William Thomson

William Thomson (1824–1907), known all over the world as Lord Kelvin, was not only an outstanding scientist but also an ingenious inventor, holder of numerous patents and a successful businessman.

Many of his solutions to quite theoretical problems in physics led to practical inventions which have transformed the lives of modern man. To give a few examples: he paved the way for the global communication highway through his commitment to the transatlantic telegraph cable project. 

His investigations leading to the description of the Joule–Thomson effect laid the foundation for the construction of refrigerators (hence the US brand ‘Kelvinator’). He developed several devices enhancing safety at sea, amongst them a compass which was adopted by most navies across the globe.

Lord Kelvin

Holding the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 53 years (1846–1899), his bonds to the institution were strong – reinforced further by his family’s connections.

Having come to Glasgow at the age of ten when his father was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the University, Kelvin was also delighted to see his brother James elected to the Chair of Engineering in March 1873. 

His dedication to the institution did not stop after retiring from teaching; he still wanted to be involved and insisted on registering as a research student on the University roll. Finally, in 1904, Kelvin was elected Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, a position which he held until his death in December 1907.

Life and scientific achievements

  • 1824: Birth of William Thomson on 26 June in Belfast.
  • 1830: The family moves to Glasgow; father James Thomson is appointed the Chair of Mathematics of the University of Glasgow.
  • 1834: William and his brother James matriculate as students of the University.
  • 1840: William passes his exams at Glasgow and matriculates at Peterhouse College in Cambridge.
  • 1841–1843: Publication of a highly appreciated paper on Fourier's mathematics in the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. First papers on heat and electricity.
  • 1845: Graduates BA; elected Foundation Fellow of St Peter's College Cambridge; for some months in Paris in the laboratory of Henri Victor Regnault (1810–1878).
  • 1846: Elected to the Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University (then the Old College). Examines his new realm and realises that there is “no provision of any kind for experimental investigation, still less idea, even, for anything like students’ practical work”.
  • 1847: Seminal paper on the Stirling Engine, which he found while converting a store room into a student physics research laboratory.
  • 1848: Uses the term “dynamical theory of heat”, giving rise to the science thermodynamics.
  • 1850: Brother James’ paper on “the effect of pressure in lowering the freezing point of water” allows William to link the second law to the absolute scale of temperature.
  • 1851: Publication of his “Dynamical theory of heat” and first paper on steam flow: giving birth to the Joule–Thomson effect and modern refrigeration.
  • 1852: Publication of “The second law of thermodynamics”.
  • 1852: Marries Margaret Crum on 15 September.
  • 1854: Paper on thermodynamics of the solar system and first paper on the Luminiferous Medium.
  • 1854: Involved in his first patent with Rankine and Tait (improvements to copper conductors), launching his career as an inventor.
  • 1855: First paper on the electric telegraph.
  • 1856: With Joule, experiments with metals and intense electric fields, leading to discovery of resistance welding.
  • 1857: Appointment to the board of directors of the Transatlantic Telegraph Company.
  • 1858: Builds the cable galvanometer, which launches his career as an entrepreneur and industrialist.
  • 1858: Links America with Europe by telegraph cable for a short time.
  • 1859: Seminal paper on electrical frequency, paving the way for radio.
  • 1860: Publication of first results of experiments on the electrical conductivity of copper wire.
  • 1861–1863: Papers on the age of the sun’s heat, on the absolute measurement of the OHMAD (the British precursor of the standard OHM) and first horology paper on electric clocks.
  • 1866: Following the successful attempt at creating a transatlantic telegraph cable, he receives a knighthood for his work on telegraphy (Sir William Thomson).
  • 1867: Introduces the quadrant electrometer and patents the siphon recorder: the forerunner of the bubble jet printer.
  • 1868: First paper on tidal prediction.
  • 1869: Publishes his design of the clock in No 11 Professors’ Square.
  • 1870: The University moves to its present site at Gilmorehill and takes up residence at No 11 Professors’ Square (without his wife, who passed away in June). In September he buys the sailing ship ‘Lalla Rookh’, which is also to be used as a floating laboratory.
  • 1871: Begins the diffusion experiment, which he expected to last up to 10,000 years. The experiment set-up is still to be seen in the University’s Senate room.
  • 1872–1873: Papers on various topics of distinguishing lights at sea.
  • 1874: His favourite nephew drowns at sea, launching him into a campaign for improving safety at sea. Marries Francis Anna Blandy, to whom he proposed during a stay at Madeira.
  • 1875: The tide calculating machine and tide-gauge are exhibited. Kelvin's private residence, Netherhall at Largs in Ayrshire is completed.
  • 1876–1878: Numerous papers referring to his model of the earth and enhancement of the compass.
  • 1879: Paper on the gravitational effects of rotating water, which is the theoretical basis of the way the El Nino effect is created in the Pacific.
  • 1879–1881: Report to a Government Select Committee on electric light and papers on steam temperature gauges, electric lamps and Faure cell.
  • 1881: Replacement of all 106 gas lamps in his residence at No 11 by electric lighting.
  • 1882: Lighting system also installed in his laboratories, lecture theatre and the Senate Room.
  • 1882–1883: Papers on refrigeration, the gyrocompass as a method of navigation, and on the chirality of molecules.
  • 1883: Invests heavily in the firm of James White.
  • 1884: Visits America to deliver the Baltimore series of lectures on the theory of light.
  • 1885–1887: Creates the standard air dielectric condenser, writes a series of papers on Russell’s solitons and gravity meter.
  • 1888: Calculates the Antarctic ice sheets and relates to the Geological Society of Glasgow the importance of ice and oceans in climate change.
  • 1889: Mathematical model of magnetism, first begun in 1846.
  • 1890: Develops the dripless tap.
  • 1891: Appointment as President of the Royal Society in London.
  • 1892: Elevated to a peerage as the first of the Science lords. He takes the name Lord Kelvin from the river near the University.
  • 1892–1893: Produces the piezoelectric model and works on crystal cleavage planes.
  • 1894: Flight in Maxim’s aeroplane.
  • 1896: Lord Kelvin's Jubilee: the University and guests from all over the world celebrate his 50 years of professorship.
  • 1897: Travel to Canada and America. On hearing of the discovery of electrons, he postulates that they will have quantum energy.
  • 1898: Becomes the first person in the world to send a wireless telegram, send to his colleague George Gabriel Stokes.
  • 1899: Retires from professorship and moves out of the house at No 11 Professors’ Square.
  • 1900–1902: He abandons hope of finding his Great Comprehensive Theory, first proposed in 1846. Publication on his electron theory based on atom model by JJ Thomson (1846–1940).
  • 1903–1907: Continues his broad research and writes papers on light and radium emanations and deep-water waves. Creates a model of radioactive atom.
  • 1904: Elected Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.
  • 1907: Lord Kelvin dies at Netherhall on 17th December, having worked up until three hours before his death.