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William Thomson, Lord Kelvin 1824-1907

A web exhibition of manuscripts from the collections
of the University of Glasgow Library
Originally exhibited in 1977; adapted for the web in 2008

Introduction | Boole | Joule | Maxwell | Atlantic Cable | Jenkin | Varley | Tait | Darwin | Other correspondents | Miscellany

Kelvin in 1876 (Photo B36/6)

William Thomson, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University for 53 years from 1846, was universally recognized as the leading figure in the world of science for thirty years, and as a powerful eminence in academic scientific thought for thirty years before that. In his own lifetime the most honoured scientist there has ever been, Thomson was also the first of the science ‘heroes’ to the man in the street.

Irish by birth but almost wholly Scottish by descent, Thomson was brought to Glasgow at the age of eight by his father, James Thomson, Professor of Mathematics from 1832 to 1849. He sat in on lectures and was otherwise taught by the Thomson family until he was ten, when he became a fully matriculated student. On completion of his course in Glasgow, he went to Cambridge for a second five year studentship - in the school of mathematics founded by George Green, which was also to produce G. G. Stokes, J. C. Maxwell and P. G. Tait. The latter pair, with Thomson and J.P. Joule, became known as the 'Great Northerners'.

Thomson was thus an entirely new sort of figure in the scientific field, a professional scientist trained almost from birth; his arrival coincided vitally with the emergence of the new sciences of current electricity and thermodynamics.

Frances Anna Thomson, Baroness Kelvin (MS Kelvin App 1/7)

Thomson became a Professor at the age of 22, teaching from the beginning that the sciences most necessary to the physicist were mechanics and dynamics, and, that these must be allied to a strong and fluent mathematics. He himself had an extraordinary ability for viewing and interpreting almost all phenomena in terms of mechanical action saying, ‘If I can make a mechanical model of a thing I can understand it'. He perceived, too, that a major requirement was accuracy of measurement:

'When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in number, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind’.

A professorial ancestor of Thomson, George Sinclair, had in 1686 written something similar: 'God is not tied to numbers; yet nevertheless he doeth and disposeth his works by number, weight and measure.’

When considering the achievements of William Thomson, one is struck first by the practical effectiveness of the man and then again by his extreme versatility. For instance, he applied the principles of mechanics to the measurement of electricity: he weighed electric charge and current, using his electrometers and current balances, and it is to him that we owe the absolute definitions of those most important units - the ohm, volt and amp. Additionally he invented a whole series of electrical instruments, which became the building blocks of both the telegraphic and the electrical power industries. He was an early experimenter with electric lighting and, according to Joseph Larmor, his home in the University was the first ever to be lit by electricity. He also became heavily involved in the practical side of the first trans-Atlantic cables.

Lord Kelvin c.1897 (Photo 36/8)

Similarly, thermodynamics - the general science of energy and its conservation, which we are so sensitive to nowadays - also benefited enormously from Thomson's interest. He founded the absolute scale of temperature, the Kelvin scale; his researches with Joule uncovered the cooling effect due to the expansion of gases which has had considerable application in cryogenics; he enunciated one form of the law of thermodynamics; and he did more than any other in correlating his own work and the work of Carnot, Clausius, Joule, Rankine and others, to provide a firm foundation for the new science.

Quite apart from these major contributions, Thomson would have been famous for his comparatively lesser works alone. His studies into the behaviour of rotating bodies and his computation of the age of the earth helped to found the science of geophysics. His work on rotational dynamics also produced the ‘vortex atom’ theory. The design principles incorporated in his electric meters were often new and became part of the science of kinematics. But to the ordinary man it was his work in marine matters - not only the submarine cables but his nautical instruments - which seized the imagination. In the late 1860s, Thomson had a yacht built, called the Lalla Rookh, and this became his most absorbing plaything for the rest of his life as well as being a floating laboratory. He invented the modern form of the mariner's compass (these were made in their thousands by the firm of James White, in which he later became a partner). He invented new depth sounders and also a series of tidal meters, analysers and predictors which allowed the prediction of the tide in any port in the world. He also invented a new form of astronomical clock capable of extreme accuracy. His original clock, with its two pendulums, is still ticking away in his old house in the University.

William Thomson was knighted in 1867 for his services to ocean telegraphy and became Lord Kelvin in 1892: the first of the science lords. His body is buried in Westminster Abbey, next to the grave of Isaac Newton.

Capillary tubes for syphon recorder (Photo A6)

Binnacle stand (Photo A5)

Alongside the prodigious amount of his scientific work - his publications number almost seven hundred - Thomson conducted at all periods of his life an energetic correspondence with the leading men of science (he disliked the term ‘scientist’) of his day, whether in Britain, France, Germany, Italy or the United States. Although the bulk of his correspondence is now in Cambridge University Library, there is also a substantial collection in Glasgow, in the Library of his own University.

The papers, pamphlets and books that make up the Library's Kelvin Collection today were originally donated to the University by Kelvin himself (in several donations during his lifetime) and by his nephew, James Thomson Bottomley, in 1926. This collection has been augmented over the years by additional purchases and donations. The most recent acquisition, in March 2008, consists of a collection of some 450 letters relating to Kelvin and his brother James Thomson (1822-1892). These letters document the close and productive relationship that existed between the two brothers. Kelvin reports on his work, his travels, and his engagements with other scientists; from London, he writes of meetings with Faraday, Tyndall, Hooker and others; in 1856 he describes spending ten days with Joule where he ‘got through some very interesting experiments along with him’. This set of letters also includes correspondence with Fleeming Jenkin (relating largely to their submarine telegraphy work and patents), W. E. Ayrton (the electrical engineer and physicist), John Pringle Nichol (professor of astronomy at Glasgow), J. Emerson Tennent (writing from Ceylon), and various other family members.

Outwith the Library, see also:

  • The Hunterian Museum
    Preserves a unique collection of instruments designed by Kelvin or sent to him by colleagues. Kelvin's life is celebrated in a permanent exhibition: Lord Kelvin: Revolutionary Scientist
  • The Hunterian Art Gallery
    There are several portraits of Lord Kelvin in the Hunterian Art Collections. Portraits with catalogue numbers 42442, 25595, 52214 and 25512 are works on paper (these are not on display and can be viewed by appointment only); an oil on canvas portrait by Hubert von Herkomer is hung on the South Staircase, Gilbert Scott Building: this is freely accessible to the public. For further details, see the Hunterian's online catalogue of objects.
  • University Archives Services
    Papers record the part played by the P.N.P., ("Professor of Natural Philosophy") as Kelvin would call himself, in University affairs, and also hold the records of Kelvin and Hughes Ltd.

In addition, the University's Department of Physics has also created a website dedicated to Lord Kelvin's life and work.


This virtual exhibition shows only a very small selection of the 2500 letters exchanged with 500 correspondents that are held in the Library (for more information about these papers, see our Kelvin collection page). It concentrates on those who figure most prominently – Boole, Darwin, Jenkin, Joule, Maxwell, Tait, Varley - while also giving an indication of some of the other people with whom Thomson was in touch. At the same time, it shows that the University's collections provide a source of prime importance for historians of the scientific activity of the second half of the Nineteenth Century.

Adapted for the web by Fiona M. Neale, March 2008

Go to next section: correspondence with George Boole