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William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

The Right Honourable
The Lord Kelvin
Born (1824-06-26)26 June 1824
Belfast, Ireland, UK
Died 17 December 1907(1907-12-17) (aged 83)
Largs, Scotland, UK
Residence Belfast, Glasgow, Cambridge, UK
Nationality British
Institutions University of Glasgow
Alma mater
Academic advisors William Hopkins
Notable students
Known for
Influenced Andrew Gray
Notable awards
It is believed the "PNP" in his signature stands for "Professor of Natural Philosophy." Note that Kelvin also wrote under the pseudonym "P. Q. R."

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin OM, GCVO, PC, PRS, PRSE (; 26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907), commonly known as Lord Kelvin, was a British mathematical physicist and engineer who was born in Belfast in 1824. At the University of Glasgow he did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and did much to unify the emerging discipline of physics in its modern form. He worked closely with mathematics professor Hugh Blackburn in his work. He also had a career as an electric telegraph engineer and inventor, which propelled him into the public eye and ensured his wealth, fame and honour. For his work on the transatlantic telegraph project he was knighted by Queen Victoria, becoming Sir William Thomson. He had extensive maritime interests and was most noted for his work on the mariner's compass, which had previously been limited in reliability.

Absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honour. While the existence of a lower limit to temperature (absolute zero) was known prior to his work, Lord Kelvin is widely known for determining its correct value as approximately −273.15 Celsius or -460 Fahrenheit.

On his ennoblement in 1892 in honour of his achievements in thermodynamics, and of his opposition to Irish Home Rule,[1][2][3] he adopted the title Baron Kelvin, of Largs in the County of Ayr and is therefore often described as Lord Kelvin. He was the first UK scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords. The title refers to the River Kelvin, which flows close by his laboratory at the University of Glasgow. His home was the imposing red sandstone mansion Netherhall, in Largs on the Firth of Clyde. Despite offers of elevated posts from several world renowned universities Lord Kelvin refused to leave Glasgow, remaining Professor of Natural Philosophy for over 50 years, until his eventual retirement from that post. The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow has a permanent exhibition on the work of Lord Kelvin including many of his original papers, instruments and other artefacts such as his smoking pipe.

Always active in industrial research and development, he was recruited around 1899 by

Academic offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Stair
Chancellor of the University of Glasgow
Succeeded by
The Earl of Rosebery
Peerage of the United Kingdom
New creation Baron Kelvin
  •  .
  • Heroes of the Telegraph at Project Gutenberg
  • "Horses on Mars", from Lord Kelvin
  • William Thomson: king of Victorian physics at Institute of Physics website
  • Measuring the Absolute: William Thomson and Temperature, Hasok Chang and Sang Wook Yi (PDF file)
  • Reprint of papers on electrostatics and magnetism (gallica)
  • The molecular tactics of a crystal (Internet Archive)
  • Quotations. This collection includes sources for many quotes.
  • Kelvin Building Opening – The Leys School, Cambridge (1893)
  • William Thomson

External links

  • Buchwald, J.Z. (1977). "William Thomson and the mathematization of Faraday's electrostatics". Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences 8: 101–136.  
  • Burchfield, J.D. (1990). Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. University of Chicago Press.  
  • Cardoso Dias, D.M. (1996). "William Thomson and the Heritage of Caloric".  
  • Chang, H. (2004). Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress. Oxford University Press.  
  • Gooding, D. (1980). "Faraday, Thomson, and the concept of the magnetic field". British Journal of the History of Science 13 (2): 91–120.  
  • Gossick, B.R. (1976). "Heaviside and Kelvin: a study in contrasts". Annals of Science 33 (3): 275–287.  
  • Gray, A. (1908). Lord Kelvin: An Account of His Scientific Life and Work. London: J. M. Dent & Co. 
  • Green, G. & Lloyd, J.T. (1970). Kelvin's instruments and the Kelvin Museum. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.  
  • Kargon, R.H. &  
  • King, A.G. (1925). Kelvin the Man. London: Hodder & Stoughton. 
  • King, E.T. (1909). Lord Kelvin's Early Home. London: Macmillan. 
  • Knudsen, O. (1972). "From Lord Kelvin's notebook: aether speculations". Centaurus 16: 41–53.  
  • Lekner, J. (2012). "Nurturing genius: the childhood and youth of Kelvin and Maxwell". New Zealand Science Review. 
  • Lindley, D. (2004). Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention and Tragedy. Joseph Henry Press.  
  • McCartney, M. & Whitaker, A. (eds) (2002). Physicists of Ireland: Passion and Precision. Institute of Physics Publishing.  
  • May, W.E. (1979). "Lord Kelvin and his compass". Journal of Navigation 32: 122–134.  
  • Munro, J. (1891). Heroes of the Telegraph. London: Religious Tract Society. 
  • Murray, D. (1924). Lord Kelvin as Professor in the Old College of Glasgow. Glasgow: Maclehose & Jackson. 
  • Russell, A. (1912). Lord Kelvin: His Life and Work. London: T.C. & E.C.Jack. Retrieved 25 March 2014. 
  • Sharlin, H.I. (1979). Lord Kelvin: The Dynamic Victorian. Pennsylvania State University Press.  
  • Smith, C. & Wise, M.N. (1989). Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin. Cambridge University Press.  
  • Thompson, S.P. (1910). Life of William Thomson: Baron Kelvin of Largs. London: Macmillan.  In two volumes Volume 1 Volume 2
  • Tunbridge, P. (1992). Lord Kelvin: His Influence on Electrical Measurements and Units. Peter Peregrinus: London.  
  • Wilson, D. (1910). William Thomson, Lord Kelvin: His Way of Teaching. Glasgow: John Smith & Son. 
  • Wilson, D.B. (1987). Kelvin and Stokes: A Comparative Study in Victorian Physics. Bristol: Hilger.  

Biography, history of ideas and criticism

  • Thomson, W.; Tait, P.G. (1867). Treatise on Natural Philosophy. Oxford.  2nd edition, 1883. (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-1-108-00537-1)
  • ——; Tait, P.G (1872). Elements of Natural Philosophy.  (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01448-9) 2nd edition, 1879.
  • —— (1882–1911). Mathematical and Physical Papers. Cambridge University Press.  (6 volumes)
    • Volume I. 1841-1853 (Internet Archive)
    • Volume II. 1853-1856 (Internet Archive)
    • Volume III. Elasticity, heat, electro-magnetism (Internet Archive)
    • Volume IV. Hydrodynamics and general dynamics (Hathitrust)
    • Volume V. Thermodynamics, cosmical and geological physics, molecular and crystalline theory, electrodynamics (Internet Archive)
    • Volume VI. Voltaic theory, radioactivity, electrions, navigation and tides, miscellaneous (Internet Archive)
  • —— (1904). Baltimore Lectures on Molecular Dynamics and the Wave Theory of Light.  (reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-00767-2)
  • —— (1912). Collected Papers in Physics and Engineering. Cambridge University Press. ISBN B0000EFOL8. 
  • Wilson, D.B. (ed.) (1990). The Correspondence Between Sir George Gabriel Stokes and Sir William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs. (2 vols), Cambridge University Press.  
  • Hörz, H. (2000). Naturphilosophie als Heuristik?: Korrespondenz zwischen Hermann von Helmholtz und Lord Kelvin (William Thomson). Basilisken-Presse.  

Kelvin's works

  1. ^ Kelvin and Ireland Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker (2009) J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 158 011001
  2. ^ Randall, Lisa (2005). Warped Passages. New York: HarperCollins.  p.162
  3. ^ """Hutchison, Iain "Lord Kelvin and Liberal Unionism (PDF). Retrieved 29 October 2011. 
  4. ^ Lord Kelvin, Recipient of The John Fritz Medal in 1905 Matthew Trainer, Physics in Perspective, (2008) 10, 212-223
  5. ^ "Biography of William Thomson's father". Retrieved 29 October 2011. 
  6. ^ P.Q.R (1841) "On Fourier's expansions of functions in trigonometric series" Cambridge Mathematical Journal 2, 258–259
  7. ^ P.Q.R (1841) "Note on a passage in Fourier's 'Heat'" Cambridge Mathematical Journal 3, 25–27
  8. ^ P.Q.R (1842) "On the uniform motion of heat and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity" Cambridge Mathematical Journal 3, 71–84
  9. ^ Niven, W.D. (ed.) (1965). The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, 2 vols. New York: Dover. Vol. 2, p. 301. 
  10. ^ "Thomson, William (THN841W)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  11. ^ Thompson (1910) vol. 1, p.98
  12. ^ "Peterhouse Boat Club Fund – Timeline". Retrieved 29 October 2011. 
  13. ^ McCartney, Mark (1 December 2002). "William Thomson: king of Victorian physics".  
  14. ^ Chang (2004), Ch.4
  15. ^ Thomson, W. (1848) "On an Absolute Thermometric Scale founded on Carnot's Theory of the Motive Power of Heat, and calculated from Regnault's observations" Math. and Phys. Papers vol. 1, pp 100–106
  16. ^ — (1949) "An Account of Carnot's Theory of the Motive Power of Heat; with Numerical Results deduced from Regnault's Experiments on Steam" Math. and Phys. Papers vol.1, pp 113–155
  17. ^ a b Sharlin (1979), p.112
  18. ^ Thomson, W. (1851) "On the dynamical theory of heat; with numerical results deduced from Mr. Joule's equivalent of a thermal unit and M. Regnault's observations on steam" vol. 1Math. and Phys. Papers, pp 175–183
  19. ^ Thomson, W. (March 1851). "On the Dynamical Theory of Heat, with numerical results deduced from Mr Joule’s equivalent of a Thermal Unit, and M. Regnault’s Observations on Steam". Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh XX (part II): 261–268; 289–298.  Also published in Thomson, W. (December 1852). "On the Dynamical Theory of Heat, with numerical results deduced from Mr Joule’s equivalent of a Thermal Unit, and M. Regnault’s Observations on Steam". Philos. Mag. 4 IV (22): 8–21. Retrieved 25 June 2012. 
  20. ^ Thomson, W. (1851) p.183
  21. ^ Thomson, W. (1856) "On the thermal effects of fluids in motion" Math. and Phys. Papers vol.1, pp 333–455
  22. ^ "William Thomson, Baron Kelvin (Scottish engineer, mathematician, and physicist) - Encyclopedia Britannica". 1907-12-17. Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  23. ^ Thomson, W. (1891). Popular Lectures and Addresses, Vol. I. London: MacMillan. p. 80. Retrieved 25 June 2012. 
  24. ^ Smith, Crosbie. "Thomson, William".   (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  25. ^ Thomson, W. (1854) "On the theory of the electric telegraph" Math. and Phys. Papers vol.2, p.61
  26. ^ Thomson, W. (1855) "On the peristaltic induction of electric currents in submarine telegraph wires" Math. and Phys. Papers vol.2, p.87
  27. ^ Thomson, W. (1855) "Letters on telegraph to America" Math. and Phys. Papers vol.2, p.92
  28. ^ Thomson, W. (1857) Math. and Phys. Papers vol.2, p.154
  29. ^ Sharlin (1979) p.141
  30. ^ Sharlin (1979) p.144
  31. ^ "Board of Trade Committee to Inquire into … Submarine Telegraph Cables’, Parl. papers (1860), 52.591, no. 2744
  32. ^ "Report of the Scientific Committee Appointed to Consider the Best Form of Cable for Submersion Between Europe and America" (1863)
  33. ^ Helge Kragh, Higher Speculations, Grand Theories and Failed Revolutions in Physics and Cosmology, Oxford University Press, 2011.
  34. ^ Lindley (2004), p.259
  35. ^ David Lindley, Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy, page 293
  36. ^ IEC. "1906 Preliminary Meeting Report, pp 46-48". The minutes from our first meeting. Retrieved 21 October 2012. 
  37. ^ McCartney & Whitaker (2002), reproduced on Institute of Physics website
  38. ^ Thomson, W. (1889) Address to the Christian Evidence Society
  39. ^ Sharlin (1979) p.169
  40. ^ Burchfield (1990)
  41. ^  
  42. ^ a b c England, P.; Molnar, P.; Righter, F. (January 2007). "John Perry's neglected critique of Kelvin's age for the Earth: A missed opportunity in geodynamics". GSA Today 17 (1): 4–9.  
  43. ^ Of Geological Dynamics" excerpts""". Retrieved 29 October 2011. 
  44. ^ Tung, K.K. "Topics in Mathematical Modeling" (Princeton University Press 2007), p.243-251. In Thomson's theory the earth's age is proportional to the square of the difference between interior temperature and surface temperature, so that the uncertainty in the former leads to an even larger relative uncertainty in the age.
  45. ^ Burchfield, Joe D. (1990). Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. University of Chicago Press. p. 43.  
  46. ^ Hamblin, W. Kenneth (1989). The Earth's Dynamic Systems 5th ed. Macmillian Publishing Company. p. 135.  
  47. ^ Silvanus Phillips Thompson (January 1977). The life of Lord Kelvin. p. 1095.  
  48. ^ Silvanus Phillips Thompson (January 1977). The life of Lord Kelvin. p. 998.  
  49. ^ Stacey, Frank D. (2000). "Kelvin's age of the Earth paradox revisited".  
  50. ^ Philips, Thompson S. The Life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs. 
  51. ^ "Death of Lord Kelvin". Times. 
  52. ^ Hellemans, Alexander; Bunch, Bryan (1988). The Timetables of Science.  
  53. ^ Kargon & Achinstein (1987)
  54. ^ The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Series 6, volume 2, page 1 (1901)
  55. ^ The life of William Thomson, baron Kelvin of Largs, vol2, "Views and Opinions"
  56. ^ The Royal Society, London
  57. ^ Letter from Lord Kelvin to Baden Powell 8 December 1896
  58. ^ Interview in the Newark Advocate 26 April 1902
  59. ^ Superstring: A theory of everything? (1988) by Paul Davies and Julian Brown
  60. ^ Einstein (2007) by Walter Isaacson, page 575
  61. ^  
  62. ^ Lightman, Alan P. (2005). The discoveries: great breakthroughs in twentieth-century science, including the original papers. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada. p. 8.   see Philipp von Jolly
  63. ^ "Papers Past — Evening Post — 30 July 1898 — A Startling Scientific Prediction". Retrieved 2013-09-04. 
  64. ^ [1]
  65. ^ "Honorary Members and Fellows". Institution of Engineers in Scotland. Retrieved 6 October 2012. 
  66. ^ The London Gazette: no. 23185. p. 6062. 16 November 1866.
  67. ^ The London Gazette: no. 26260. p. 991. 23 February 1892.
  68. ^ The London Gazette: no. 26758. p. 4026. 14 July 1896.
  69. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27470. p. 5679. 2 September 1902.
  70. ^ The London Gazette: no. 27464. p. 5173. 12 August 1902.
  71. ^ "Current Banknotes : Clydesdale Bank". The Committee of Scottish Clearing Bankers. Retrieved 15 October 2008. 
  72. ^ "Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame". 2012. Retrieved 27 Aug 2012. 
  73. ^ Thompson, Silvanus (1910). The Life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs. Volume: 2. MacMillan and Co., Limited. p. 914. 


See also

Arms of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin
The arms of William Thomson consist of:[73]
A cubit arm erect, vested azure, cuffed argent, the hand grasping five ears of rye proper.
Argent a stag's head caboshed gules, on a chief azure a thunderbolt proper, winged or, between two spur revels of the first.
On the dexter side a student of the University of Glasgow, habited, holding in his dexter hand a marine voltmeter, all proper. On the sinister side a sailor, habited, holding in the dexter hand a coil, the rope passing through the sinister, and suspended therefrom a sinker of a sounding machine, also all proper.
Honesty without fear.


The memorial of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin in Kelvingrove Park next to the University of Glasgow


A variety of physical phenomena and concepts with which Thomson is associated are named Kelvin:


In 1898, Kelvin predicted that only 400 years of oxygen supply remained on the planet, due to the rate of burning combustibles.[63][64] In his calculation, Kelvin assumed that photosynthesis was the only source of free oxygen; he did not know all of the components of the oxygen cycle. He could not even have known all of the sources of photosynthesis: for example the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus—which accounts for more than half of marine photosynthesis—was not discovered until 1986.

The statement "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement" is given in a number of sources, but without citation. It is reputed to be Kelvin's remark made in an address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1900). It is often found quoted without any footnote giving the source.[59] However, another author reports in a footnote that his search to document the quote failed to find any direct evidence supporting it.[60] Very similar statements have been attributed to other physicists contemporary to Kelvin.[61][62]

His forecast for practical aviation was negative. In 1896 he refused an invitation to join the Aeronautical Society, writing that "I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning or of expectation of good results from any of the trials we hear of."[57] And in a 1902 newspaper interview he predicted that "No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful."[58]

His biographer Silvanus P. Thompson writes that "When Röntgen's discovery of the X-rays was announced at the end of 1895, Lord Kelvin was entirely sceptical, and regarded the announcement as a hoax...The papers had been full of the wonders of Röntgen's rays, about which Lord Kelvin was intensely sceptical until Röntgen himself sent him a copy of his Memoir"; on 17 January 1896, having read the paper & seen the photographs, he wrote Röntgen a letter saying that "I need not tell you that when I read the paper I was very much astonished and delighted. I can say no more now than to congratulate you warmly on the great discovery you have made"[55] He would have his own hand X-rayed in May 1896.[56] (See also N rays.)

Like many scientists, Thomson did make some mistakes in predicting the future of technology.

Pronouncements later proven to be false

In 1900, he gave a lecture titled Nineteenth-Century Clouds over the Dynamical Theory of Heat and Light.[54] The two "dark clouds" he was alluding to were the unsatisfactory explanations that the physics of the time could give for two phenomena: the Michelson–Morley experiment and black body radiation. Two major physical theories were developed during the twentieth century starting from these issues: for the former, the theory of relativity; for the second, quantum mechanics. Albert Einstein, in 1905, published the so-called "Annus Mirabilis papers", one of which explained the photoelectric effect and was a foundation paper of quantum mechanics, another of which described special relativity.

In 1884, Thomson delivered a series of lectures at Johns Hopkins University in the United States in which he attempted to formulate a physical model for the aether, a medium that would support the electromagnetic waves that were becoming increasingly important to the explanation of radiative phenomena.[53] Imaginative as they were, the "Baltimore lectures" had little enduring value owing to the imminent demise of the mechanical world view.

Limits of classical physics

Lord Kelvin was an Elder of St Columba's Parish Church (Church of Scotland) in Largs for many years. It was to that church that his remains were taken after his death at Largs on 17 December 1907.[52] Following the funeral service there, the body was taken to Bute Hall in his beloved University of Glasgow for a service of remembrance before the body was taken to London for interment at Westminster Abbey, close-by the final resting place of Sir Isaac Newton.

In November 1907 he caught a chill and his condition deteriorated until he died at his Scottish residence, Netherhall, in Largs on 17 December.[51]

In the winter of 1860–1861 Kelvin slipped on some ice and fractured his leg, causing him to limp thereafter.[50] He remained something of a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic until his death.

Statue of Lord Kelvin; Belfast Botanic Gardens.

Later life and death

It was widely believed that the discovery of radioactivity had invalidated Thomson's estimate of the age of the Earth. Thomson himself never publicly acknowledged this because he thought he had a much stronger argument restricting the age of the Sun to no more than 20 million years. Without sunlight, there could be no explanation for the sediment record on the Earth's surface. At the time, the only known source for the solar power output was gravitational collapse. It was only when thermonuclear fusion was recognised in the 1930s that Thomson's age paradox was truly resolved.[49]

[42] of rocks.radiometric dating famously made the argument in a lecture attended by Kelvin that this provided the unknown energy source Kelvin had suggested, but the estimate was not overturned until the development in 1907 of Ernest Rutherford releases heat led to Kelvin's estimate being challenged, and radioactive decay inside the Earth, and thus showing a much greater age, this had little immediate impact. The discovery in 1903 that thermal conductivity published a paper in 1895 challenging Kelvin's assumption of low John Perry Although his former assistant [48].Transactions as recorded in that Institute's journal [47] His exploration of this estimate can be found in his 1897 address to the [46][45] Over the years he refined his arguments and reduced the upper bound by a factor of ten, and in 1897 Thomson, now Lord Kelvin, ultimately settled on an estimate that the Earth was 20–40 million years old.[44] Thomson's initial 1864 estimate of the Earth's age was from 20 to 400 million years old. These wide limits were due to his uncertainty about the melting temperature of rock, to which he equated the earth's interior temperature.

After the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species in 1859, Thomson saw evidence of the relatively short habitable age of the Earth as tending to contradict Darwin's gradualist explanation of slow natural selection bringing about biological diversity. Thomson's own views favoured a version of theistic evolution sped up by divine guidance.[41] His calculations showed that the Sun could not have possibly existed long enough to allow the slow incremental development by evolution – unless some energy source beyond what he or any other Victorian era person knew of was found. He was soon drawn into public disagreement with geologists,[42] and with Darwin's supporters John Tyndall and T.H. Huxley. In his response to Huxley's address to the Geological Society of London (1868) he presented his address "Of Geological Dynamics", (1869)[43] which, among his other writings, challenged the geologists' acceptance that the earth must be of indefinite age.[42]

One of the clearest instances of this interaction is in his estimate of the solar system and other structures, followed by a gradual "heat death". He developed the view that the Earth had once been too hot to support life and contrasted this view with that of uniformitarianism, that conditions had remained constant since the indefinite past. He contended that "This earth, certainly a moderate number of millions of years ago, was a red-hot globe ... ."[40]

Thomson remained a devout believer in Christianity throughout his life; attendance at chapel was part of his daily routine.[37] He saw his Christian faith as supporting and informing his scientific work, as is evident from his address to the annual meeting of the Christian Evidence Society, 23 May 1889.[38]

Thomson caricatured by Spy for Vanity Fair, 1897

Age of the Earth: geology and theology

Acknowledging his contribution to electrical standardisation, the International Electrotechnical Commission elected Thomson as its first President at its preliminary meeting, held in London on 26–27 June 1906. "On the proposal of the President [Mr Alexander Siemens, Great Britain], secounded [sic] by Mr Mailloux [US Institute of Electrical Engineers] the Right Honorable Lord Kelvin, G.C.V.O., O.M., was unanimously elected first President of the Commission", minutes of the Preliminary Meeting Report read.[36]

In 1893, Thomson headed an international commission to decide on the design of the Niagara Falls power station. Despite his belief in the superiority of direct current electric power transmission, he endorsed Westinghouse's alternating current system which had been demonstrated at the Chicago World's Fair of that year. Even after Niagara Falls Thomson still held to his belief that direct current was the superior system.[35]

Thomson did more than any other electrician up to his time in introducing accurate methods and apparatus for measuring electricity. As early as 1845 he pointed out that the experimental results of William Snow Harris were in accordance with the laws of Coulomb. In the Memoirs of the Roman Academy of Sciences for 1857 he published a description of his new divided ring electrometer, based on the old electroscope of Johann Gottlieb Friedrich von Bohnenberger and he introduced a chain or series of effective instruments, including the quadrant electrometer, which cover the entire field of electrostatic measurement. He invented the current balance, also known as the Kelvin balance or Ampere balance (SiC), for the precise specification of the ampere, the standard unit of electric current.

Electrical standards

Charles Babbage had been among the first to suggest that a lighthouse might be made to signal a distinctive number by occultations of its light but Thomson pointed out the merits of the Morse code for the purpose, and urged that the signals should consist of short and long flashes of the light to represent the dots and dashes.

During the 1880s, Thomson worked to perfect the adjustable The Admiralty.

About the same time he revived the Sumner method of finding a ship's place at sea, and calculated a set of tables for its ready application. He also developed a tide predicting machine.

Thomson introduced a method of deep-sea sounding, in which a steel piano wire replaces the ordinary hand line. The wire glides so easily to the bottom that "flying soundings" can be taken while the ship is going at full speed. A pressure gauge to register the depth of the sinker was added by Thomson.

Thomson was an enthusiastic yachtsman, his interest in all things relating to the sea perhaps arising from, or at any rate fostered by, his experiences on the Agamemnon and the Great Eastern.


Between 1870 and 1890 a theory purporting that an atom was a vortex in the ether was immensely popular among British physicists and mathematicians. About 60 scientific papers were written by around 25 scientists. Following the lead of Thomson and Tait, they developed a mathematical theory of knots which lives on to this day. The "Vortex Theory" was disproved by the Michelson–Morley experiment and is of interest today mainly to historians of science.[33]

Kelvin's vortex theory of the atom

Over the period 1855 to 1867, Thomson collaborated with Peter Guthrie Tait on a text book that unified the various branches of physical science under the common principle of energy. Published in 1867, the Treatise on Natural Philosophy did much to define the modern discipline of physics.

Thomson and Tait: Treatise on Natural Philosophy

In June 1873, Thomson and Jenkin were on board the Hooper, bound for Lisbon with 2,500 miles (4,020 km) of cable when the cable developed a fault. An unscheduled 16-day stop-over in Madeira followed and Thomson became good friends with Charles R. Blandy and his three daughters. On 2 May 1874 he set sail for Madeira on the Lalla Rookh. As he approached the harbour, he signalled to the Blandy residence "Will you marry me?" and Fanny signalled back "Yes". Thomson married Fanny, 13 years his junior, on 24 June 1874.

Thomson's wife had died on 17 June 1870 and he resolved to make changes in his life. Already addicted to seafaring, in September he purchased a 126 ton schooner, the Lalla Rookh and used it as a base for entertaining friends and scientific colleagues. His maritime interests continued in 1871 when he was appointed to the board of enquiry into the sinking of the HMS Captain.

Thomson took part in the laying of the French Atlantic submarine communications cable of 1869, and with Jenkin was engineer of the Western and Brazilian and Platino-Brazilian cables, assisted by vacation student James Alfred Ewing. He was present at the laying of the Pará to Pernambuco section of the Brazilian coast cables in 1873.

Later expeditions

To exploit his inventions for signalling on long submarine cables, Thomson now entered into a partnership with C.F. Varley and Fleeming Jenkin. In conjunction with the latter, he also devised an automatic curb sender, a kind of telegraph key for sending messages on a cable.

In July 1865, Thomson sailed on the cable-laying expedition of the SS Great Eastern but the voyage was again dogged with technical problems. The cable was lost after 1,200 miles (1,900 km) had been laid and the expedition had to be abandoned. A further expedition in 1866 managed to lay a new cable in two weeks and then go on to recover and complete the 1865 cable. The enterprise was now feted as a triumph by the public and Thomson enjoyed a large share of the adulation. Thomson, along with the other principals of the project, was knighted on 10 November 1866.

A joint committee of inquiry was established by the Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Most of the blame for the cable's failure was found to rest with Whitehouse.[31] The committee found that, though underwater cables were notorious in their lack of reliability, most of the problems arose from known and avoidable causes. Thomson was appointed one of a five-member committee to recommend a specification for a new cable. The committee reported in October 1863.[32]

Thomson's fears were realized when Whitehouse's apparatus proved insufficiently sensitive and had to be replaced by Thomson's mirror galvanometer. Whitehouse continued to maintain that it was his equipment that was providing the service and started to engage in desperate measures to remedy some of the problems. He succeeded only in fatally damaging the cable by applying 2,000 V. When the cable failed completely Whitehouse was dismissed, though Thomson objected and was reprimanded by the board for his interference. Thomson subsequently regretted that he had acquiesced too readily to many of Whitehouse's proposals and had not challenged him with sufficient energy.[30]

Disaster and triumph

The board insisted that Thomson join the 1858 cable-laying expedition, without any financial compensation, and take an active part in the project. In return, Thomson secured a trial for his mirror galvanometer, about which the board had been unenthusiastic, alongside Whitehouse's equipment. However, Thomson found the access he was given unsatisfactory and the Agamemnon had to return home following the disastrous storm of June 1858. Back in London, the board was on the point of abandoning the project and mitigating their losses by selling the cable. Thomson, Cyrus West Field and Curtis M. Lampson argued for another attempt and prevailed, Thomson insisting that the technical problems were tractable. Though employed in an advisory capacity, Thomson had, during the voyages, developed real engineer's instincts and skill at practical problem-solving under pressure, often taking the lead in dealing with emergencies and being unafraid to lend a hand in manual work. A cable was finally completed on 5 August.

Whitehouse still felt able to ignore Thomson's many suggestions and proposals. It was not until Thomson convinced the board that using purer copper for replacing the lost section of cable would improve data capacity, that he first made a difference to the execution of the project.[29]

Thomson developed a complete system for operating a submarine telegraph that was capable of sending a character every 3.5 seconds. He patented the key elements of his system, the mirror galvanometer and the siphon recorder, in 1858.

Thomson sailed on board the cable-laying ship HMS Agamemnon in August 1857, with Whitehouse confined to land owing to illness, but the voyage ended after 380 miles (610 km) when the cable parted. Thomson contributed to the effort by publishing in the Engineer the whole theory of the stresses involved in the laying of a submarine cable, and showed that when the line is running out of the ship, at a constant speed, in a uniform depth of water, it sinks in a slant or straight incline from the point where it enters the water to that where it touches the bottom.[28]

Thomson became scientific adviser to a team with Whitehouse as chief electrician and Sir Charles Tilston Bright as chief engineer but Whitehouse had his way with the specification, supported by Faraday and Samuel F. B. Morse.

Scientist to engineer

Thomson attacked Whitehouse's contention in a letter to the popular Athenaeum magazine,[27] pitching himself into the public eye. Thomson recommended a larger conductor with a larger cross section of insulation. However, he thought Whitehouse no fool and suspected that he might have the practical skill to make the existing design work. Thomson's work had, however, caught the eye of the project's undertakers and in December 1856, he was elected to the board of directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company.

Thomson contended that the speed of a signal through a given core was inversely proportional to the square of the length of the core. Thomson's results were disputed at a meeting of the British Association in 1856 by Wildman Whitehouse, the electrician of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Whitehouse had possibly misinterpreted the results of his own experiments but was doubtless feeling financial pressure as plans for the cable were already well underway. He believed that Thomson's calculations implied that the cable must be "abandoned as being practically and commercially impossible."

Faraday had demonstrated how the construction of a cable would limit the rate at which messages could be sent – in modern terms, the bandwidth. Thomson jumped at the problem and published his response that month.[25] He expressed his results in terms of the data rate that could be achieved and the economic consequences in terms of the potential revenue of the transatlantic undertaking. In a further 1855 analysis,[26] Thomson stressed the impact that the design of the cable would have on its profitability.

Though now eminent in the academic field, Thomson was obscure to the general public. In September 1852, he married childhood sweetheart Margaret Crum, daughter of Michael Faraday on the proposed transatlantic telegraph cable.

Calculations on data rate

Transatlantic cable

Thomson published more than 650 scientific papers[22] and applied for 70 patents (not all were issued). Regarding science, Thomson wrote the following.

As soon as Joule read the paper he wrote to Thomson with his comments and questions. Thus began a fruitful, though largely epistolary, collaboration between the two men, Joule conducting experiments, Thomson analysing the results and suggesting further experiments. The collaboration lasted from 1852 to 1856, its discoveries including the Joule–Thomson effect, sometimes called the Kelvin–Joule effect, and the published results[21] did much to bring about general acceptance of Joule's work and the kinetic theory.

In the paper, Thomson supported the theory that heat was a form of motion but admitted that he had been influenced only by the thought of Sir Humphry Davy and the experiments of Joule and Julius Robert von Mayer, maintaining that experimental demonstration of the conversion of heat into work was still outstanding.[20]

In final publication, Thomson retreated from a radical departure and declared "the whole theory of the motive power of heat is founded on ... two ... propositions, due respectively to Joule, and to Carnot and Clausius."[18] Thomson went on to state a form of the second law:

Compensation would require a creative act or an act possessing similar power.[17]

Thomson returned to critique Carnot's original publication and read his analysis to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in January 1849,[16] still convinced that the theory was fundamentally sound. However, though Thomson conducted no new experiments, over the next two years he became increasingly dissatisfied with Carnot's theory and convinced of Joule's. In February 1851 he sat down to articulate his new thinking. However, he was uncertain of how to frame his theory and the paper went through several drafts before he settled on an attempt to reconcile Carnot and Joule. During his rewriting, he seems to have considered ideas that would subsequently give rise to the second law of thermodynamics. In Carnot's theory, lost heat was absolutely lost but Thomson contended that it was "lost to man irrecoverably; but not lost in the material world". Moreover, his theological beliefs led to speculation about the heat death of the universe.

— But a footnote signalled his first doubts about the caloric theory, referring to Joule's very remarkable discoveries. Surprisingly, Thomson did not send Joule a copy of his paper, but when Joule eventually read it he wrote to Thomson on 6 October, claiming that his studies had demonstrated conversion of heat into work but that he was planning further experiments. Thomson replied on 27 October, revealing that he was planning his own experiments and hoping for a reconciliation of their two views.

In his publication, Thomson wrote:

In 1848, he extended the Carnot–Clapeyron theory still further through his dissatisfaction that the gas thermometer provided only an operational definition of temperature. He proposed an absolute temperature scale[14] in which a unit of heat descending from a body A at the temperature T° of this scale, to a body B at the temperature (T−1)°, would give out the same mechanical effect [work], whatever be the number T. Such a scale would be quite independent of the physical properties of any specific substance.[15] By employing such a "waterfall", Thomson postulated that a point would be reached at which no further heat (caloric) could be transferred, the point of absolute zero about which Guillaume Amontons had speculated in 1702. "Reflections on the Motive Power of Heat", published by Carnot in French in 1824, the year of Lord Kelvin's birth, used −267 as an estimate of the absolute zero temperature. Thomson used data published by Regnault to calibrate his scale against established measurements.

Thomson was intrigued but sceptical. Though he felt that Joule's results demanded theoretical explanation, he retreated into an even deeper commitment to the Carnot–Clapeyron school. He predicted that the melting point of ice must fall with pressure, otherwise its expansion on freezing could be exploited in a perpetuum mobile. Experimental confirmation in his laboratory did much to bolster his beliefs.

By 1847, Thomson had already gained a reputation as a precocious and maverick scientist when he attended the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Oxford. At that meeting, he heard James Prescott Joule making yet another of his, so far, ineffective attempts to discredit the caloric theory of heat and the theory of the heat engine built upon it by Sadi Carnot and Émile Clapeyron. Joule argued for the mutual convertibility of heat and mechanical work and for their mechanical equivalence.


He was elected a fellow of St. Peter's (as Peterhouse was often called at the time) in June 1845.[13] On gaining the fellowship, he spent some time in the laboratory of the celebrated Henri Victor Regnault, at Paris; but in 1846 he was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Glasgow. At twenty-two he found himself wearing the gown of a learned professor in one of the oldest Universities in the country, and lecturing to the class of which he was a freshman but a few years before.

In 1845, he gave the first mathematical development of Faraday's idea that electric induction takes place through an intervening medium, or "dielectric", and not by some incomprehensible "action at a distance". He also devised the mathematical technique of electrical images, which became a powerful agent in solving problems of electrostatics, the science which deals with the forces between electrically charged bodies at rest. It was partly in response to his encouragement that Faraday undertook the research in September 1845 that led to the discovery of the Faraday effect, which established that light and magnetic (and thus electric) phenomena were related.

Lord Kelvin by Hubert von Herkomer

While at Cambridge, Thomson was active in sports, athletics and sculling, winning the Colquhoun Sculls in 1843.[12] He also took a lively interest in the classics, music, and literature; but the real love of his intellectual life was the pursuit of science. The study of mathematics, physics, and in particular, of electricity, had captivated his imagination.

William's father was able to make a generous provision for his favourite son's education and, in 1841, installed him, with extensive letters of introduction and ample accommodation, at Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1845 Thomson graduated as Second Wrangler.[10] He also won a Smith's Prize, which, unlike the tripos, is a test of original research. Robert Leslie Ellis, one of the examiners, is said to have declared to another examiner You and I are just about fit to mend his pens.[11]


While holidaying with his family in Lamlash in 1841, he wrote a third, more substantial, P.Q.R. paper On the uniform motion of heat in homogeneous solid bodies, and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity.[8] In the paper he made remarkable connections between the mathematical theories of heat conduction and electrostatics, an analogy that James Clerk Maxwell was ultimately to describe as one of the most valuable science-forming ideas.[9]

Thomson became intrigued with Fourier's Théorie analytique de la chaleur and committed himself to study the "Continental" mathematics resisted by a British establishment still working in the shadow of Sir Isaac Newton. Unsurprisingly, Fourier's work had been attacked by domestic mathematicians, Philip Kelland authoring a critical book. The book motivated Thomson to write his first published scientific paper[6] under the pseudonym P.Q.R., defending Fourier, and submitted to the Cambridge Mathematical Journal by his father. A second P.Q.R. paper followed almost immediately.[7]

Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides;
Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old Time, and regulate the sun;

In the academic year 1839/1840, Thomson won the class prize in astronomy for his Essay on the figure of the Earth which showed an early facility for mathematical analysis and creativity. Throughout his life, he would work on the problems raised in the essay as a coping strategy during times of personal stress. On the title page of this essay Thomson wrote the following lines from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. These lines inspired Thomson to understand the natural world using the power and method of science:

In school, Thomson showed a keen interest in the classics along with his natural interest in the sciences. At the age of 12 he won a prize for translating Lucian of Samosata's Dialogues of the Gods from Latin to English.

Thomson had heart problems and nearly died when he was 9 years old. He attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where his father was a professor in the university department, before beginning study at Glasgow University in 1834 at the age of 10, not out of any precociousness; the University provided many of the facilities of an elementary school for able pupils, and this was a typical starting age.


In 1832, his father was appointed professor of mathematics at Glasgow and the family moved there in October 1833. The Thomson children were introduced to a broader cosmopolitan experience than their father's rural upbringing, spending mid-1839 in London and, the boys, being tutored in French in Paris. Mid-1840 was spent in Germany and the Netherlands. Language study was given a high priority.

William and his elder brother James were tutored at home by their father while the younger boys were tutored by their elder sisters. James was intended to benefit from the major share of his father's encouragement, affection and financial support and was prepared for a career in engineering.

William Thomson's father, James Thomson, was a teacher of mathematics and engineering at Royal Belfast Academical Institution and the son of a farmer. James Thomson married Margaret Gardner in 1817 and, of their children, four boys and two girls survived infancy. Margaret Thomson died in 1830 when William was six years old.[5]

Thomson family tree: James Thomson (mathematician), James Thomson (engineer), and William Thomson, were all professors at Glasgow University; the later two, through their association with William Rankine, another Glasgow professor, worked to form one of the founding schools of thermodynamics.


Early life and work


  • Early life and work 1
    • Family 1.1
    • Youth 1.2
    • Cambridge 1.3
    • Thermodynamics 1.4
  • Transatlantic cable 2
    • Calculations on data rate 2.1
    • Scientist to engineer 2.2
    • Disaster and triumph 2.3
    • Later expeditions 2.4
  • Thomson and Tait: Treatise on Natural Philosophy 3
  • Kelvin's vortex theory of the atom 4
  • Marine 5
  • Electrical standards 6
  • Age of the Earth: geology and theology 7
  • Later life and death 8
  • Limits of classical physics 9
  • Pronouncements later proven to be false 10
  • Eponyms 11
  • Honours 12
  • Arms 13
  • See also 14
  • References 15
    • Kelvin's works 15.1
    • Biography, history of ideas and criticism 15.2
  • External links 16


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