The Cavendish Laboratory was initially located on the New Museums Site, Free School Lane, in the centre of Cambridge. After perennial space problems, it moved to its present site in West Cambridge in the early 1970s. The oak door of the new Cavendish Laboratory is known for its inscription from the Book of Psalms in the Bible: "The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein."
The department is named to commemorate British chemist and physicist Henry Cavendish for contributions to science and his relative William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, who served as chancellor of the university and donated money for the construction of the laboratory. Professor James Clerk Maxwell, the developer of electromagnetic theory, was a founder of the lab and became the first Cavendish Professor of Physics.
The Duke of Devonshire had given to Maxwell, as head of the laboratory, the manuscripts of Henry Cavendish's unpublished Electrical Works. The editing and publishing of these was Maxwell's main scientific work while he was at the laboratory. Cavendish's work aroused Maxwell's intense admiration and he decided to call the Laboratory (formerly known as the Devonshire Laboratory) the Cavendish Laboratory and thus to commemorate both the Duke and Henry Cavendish.
Physical Chemistry (originally the department of Colloid Science led by Eric Rideal) had left the old Cavendish site, subsequently locating as the Department of Physical Chemistry (under RG Norrish) in the then new chemistry building with the Department of Chemistry (led by Lord Todd) in Lensfield Road: both chemistry departments merged in the 1980s.
In World War II the laboratory carried out research for the MAUD Committee, part of the British Tube Alloys project of research into the atomic bomb. Researchers included Nicholas Kemmer, Alan Nunn May, Anthony French, Samuel Curran and the French scientists including Lew Kowarski and Hans von Halban. Several transferred to Canada in 1943; the Montreal Laboratory and some later to the Chalk River Laboratories.
The production of plutonium and neptunium by bombarding uranium-238 with neutrons was predicted in 1940 by two teams working independently: Egon Bretscher and Norman Feather at the Cavendish and Edwin M. McMillan and Philip Abelson at Berkeley Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.
The Cavendish Laboratory has had an important influence on biology, mainly through the application of X-ray crystallography to the study of structures of biological molecules. Francis Crick already worked in the Medical Research Council Unit, headed by Max Perutz and housed in the Cavendish Laboratory, when James Watson came from the United States and they made a breakthrough in discovering the structure of DNA. For their work while in the Cavendish Laboratory, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962, together with Maurice Wilkins of King's College London, himself a graduate of St. John's College, Cambridge.