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James Rankin gained an associateship in civil engineering in 1915 at the Royal Technical College, Glasgow. After a few years of experience in industry, he was appointed Lecturer in Natural Philosophy at the Royal Technical College in 1919. In 1942, he was appointed to the Freeland Chair of Natural Philosophy, which post he held until his death in 1960.
Rankin was also a governor of the West of Scotland Agricultural College, a member of the Vice-Chancellors' Committee on Hungarian Students and chairman of the Scottish branch of the Institute of Physics and the Physical Society.