Thomas Sefton

  • Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar


Room 303, East Quadrangle

Research title: Considering the life and work of Lord Kelvin from the perspective of the history of the earth sciences

Research Summary

Research title

Considering the life and work of Lord Kelvin from the perspective of the history of the earth sciences.


Summary of research

 On 15 June 1896 the University of Glasgow celebrated the jubilee of the professorship of Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, who had been elected to the University’s chair of Natural Philosophy in 1846. Delegates attended from universities and scientific institutions around the world. The Royal Geographical Society was represented by Dr John Murray, veteran of the Challenger expedition and a member of the Council of the Society. In a subsequent account of the event in its in-house publication, the Geographical Journal, the Society justified its participation on the grounds that Kelvin had made a number of important contributions to the sciences of geography and earth science.

Taking its prompt from the 1896 article in the Geographical Journal, this PhD project will consider the life and work of Lord Kelvin from the perspective of the history of the earth sciences. In doing so it will consider his role in the development of a range of scientific instruments for use in studies of the earth and its processes. The project will examine Kelvin’s work on submarine telegraphy, deep-sea sounding, magnetic variation and marine navigation. It will also consider his contributions to tidal studies, to theories of glacier movement and to relations between polar ice-caps and sea level. The project will make extensive use of the scientific instrument collections and other historical items held as part of the Hunterian’s Kelvin collection, from compass cards to submarine cable charts. The project will benefit greatly from a new purpose-designed Collections Study Centre in the Kelvin Hall development, in which the Hunterian’s objects and specimens will be accessible.

The project will also utilise the archives held in the University of Glasgow’s Archives and Special Collections, including Kelvin’s correspondence and papers, patents and business papers, the running of his laboratory, correspondence with scientific instrument makers, and lecture notes. This project will improve our understandings of the relations between the geographical and physical sciences in the nineteenth century. It will also contribute to current debates regarding the role of place in the production of scientific knowledge and instrumental practice. Lastly, the project will improve understandings of the Hunterian’s instrument collection and bring them into greater public view.




  • Geography 1
  • Level 2 Qualitative Methods

Additional Information

Academic History

  • 2016 – Present: School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, University of Glasgow
  • 2012 – 2016: Department of Geology, University of Leicester (MGeol in Geology).