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Sir James Alfred Ewing KCB lived from 27 March 1855 to 7 January 1935. He was an eminent physicist, engineer and academic who is remembered primarily for his work on the magnetic properties of metals. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Ewing was born in Dundee, the son of a church minister. He was educated at West End Academy and the High School of Dundee before progressing to the University of Edinburgh. While there he studied engineering under William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin and Peter Guthrie Tait. He spent his summer vacations working on telegraph cable laying expeditions, including one in Brazil. At the age of 23 in 1878 he moved to Japan where he became professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Tokyo. Here he helped establish the science of seismology. He also taught students about the magnetic properties of metals and was the first to use the word "hysteresis", a property of magnetised materials that in a later era would allow the development of stable computer memory.
In 1883 Ewing returned to teach at University College Dundee. While there he also worked to improve the sewerage system and public health in the city. In 1890, Ewing was appointed professor of applied mechanics at King's College, Cambridge, where he developed his earlier work on the magnetic properties of metals. At the same time he helped Sir Charles Algernon Parsons develop a successful steam turbine engine, and investigated the crystalline structure of metals.
In 1903, James Alfred Ewing became director of naval education at the Admiralty. He was knighted in 1911. During the First World War Ewing held a senor post in admiralty intelligence, becoming known as "The Cipher King" and "The U-boat Trapper". In 1916, he became Vice-Chancellor of Edinburgh University, a post he would retain until he retired in 1929.
Sir James Alfred Ewing died in 1935. He had been a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh since 1878 (and its President from 1924 to 1929); a Fellow of the Royal Society since 1887; and President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1932. After his death, in 1938, The Institution of Civil Engineers introduced an award in his memory: the James Alfred Ewing Medal for engineering research.