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Lord Kelvin 1824-1907

Early life and education 

Professor William Thomson, later Baron Kelvin of Largs, was born in Belfast, Ireland, 26 June 1824 and died in Largs, Scotland 17 December 1907. His life and career was one of academic excellence, innovation and pioneering achievements. This short biography cannot do justice to Thomson’s many accomplishments but can help to highlight and celebrate a life that was an inspiration to many.

Thomson’s introduction to this world came at an early age. His father, James Thomson, was Professor of Mathematics at the Academical Institution, Belfast and then in 1832 was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow.  He welcomed his sons to lectures and Thomson, being an extraordinary child, matriculated from the University of Glasgow at age 10. His academic prowess did not stop there.  

In 1841, aged seventeen, Thomson was admitted to St Peter's College, Cambridge.  His undergraduate achievements were not solely academic: he also founded the Peterhouse Musical Society and won the Colquhoun silver sculls for rowing. By 1846, at the tender age of 22, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow- a position he held for the next 53 years in spite of many invitations to move elsewhere.

Outstanding achievements

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 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.

Experiments in Telegraphy

Thomson’s work on the Atlantic Cable and the success of the venture was regarded as one of the greatest events in its century.  Following the failure of the first Atlantic Cable of 1858 (it worked for just under a month) Thomson took the place of Dr Whitehouse as the designer of the cable. Thomson had previously expressed his reservations about the design and exposed the faults through his theoretical work.  

Thomson showed that electricity could travel through cables under water and his theories were vindicated in 1864 when a cable was successfully laid linking India with Europe via the Persian Gulf. A combination of Thomson’s cables, his sensitive receiving apparatus and his ‘arrival curve’ used to explain signal distortion plotting current against time earned him a knighthood in 1866.

Later life and his legacy

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, and true to his fondness for innovation was one of the first to be installed with electric lights in the area.

Sir Richard Glazebrook, at the Centenary of Thomson’s birth in 1924, proposed a toast, reminding the audience of the debt we owe to William Thomson.

“Try to think of it without the C.G.S. system of units, without our knowledge of the importance and value of the second law of thermodynamics, without any real information as to what goes on when an alternating electric current circles round a wire-producing as we know, all the phenomena of wireless telegraphy- without the Atlantic cable, the mirror galvanometer, without the compass or the deep-sea sounding gear. All those we owe to Lord Kelvin.”

The Kelvin Lecture

In February 1908, shortly after Kelvin's death, the IEE Memorial Committee recommended 'the establishment of Kelvin Lectureship' to be delivered annually. The Kelvin Lecture was founded in 1908 as a memorial to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. The first Kelvin Lecture was given by IEE Past President Silvanus P Thompson on 30 April 1908, on The Life and Work of Lord Kelvin. 

Subsequent Kelvin Lectures have included some of the most distinguished British scientists. Electricity and Matter was discussed by Sir Ernest Rutherford in 1922; Electric Forces and Quanta by Professor J H Jeans in 1925; The Mechanics of the Electric Field by Sir J J Thomson in 1926 and The Architecture of the Solid State by Professor W L Bragg in 1931. 

In 2009 Professor Sir John Pendry had the honour of giving the 100th Kelvin Lecture at Savoy Place and the Kelvin Gallery of the University of Glasgow on Creating the Invisibility Cloak: New Horizons in Electromagnetism