-1988 (Physics)
Peter Ware Higgs (1929- ), 1980-1996 (Theoretical Physics)
G. Stuart Pawley, 1985- (Computational Physics)
Alan C. Shotter, 1989- (Experimental Physics)
Peter N. Pusey, 1990 (Physics)
Richard J. Nelmes, 1992- (Physical Crystallography)
Clive A. Greated, 1993- (Fluid Dynamics)
Arjun Berera (Theoretical Physics)
Arthur Stewart Trew (Computational Science)
- Birse, Ronald M., Science at the University of Edinburgh 1583-1993 (University of Edinburgh, 1994)