William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) Physicist and Engineer

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) Physicist and Engineer
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin.
From Thompson's 'The life of
William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of
Largs', 1910, Sc 530.92 Kel

William Thomson was born in Ireland in 1824, and brought up in Scotland. He attended both Glasgow and Cambridge University before accepting the Chair in Natural Philosophy at Glasgow in 1846, a position which he held for 53 years. He was knighted Lord Kelvin in 1866 for his work on the transatlantic cable. Kelvin was one of the few academics of the time to become rich from his endeavours.  Profitable collaborations with the Atlantic cable companies using his inventions afforded him his own private yacht equipped with a scientific laboratory.

Thomson was a physicist and engineer who embodied the ‘classical approach’ to physical sciences. His work spanned many areas of the discipline including thermodynamics, electrical theory and practice, navigation and the design and manufacture of precision instruments.

Submarine Telegraph Cable

The university holds a number of objects which relate to Kelvin’s early involvement with the transatlantic cables, such as a ‘scalmp’ optical galvanometer, the Kelvin bridge (which he used to demonstrate that early copper cables contained too many impurities for conduction), and a piece of submarine telegraph cable from the 1860-1890 made from copper wire.

In addition, there are several pieces of scientific equipment in the collection relating to Kelvin's investigations into electricity and magnetism. Many of his instruments were made by leading instrument manufacturers but he later went on to set up his own factory with the optical, mathematical and philosophical instrument maker James White, manufacturing instruments to a very high standard. Thomson gave his name to the Kelvin scale which measures temperature to absolute zero.
Kelvin's work on calculating the age of the earth based on the rate of the earth’s cooling led him to suggest the earth was 400 million years old. However, he did not account for the effects of radio-active heating from within the earth, as this had yet to be discovered. Kelvin’s estimates of the age of the earth were not old enough to be compatible with Darwin's theory of evolution. This set him at odds with his contemporaries at Aberdeen such as Sir John Struthers and Henry Alleyne Nicholson.

Letter referring to preparation of
lectures and improvements in apparatus
provision expected in the new college.
MS 3153/18.

Special Collections Centre holds a section of letters written by Kelvin, discussing time spent with academic collaborators such as the mathematician D. F. Gregory, as well as comments on university life in which he expresses his opinions on funding, staffing and equipment provision.

For more information on the University museum and archival collections please search the online catalogue