In June 1896 Glasgow was busily engaged in celebrating one of her great men. The City and its ancient University had combined to mark the 50th anniversary of William Thomson’s appointment as Professor of Natural Philosophy. Fifty years was certainly a long time to occupy a Professorial Chair – even allowing for the fact that Thomson had taken up his post at the remarkably early age of 22 – but this alone would not account for the celebrations. William Thomson, or Lord Kelvin as he had been known since Queen Victoria conferred a peerage on him in 1892, was more than just another long-serving academic; he was a household name and one of the most distinguished men of science of the Victorian age.
Statue of Lord Kelvin in Kelvingrove Park, Glasgow
His international reputation would be attested to by the presence in Glasgow of a host of distinguished scientists and academics from Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. A gracious letter would be received from the Prince of Wales, and the presentation of congratulatory messages from 90 universities, colleges and learned societies from around the world, ranging from Yale and Johns Hopkins to Moscow and Tokyo would confirm the academic world’s esteem for Kelvin.
His adopted city and his University vied with each other to honour him and the delegates’ stamina would be tested by the festivities. A conversazione for 2500 guests was held on Monday 15th June in the University’s Bute Hall, which was “lit by electric light for the occasion” and which also housed a display of Kelvin’s scientific achievements and inventions. Outside the pipe band of the Gordon Highlanders played to greet the distinguished company. At the conclusion of the conversazione the students of Glasgow held a gaudeamus, or student merry-making, in Kelvin’s honour in their Student’s Union, commencing at 10.45p.m.
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