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The history of the Kelvin Lectures

100th Anniversary

March 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the IET Kelvin Lecture. William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs (1824-1907), former President and Honorary Member of the IEE, was a British mathematical physicist and engineer. The Kelvin Lectures were founded in honour of Kelvin a year after his death in 1908 and have been hosted by the Institution ever since.

Thompson’s Contribution to Scientific Understanding

During his lifetime Thomson made an enormous contribution to the study and understanding of thermodynamics, electrodynamics, hydrodynamics and geophysics. His many achievements include founding a laboratory at Glasgow and being one of the first to teach physics in a lab.

He also estimated the age of the earth from solidification, introduced an absolute scale of temperature and constructed a large number of instruments including a siphon recorder and mirror galvanometer for telegraphy, a tide predictor, and improved the mariners’ compass.

Using his tide predictor constructed in 1872, Thomson was able to theorize the revolution of the earth’s poles and the cause of ocean tides which was only confirmed by computers in the 1950s.

In 1892 Thomson was made a peer and chose the name Lord Kelvin after a river that ran next to the University of Glasgow. He was Past President of the IEE three times (1874, 1889, 1907) as well has a member of over 80 institutions and scientific societies.

Thomson died on 17 December 1907 at the home that he built, Netherhall, in Ayrshire, Scotland, which true to his fondness for innovation was one of the first to be installed with electric lights in the area.

The Kelvin Lectures

The Kelvin Lecture was instigated at a meeting of the Council of the IEE on 20 February 1908, with the first Kelvin Lecture was given by past President Silvanus P Thompson on 30 April the same year, on The Life and Work of Lord Kelvin.

The lectures that immediately followed this focused almost exclusively on aspects of Kelvin’s work, though from the 1920s onwards the subjects of the lectures became more wide-ranging, perhaps reflecting the broad scope of Kelvin’s influence. 

More recent lectures have included Organic Superconductivity by Professor D Jerome in 1984, and C60 Buckminsterfullerene: not just a pretty particle, by Professor Sir Harry Kroto in 1998.

The 77th Kelvin Lecture, Reinventing information: the struggle for an artificial intelligence, delivered by Professor Igor Aleksander of Imperial College London in 1986, sought to illustrate the ways in which various features of human intelligence have been captured in information systems, hoping to shed light on what the term ‘intelligence’ means. It was also presented jointly to the IEE US West Coast Branch/IEEE local group in Los Angeles and Cupertino in California in the same year. Considered to be a resounding success, it was the best attended lecture of that year.

The 86th lecture, held in 1995, entitled The Elephant’s Trunk and the Tattooed Lady: Engineering Problems and Opportunities in Biology, was delivered by Professor M W J Ferguson of the University of Manchester. It drew on several examples, such as cleft lips and the fact that embryonic wounds heal without scarring, to illustrate the interaction between biological sciences and engineering and to challenge engineers to develop systems to address pressing biological problems such as facial defects. 

The IEE congratulated Professor Ferguson on the lecture being one of the most fascinating and well presented that they had seen at the Institution.

The Lectures – not for the ladies?

In the past the lectures were naturally the preserve of men – ladies had to be specially invited in order to be able to attend. For example, in 1962, for the fifty-third lecture by Professor B Bleaney on Radiospectroscopy, women were welcomed with a note addressed to their husbands: ‘Will you kindly note that the presence of ladies will be welcomed at the Council Dinner… The presence of ladies will also be welcomed at the Meeting if they would care to come.’

The Centenary Lecture

The 100th Kelvin Lecture was delivered by Prof. Sir John Pendry of Imperial College London, on Creating the invisibility cloak: New horizons in electromagnetism, exploring the future uses of electromagnetism and the possibility of creating a real-life invisibility cloak.