From the vaults

9 December 2013
Lord Kelvin

William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin: one of the founding fathers of engineering.

We need to talk about Kelvin, urgently, says Ralph Adam.

“Since the discovery of Columbus, nothing has been done in any degree comparable to the vast enlargement which has thus been given the sphere of human activity.” That was the excited verdict of the Times on the newly-laid Atlantic cable in 1858. The paper went on to suggest that the cable’s world impact could be equal to that of the Atlantic drying up or the ‘undoing’ of the US’s independence declaration; such speedy communication might even end the possibility of wars!
Unfortunately the cable snapped and sank, destroying the reputation of its designer. The project was rescued by William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), professor of natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He reported that the original conducting core had been too small, while high voltage induction coils had destroyed the cable’s insulation. As a result, a Parliamentary committee put him aboard Brunel’s Great Eastern, the world’s largest ship, to supervise the cable-laying. In 1866, a new, more buoyant cable was laid using a bigger conducting core, low voltages and Thomson’s own invention, the mirror galvanometer, as a detector. It was a major contribution to the world-shrinking ‘Victorian Internet’: a telegraph-based communication system using a similar structure to email. As a result, Thomson received a knighthood.
Thomson had a fascinating life with such a broad range of abilities, leading to extraordinary achievements, that he has been compared to Da Vinci. Among much else he pioneered electric lighting, invented the compass for iron ships, refined the accuracy of electrical measurement units (chairing the committee that named the amp, farad, ohm and volt) and was the first to apply mathematics to the calculation of the ages of the Earth and Sun.
Thomson was born in Belfast in 1824. At age ten he became the University of Glasgow’s youngest student; at 16 he produced the first of 660 academic papers (and 75 patents). The following year, he was admitted to St Peter’s College, Cambridge, where he founded the Peterhouse Musical Society and distinguished himself in rowing. By 22 he had become professor of natural philosophy in Glasgow, a position he held for 53 years before being elected chancellor.
Early on he founded a laboratory and was one of the first to teach physics in a lab. He was thrice president of the IEE (now the IET), of which he was a founder member, and was also president of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh. Thomson subsequently became the first scientist to be elevated to the peerage when he was created Baron Kelvin of Largs. He is buried in Westminster Abbey. The IET’s Kelvin Lectures were founded in 1908 as a memorial.


Thomson made an enormous contribution to the study of thermodynamics (according to the Oxford Dictionary he thought up the word). He discovered what is known as the Thomson effect: that if a temperature difference exists between any two points of a current-carrying conductor, heat is either evolved or absorbed depending upon the material. It is also to Kelvin that we owe the concept of energy and the absolute temperature scale. He constructed a large number of instruments including a siphon recorder, a tide predictor and a greatly improved mariners’ compass.
Using his tide predictor, Thomson was able to calculate the revolution of the Earth’s poles and the causes of ocean tides, allowing the El Niño climate phenomenon to be investigated. With his interest in entropy and information, Kelvin anticipated the creation of the profession of information science by almost a century.
Kelvin’s biographer says his impact “will live as long as intelligent man survives on Earth”. Despite his many achievements, he is under-rated and is relatively little-known today: the Wikipedia article on Electrical Engineering mentions him only once in a footnote.

Founding father

IET Fellow Professor Michael Collins, of Brunel University, is a specialist on Kelvin and is editing a book which should go some way to reaffirming his reputation. Collins sees Kelvin as a true genius: one who was at home with fundamental mathematics, yet excelled at physics-based inventiveness and proved a highly-successful entrepreneurial engineer. He has carried out a content analysis of recent books and papers showing that many ideas (such as dissipative structures) are widely discussed, yet Kelvin is rarely given credit for them.
Collins considers the Second Law of Thermodynamics to underpin our whole energy-based civilisation. He feels, however, that the implications of the Victorian conflict between energy specialists and biologists (Kelvin or Darwin and Huxley, representing thermodynamics and biology respectively and with opposing world views) is all but ignored nowadays. The two sides are not treated on equal terms, perhaps because this involves addressing an extremely wide range of material; the two schools need to be seen not just as reconciled, but as scientific partners.
Kelvin is a founding father, not just of engineering, but via his principle of the universal dissipation of energy, of thermodynamics within biology too. It is imperative for the future of science that his importance is recognised – as it was in the Victorian era.

Kelvin in the Archives

The IET’s archives contain a wealth of material related to Kelvin including many letters written by Kelvin to Sir William Preece within the IET’s Preece collection (SC MSS 022) and letters from Kelvin to Oliver Heaviside, concerning Heaviside’s papers, and his own work (SC MSS 005). There are also many other letters and comments from Kelvin spread throughout other collections in the archives. For example, in a file relating to a draft paper by Patrick Hamilton on ‘Wattmeters for power measurement in alternating current circuits’ dating to 1902, there is a page of pencil workings and suggestions by Lord Kelvin and a series of comments by Kelvin on Patrick Hamilton’s calculations. A great deal of ancillary material relating to Kelvin is also present ranging from an album of press cuttings from 1907 entitled ‘Kelvin: obituaries and miscellaneous notes’, to material within the Heaviside collection, and Heaviside’s notebooks, referring to Heaviside’s disputes with both Sir William Preece and Lord Kelvin.

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