Archives Biographies: Silvanus P. Thompson, F.R.S.

Biographical information on Silvanus P. Thompson, F.R.S., a recognised authority on electricity, magnetism and acoustics, and a member of the first Science Abstracts committee.

Silvanus P. Thompson


Silvanus Phillips Thompson, F.R.S., was born in York on 19th June 1851, the second of eight children of a Quaker schoolteacher who taught at Bootham School in York which Thompson later attended as a pupil. From 1870-75, he taught at the school where his father was senior master. He went to Flounders Institute - a training school for teachers, where he took the London B.Sc. degree in 1869.

He was a recognised authority upon electricity, magnetism and acoustics and his writings are numerous including Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism published in 1881 which ran through some 40 editions and reprints.

In 1884, he published his epoch-making work Dynamo-electric Machinery: a Manual for Students of Electrotechnics- practically every designer of electrical machines gleaned his first information on the subject from this work. Polyphase Electric Currents and Motors was published in 1896 and his lectures to the Royal Institution on Light, visible and invisible in the same year were published in book form, giving pleasure and instruction to a very wide circle of readers.

In 1898, the year he served as a member of the Editorial Committee for the first issue of Science Abstracts, he presented a valuable paper to the Institution on  Rotary Converters. No small part of our present knowledge of the subject was first given in this paper. 1898 also saw the publication of his biography of Michael Faraday

In the 1900s, he was commissioned to write the official biography of Lord Kelvin who was able to help him in the early stages of the work but died before it was completed. The Life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs was published in 1910.

Thompson held many important positions in the world of science and received many British and International honours.

After leaving Bootham School in 1875, he was appointed to the Chair of Physics at the University College, Bristol in 1876, a post he held for nine years and where he did much valuable work.

In 1882, he was elected a Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians.

1885 saw Thompson elected Principal and Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering in the City and Guilds of London Technical College, a post which he held till his death.

He was elected a Member of the Royal Institution in 1886.

In 1891, he was one of the honorary Vice-Presidents of the Electrical Exhibition at Frankfurt and in the same year, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The University of Konigsberg conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine and surgery upon him in 1894, and in 1899 he was elected President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers .

1900 saw him elected a member of the Senate of London University.

In 1911, he was an honorary Vice-President on the Electrotechnical Congress at Turin and was elected President of the Optical Conference in 1912.

He died in London on 12th June 1916.