Lord Rayleigh was a British physicist born near Maldon, Essex, on November 12, 1842. In 1861 he entered Trinity College at Cambridge, where he commenced reading mathematics. His exceptional abilities soon enabled him to overtake his colleagues. He graduated in the Mathematical Tripos in 1865 as Senior Wrangler and Smith's Prizeman. In 1866 he obtained a fellowship at Trinity which he held until 1871, the year of his marriage. He served for six years as the president of the government committee on explosives, and from 1896 to 1919 he acted as Scientific Adviser to Trinity House. He was Lord Lieutenant of Essex from 1892 to 1901.
Lord Rayleigh's first research was mainly mathematical, concerning optics and vibrating systems, but his later work ranged over almost the whole field of physics, covering sound, wave theory, color vision, electrodynamics, electromagnetism, light scattering, flow of liquids, hydrodynamics, density of gases, viscosity, capillarity, elasticity, and photography. Rayleigh's later work was concentrated on electric and magnetic problems. Rayleigh was considered to be an excellent instructor. His Theory of Sound was published in two volumes during 1877-1878, and his other extensive studies are reported in his Scientific Papers, six volumes issued during 1889-1920. Rayleigh was also a contributer to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He published 446 papers which, reprinted in his collected works, clearly show his capacity for understanding everything just a little more deeply than anyone else. He intervened in debates of the House of Lords only on rare occasions, never allowing politics to interfere with science. Lord Rayleigh, a Chancellor of Cambridge University, was a Justice of the Peace and the recipient of honorary science and law degrees. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society (1873) and served as Secretary from 1885 to 1896, and as President from 1905 to 1908. He received the Nobel Prize in 1904. Lord Rayleigh died on June 30, 1919, at Witham, Essex.
In 1871 he married Evelyn, sister of the future prime minister, the Earl of Balfour (of the famous Balfour declaration of the Jewish state). They had three sons, the eldest of whom was to become a professor of physics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.
As a successor to James Clerk Maxwell, he was head of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge from 1879-1884, and in 1887 became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institute of Great Britain. Rayleigh died on June 30, 1919 at Witham, Essex.