Bohr used to introduce his attempts to explain clearly the principles of the quantum theory of the atom with an historical sketch, beginning invariably with the nuclear model proposed by Rutherford. That was sound pedagogy but bad history. The Rutherford–Bohr atom stands in the middle of a line of work initiated by J.J. Thomson and concluded by the invention of quantum mechanics. Thompson’s program derived its inspiration from the peculiar emphasis on models characteristic of British physics of the 19th century. Rutherford’s atom was a late product of the goals and conceptions of Victorian science. Bohr’s modifications, although ultimately fatal to Thomson’s program, initially gave further impetus to it. In the early 1920s the most promising approach to an adequate theory of the atom appeared to be the literal and detailed elaboration of the classical mechanics of multiply periodic orbits. The approach succeeded, demonstrating in an unexpected way the force of an argument often advanced by Thomson: because a mechanical model is richer in implications than the considerations for which it was advanced, it can suggest new directions of research that may lead to important discoveries.

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