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Significant Scots
William Thomson (Lord Kelvin)


William Thomson (Lord Kelvin)

THERE was never any doubt but that William Thomson, second son of James Thomson of Belfast, was a most remarkable child. Born in the busy Irish seaport on the 26th June, 1824, so soon as he was breeched the little boy began to show most precocious talents and intelligence.

In 1831 the Thomson family moved to Glasgow, following the appointment of James Thomson to the chair of mathematics in the university there. The future Lord Kelvin’s father was a most remarkable individual. Brought up as a farm labourer, he studied astronomy and mathematics without either a teacher or proper text-books. By sheer hard work and ability he won his way to Glasgow University, where he graduated as Master of Arts in 1812, and was then appointed teacher of mathematics at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. In 1815 he became professor of mathematics in the college department, a post he held till his removal to Glasgow.

The Thomsons had originally come from Scotland, migrating to Ulster about the year 1640, during the disturbed times that preceded the Civil War. They lived in the district round Belfast, mainly occupied in farming. The family fortunes fluctuated widely from time to time, but all the Thomsons. according to local tradition, bore the character of being "religious, moral, patriotic, honest, large, athletic, handsome men."

The new professor of mathematics at Glasgow had lost his wife two years before his going there, and he had to set up housekeeping, a widower with five young children varying in age from twelve to three years old. Although they were motherless, the bairns managed to be happy and contented enough with their devoted father, who, in addition to his other work, kept the education of his sons in his own hands.

At the age of eight, we find little William Thomson informally attending his father’s university lectures, and also those of some of the other professors. What the other students thought of this shrimp of a boy being their class - mate is not recorded. At all events, William and his brother James profited by the lectures, for in October, 1834, they both matriculated in the University of Glasgow, James being twelve years old and William ten years and three months. The usual age for matriculation, we may note, is usually fifteen to eighteen.

The two brothers now proceeded to at tend the university classes, which were composed of raw Highland lads sent from the farm to train for the ministry, law, or medicine. At the age of eleven William attended lectures in natural history and Greek, and carried off prizes in both subjects. Next year he and James were first and second prizemen in the junior mathematical class, from whence they wont on to annex all the honours in the senior class.

In fact there was really "no holding" these two wonderful boys. Logic, natural philosophy (what we should now call physics), astronomy, humanity—William gained prizes in each subject, beating competitors of twice his own age.

In 1841 William Thomson, having exhausted the resources of Glasgow University, removed to Cambridge, much to the delight of would-be prize-winners at Glasgow, who now saw some chance of success for themselves. On the 6th April he formally entered Saint Peter’s College—commonly known as Peterhouse—as a student of the university. Within a week of his arrival it was currently reported in Cambridge that this slender, fair-haired Scottish youth would certainly one day be senior wrangler. His life was that of an ordinary studious undergraduate. He threw himself into all things with a tremendous energy and intensity. Yet his studies did not altogether absorb all his attention, for the future scientist took a healthy and normal interest in boating, swimming, and running.

He rowed in his college boat, becoming for the time being completely absorbed in the river rather than in mathematics, and later he won the Colquhoun Silver Sculls, a trophy competed for by the whole university, and counted no small honour.

Smith’s Prize Winner

In his studies Thomson was no less successful than on the river. In addition to other awards he won the Gisborne Scholarship and Smith’s Prize, the latter an award for the greatest mathematical power shown in the final examinations. Ultimately he obtained the place of second wrangler in the mathematical tripos of 1845. One of the examiners remarked to his colleagues about Thomson, "You and I are just about fit to mend his pens."

How did it come about, then, considering his immense abilities and reputation, that Thomson had to be content with second place? One story has it that the examiners set questions relating to theorems taken from Thomson’s own published original work, and that while his successful rival, Parkinson, reproduced them from memory, poor Thomson struggled in vain to reconstruct his own brilliant arguments. Thomson was naturally somewhat disappointed at being beaten for first place, especially since all his friends and tutors had confidently assured him that such an event could not possibly happen. However, his defeat was soon forgotten among more startling successes.

Leaving Cambridge, Thomson stayed in Paris some months. He arrived in the French capital early in 1845 and settled down with a friend in comfortable lodgings. He attended lectures at the Sorbonne and the College de France, and made friends with the foremost mathematicians and scientists of Paris. Although he was so young, Thomson attracted all the savants by his excessive brilliance of intellect and his unassuming manner. In the intervals of going to lectures and reading he haunted the opera, for he was passionately fond of music. He wrote home long and excited accounts of these operas—the first he had ever seen. He also spent some time in laboratory work with the two eminent scientists J. B. Dumas and Regnault, eventually returning to Cambridge again in the month of May.

In June, 1845, Thomson was all agog with the British Association meeting at Cambridge, at which he met Faraday and many other famous men of science. Scarcely was this function over than he was elected a Foundation Fellow of Peterhouse, which post he held till he vacated it on his marriage in 1852. In the following October the young Fellow took up his duties and was, in addition, appointed college lecturer in mathematics.

But Thomson was not long destined to: remain teaching at Cambridge. In 1846 the chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow fell vacant, and through his father he applied for consideration as a candidate. Of course, twenty-two was an absurd age for a professor, but all Glasgow University had followed "young Thomson’s" career with affectionate interest. They knew what promise he showed. In spite of several other strong candidates appearing in the field, Thomson was elected to the professorship. As one aged friend of his father’s said, "he is already blessed with a reputation which veterans in science might envy, but his friends look for still greater lustre."

Famous Inaugural Lecture

On the 1st November, 1846, Thomson read his inaugural lecture on the scope and methods of physical science. On the first day of every subsequent session the natural philosophy class was opened by the reading of this self-same lecture, which did duty for half a century. The attractive, alert young professor soon made friends with his pupils, most of whom were of his own age. He had an enthusiasm for experiment, and a passion for submitting all things to calculation. Much, however, of his abstruse and involved teaching was far above the students’ heads. "I listened to the lectures on the pendulum for a month," said one pupil, "and all I know about the pendulum yet is that it wags."

Thomson soon revolutionized and reorganized the University laboratories at Glasgow, and opened a new and living era of science teaching there. His teaching work, however, did not diminish the young professor’s power of original thought. He worked hard at the mathematical expression and interpretation of physical phenomena— a work which laid the foundations of the quantum theory and physics as they exist to-day. Though almost all his early published results need high mathematical training for their understanding, we should remember that they form the solid foundations for the work and discoveries of many subsequent investigators.

Death of His Father

When he first went to Glasgow, Thomson lived with his father at "No. 2, the College," one of the dingy but spacious official university residences. During the winter of 1848-49 cholera visited the city and carried off Professor James Thomson as one of its victims. Thomson now took over his father’s home as his own, a widowed aunt, Mrs. Gall, keeping house for him. This arrangement continued until 1852, when Thomson became engaged to, and married, Margaret Crum, whom he had known from his boyhood. She was a beautiful, charming, and witty young woman. They made a most devoted and supremely happy couple; in fact, theirs was an example of an ideal marriage.

Settling down to work again after his marriage, Thomson found himself pressed for laboratory space. He annexed a disused wine-cellar and a small examination room adjoining it without official sanction, filled them with any apparatus he could buy, beg, or borrow, and, with his students, set to work experimenting. At the outset, work and results were fitful and erratic, but matters gradually improved, and for twenty years these two dark rooms were the home of all Thomson’s researches. They were, also, the first working laboratory of physical science in a British university.

Hitherto Thomson’s work had been connected with pure and abstract science, but he turned during 1854 to consider the possibilities of a submarine cable across the Atlantic. Characteristically he first elaborated a plan of calculations on the theory of the subject, and embodied them in a paper "On the Theory of the Electric Telegraph," which he communicated to the Royal Society. This was followed by a work of vast erudition entitled "On Practical Methods of Rapid Signalling by Electric Telegraph." Having now, so to speak, cleared the air surrounding the theory of the subject, Thomson joined forces with the newly-formed Atlantic Telegraph Company. This company, in defiance of his advice, ordered supplies of a far too light cable, which was, further, manufactured carelessly and cheaply. In August, 1857, the work of laying the cable commenced, Thomson being on board H.M.S. Agamemnon, one of the two ships engaged.

This first attempt ended in failure. After 330 nautical miles had been laid, the cable broke in water 2,000 fathoms deep. Accordingly, the attempt was abandoned till the following year. In the July and August of 1858 success crowned the undertaking, and the cable stretched from Ireland to Newfoundland. Thomson was at work day and night testing, observing, and controlling the electrical side of the project. Frequent small mishaps caused him agonies of apprehension, while, since he had officially quite a minor position, he was exposed to many annoyances and interferences.

Thomson’s Enthusiasm

For a time the cable proved a great success, "the theme of innumerable sermons and a prodigious quantity of doggerel," as Thomson said, though he himself was overjoyed at the success of the expedition. He watched the landing of the Irish end, an eye-witness tells us, "in a state of enjoyment so intense as almost to absorb the whole soul and create absence of mind. His countenance beamed with placid satisfaction." Alas! the cable soon proved highly unsatisfactory. First Whitehouse, the company’s engineer, who insisted that he knew better than Thomson, substituted his own clumsy instruments for those which the professor had expressly designed at Glasgow. He was dismissed, and Thomson put in entire charge.

He introduced his own instruments, and for the time being all went well. Then, however, Thomson’s first criticism, that the cable was too light, proved true. By September, 1858, it was almost impossible to transmit intelligible signals to Newfoundland. On the twenty-third day after the cable had been landed the final message was transmitted---the last of the 732 messages conveyed.

Success Follows Failure

Happily, this failure was only a prelude to success. Following long and exhaustive experiments, a new cable was made, far stronger and better than the first and under the auspices of a new company the Great Eastern was chartered to lay it. This huge unwieldy ship, built before her time, carried the entire cable. The expedition sailed from Greenwich in July, 1865, Thomson being on board as consulting expert. On the 23rd July the Great Eastern left Valencia, in Ireland, for Newfoundland, paying out the cable as she went. After 250 miles had been laid the cable parted on the ocean bed, and the expedition had to return to Valencia.

The venture was now abandoned until the summer of 1866. In the meantime, Thomson was busy designing and preparing instruments to raise the broken cable. He dashed backwards and forwards between London and Glasgow. Often his secretary would arrive breathless at Glasgow station, a few minutes before the mail-train left for London, with an urgent message for the stationmaster "The London mail-train must on no account start to-night until I come." Such was the national importance of his work, and such the honour in which Glasgow held their professor, that the station-master never failed to obey.

A Double Triumph

On the 13th July, 1866, the Great Eastern once more sailed westwards from Valeneia with Thomson on board. In laying the new cable which the ship carried not a single hitch occurred and the end was landed at Heart’s Content Bay, Newfoundland, fourteen days later. Success at last! "the newspapers of the United States and Great Britain exclaimed, and broke into a paean of praise for Thomson and his fellow officials and experts. On the 9th August the Great Eastern quitted Newfoundland to attempt the recovery of the cable lost the previous year, splice the broken ends, and complete it. For a fortnight Thomson superintended the crew, who fished in water two miles deep for the lost end.

Finally, at noon on the 2nd September, the end was brought on board, to his vast satisfaction. Within six days the old cable was completed to Newfoundland, and thus two perfect cables lay side by side on the ocean bed. Following public banquets at Liverpool and London, the "heroes of the cable" were received in private audience by the Queen at Windsor. As a reward for all his "laborious humility" and patience, Thomson was knighted. For the motto of his coat-of-arms he characteristically chose, "Honesty is the best policy."

His Great Grief

All the while he had been connected with the cable Thomson had contrived to discharge his duties as professor in an entirely satisfactory way. Released from the anxieties and labours of the great undertaking, he now turned his whole attention once more to his abstract studies and his students at Glasgow. He was soon busily involved in atomic physics, delighting all his friends by the fresh eagerness with which he resumed his interrupted researches. Lady Thomson’s health, however, gave him considerable anxiety.

She grew slowly but surely weaker in spite of all that medical science could do, and died on the 17th June, 1870. The professor was overwhelmed with grief, his work was completely disorganized, and for a long time the shadow of this sorrow lay across every hour of his existence.

A little later Thomson entered upon geological researches. From mathematical equations he deduced the age of the earth, arriving at a figure which greatly disconcerted many of his brother scientists, for to them he had made the earth appear too young. He engaged in a controversy on this vexed question with Huxley, who on occasion could be anything but mild and forbearing. Yet so high an opinion did he form of Thomson’s character and attainments that, in 1871, when it fell to his lot to refer to his controversial antagonist in a speech, he said of him: "As the old poet says of Lancelot— ‘Gentler knight, there never broke a lance.’" This, from such a determined enemy of compliments as Huxley, was praise indeed.

In 1874 Thomson married for a second time, his bride being Miss Frances Blandy, daughter of Charles R. Blandy of Madeira. Thomson met her when on a holiday, and the couple were married at the British consular chapel at Funchal. His telegraphic inventions now began to bring in substantially large sums, by aid of which he set to housekeeping on a larger scale in virtue of his marriage. A small estate at Largs, near Glasgow, was purchased and a considerable mansion built upon it, in the planning of which the professor gave full rein to all his whims and fancies. He also bought a sailing yacht, the Lalla Rookh, a vessel of 102 tons, in which he cruised during the summer months around the coast of Europe, and became a most skilful and accomplished sailor.

Improving the Compass

About 1871 Sir William became interested in the possible improvement of the mariner’s compass. He found that ordinary compasses suffered from many and grave defects, which he promptly set out to rectify. He designed a new compass of his own, which was immune from all outside magnetic disturbances, and also steadier and more sensitive than those in use. Since this invention was patented in 1874, it has been universally adopted. Many times on foggy and stormy nights have sailors had cause to bless the name of Thomson, who, turning his profound and erudite mind to practical affairs, had given them a compass to be relied upon implicitly. His services to navigation do not rest here, moreover, for he also invented a deep-sea sounding machine and a tide analyser and predicting machine, he improved the manufacture of lighthouse lights, sat on an Admiralty committee to consider the scientific design of ships, investigated the action of waves on a floating ship, and drew up extremely valuable tables for finding the position of a ship at sea.

Electrical Experiments

During the ‘eighties most of Thomson’s attention was given to electricity. He invented and improved innumerable electrical measuring and recording instruments, as usual busying himself with the practical application of recently discovered phenomena. Sir Joseph (then Mr.) Swan invented his "glow lamp," the parent of the modern electric bulb, in 1880, and by the following year Thomson was already interested in a company for their manufacture. For the time being, as Lady Thomson wrote to Darwin, "Sir William does nothing but talk electric light and dynamos." Soon, however, these words were transformed to deeds, and Thomson’s house was lighted by electricity, generated by a dynamo driven by one of the first gas engines.

All through these years of manifold activity, Sir William had never ceased to discharge his duties as professor. To his students he was a kindly and fatherly mentor, taking a deep interest in their work and progress. Any who showed especial promise were instantly selected to work under his own supervision as assistants, and after a few years of incomparable training were launched into the world to make careers for themselves. Many scientists and engineers who afterwards became distinguished owed their positions and progress in the first place to the practical kindliness of their Glasgow professor.

Lecturing to the Minority

As a lecturer Thomson generally remained high in the air above his students’ heads. A few would follow his first evolutions on the blackboard, but even these were soon "faint yet pursuing." He invariably began his morning lecture with the old Scottish custom of reading prayers, the students standing the while. Nothing annoyed him more than a lack of chalk. One day he had none. He called the man who looked after his lecture theatre and said, "Let there be a hundred pieces of chalk to-morrow!" Next day he counted the long row with great care, to make sure that the hundred pieces were there. Since his students constantly borrowed his books of reference and forgot to return them, when they were recovered they were all chained to his desk in order to prevent further depredations.

In later life Thomson became a trifle lame, but this disability emphasized rather than detracted from his activity. He limped up and down in front of his vast blackboard explaining, discussing, and calculating as eagerly as if he himself had been a youthful student expounding his own first discovery. When any experiment or demonstration went well he smiled sweetly, and his eyes danced with delight behind his eyeglasses. Should an experiment fail he would shake his head sadly, and apologize profusely to the students, explaining that it was all his own fault, and that no one could possibly blame his assistants.

Unable to Do a Sum

In common with many another profound mathematician, Thomson was totally unable to do the simplest arithmetical calculations. He would frequently ask a student the answer to the most rudimentary sum. On one famous occasion he wrote 7 x 8 = on his blackboard, and then paced up and down before it obviously perplexed. The students waited in breathless expectation. At length Thomson suddenly stopped, darted up to the board, and triumphantly added the figures 54. The applause and laughter continued unabated for some ten minutes.

Three times Cambridge tried to tempt Thomson from Glasgow by the offer of the Cavendish professorship. Each time he declined: "I am afraid it cannot be—alas, alas—the wrench would be too great. I began taking root here in 1831, and have been becoming more and more fixedly moored here ever since." Glasgow, in fact, held all his affections, and death alone was to prove strong enough to sever the bond.

Britain’s Best Known Scientist

During his long and brilliant career Thomson gradually became the best known and most famous British man of science. On New Year’s Day, 1892, therefore, everyone heard with satisfaction that a peerage had been conferred on Sir William Thomson, who thus became Lord Kelvin, taking his title from the river Kelvin, which flows past the University buildings at Glasgow.

Very many other distinctions poured in upon the veteran scientist. He received twenty-five degrees from universities, the Order of Merit, a privy councillorship, thirteen honours and orders from foreign governments and great cities; while no fewer than eighty-eight learned societies delighted to add his name to their list of Fellows or Members—a total which has surely never been surpassed by any other man of science.

In June, 1896, the jubilee of Lord Kelvin’s professorship was celebrated at Glasgow University. A tremendous ovation was accorded him, speeches were made in his praise, bells were rung, banquets held, in fact everything was done to make the occasion a memorable one. Deputations attended from the world over, and Queen Victoria sent a special message by the Lord Provost. The recipient of all these honours remained calm, modest, collected, and a trifle embarrassed. He made several excellent speeches, and though the celebrations tired him out thoroughly, Lord Kelvin was unfeignedly and genuinely delighted and gratified by them all.

Retirement from Active Service

Shortly after this jubilee he reached his seventy-fifth birthday, and on the 11th July, 1899, he "presented a petition" to retire from active service—the word "petition is characteristic of his whole unassuming nature. Accordingly he resigned in the following October, having held his professorship continuously since 1846.

"It was to him an undisguised pain to sever the tie that bound him to the university," wrote one of his colleagues at the time of his retirement. But though the last lecture had been given, the last visit paid to the laboratories, the connexion was not entirely severed, for Lord Kelvin remained on the roll of the university as a research student.

In this new role he proceeded to enjoy him-self immensely. Freed from official cares and trammels, he was like a schoolboy on a holiday. He busied himself over whimsical experiments which he had hitherto never felt justified in trying.

Now, since no duties or responsibilities lay upon him, he could follow his own inclinations. Kelvin, in fact, suddenly renewed his youth, and in his retirement began working with all the ardent enthusiasm of a clever first-year student.

Association with the Curies

He continued to take the liveliest interest in all that was going forward in the scientific world. For example, he, first among the leading scientists of Great Britain, perceived the immense possibilities opened up by the Curies’ discovery of radium. When Pierre Curie and his wife first came to lecture in London, Lord Kelvin, then over eighty, welcomed them officially, and listened enthralled to the account of their discoveries.

He saw that the results of their work demanded an orientation of views as to the ultimate constitution of all matter. At once, and unhesitatingly, he scrapped ideas which had served him all his life, and substituted notions which did not conflict with the Curies’ astounding discoveries—a truly remarkable proof of intellectual modesty and freedom in so old and so famous a philosopher.

Kelvin’s last years, however, were mainly spent rather in consolidating the results of his immense labours than in fresh work. Nevertheless he worked hard, and almost as vigorously as a man in his twenties. During the autumn of 1907 he fell ill, after catching a chill, and died on the 17th November, at Netherhall, his home in Scotland.

Burial in Westminster Abbey

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, next to the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. The funeral was attended by representatives of universities, societies, and institutions from all countries. A simple slab inscribed, "William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, 1824—1907," marks his resting-place. As his biographer, Sir Silvanus P. Thompson, has remarked, "such a strenuous career as his, and such high ideals of intellectual endeavour as illuminated his whole life, are possessions not lightly to be lost."

[See "Life of William Thomson," by Silvanus P. Thompson (2 vols., 1910); "William Thomson, Lord Kelvin," by D. A. Wilson (1910); Lord Kelvin’s Early Home," by E. King (1909), and "Lord Kelvin, 1846-99" (1899).]

We have a small book about him in pdf format which you can download here!

The Life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs
Volume 1
Volume 2


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