Lord Kelvin: Victorian Man of Science

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.   


The next day was to be equally full.  In the morning came the presentation of laudatory addresses and the conferring of honorary degrees – Kelvin and fourteen of the world’s leading scientists were awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws.  In the afternoon the visiting dignitaries were invited to inspect the City Council’s pride and joy – the Italian Renaissance splendours of the Municipal Buildings, completed just six years earlier.  In the evening a banquet for 600 guests was arranged in the city’s St. Andrew’s Halls. 


Wednesday saw 250 delegates joining Lord & Lady Kelvin on special trains from Glasgow’s St. Enoch Station bound for Greenock.  There they boarded the Glasgow & South-Western Railway Company’s paddle-steamer Glen Sannox for a cruise on the Firth of Clyde.  The steamer’s route passed the Ayrshire town of Largs where Kelvin had, in 1875, built his country house “Netherhall” and from which he had taken the territorial part of his title of Baron Kelvin of Largs.   The student body was not to be outdone and had also chartered a paddle-steamer, this time the rival North British Railway’s Jeanie Deans, for their own celebratory Clyde cruise from Craigendoran.


It was all very different from the world the young William Thomson had known when he took up his Professorship 50 years before.  Glasgow, the University and the scientific world had all changed, almost beyond recognition – and Thomson was one of the men who had been at the centre of these changes.  The Master and Fellows of Balliol College, Oxford, had aptly summed up Kelvin’s career and unique contribution in their congratulatory message:


The long and brilliant career of discovery which has placed you in the first rank of the scientific men of this century it is needless for us to attempt to describe, but we venture to refer to one remarkable and almost unique characteristic of it – namely, that it has been equally distinguished for the profundity and originality of its achievements in the field of abstract mathematical and physical science, and for the ingenuity and inventive power with which the principles of science have been turned to practical use…


It was indeed in the application of science to practical use that Kelvin’s public fame and recognition was founded.  He was to say in 1883:


The life and soul of science is its practical application … many of the greatest advances … have been made in the earnest desire to turn the knowledge of the properties of matter to some purpose useful to mankind.


A string of inventions – scientific instruments, echo sounders, an improved mariner’s compass and, above all, his work on the Transatlantic telegraph cable made him one of the best known inventors and scientists of the age.   Fundamental work on electricity, magnetism, and thermodynamics had won him both the respect of the academic world and international honours and distinctions.   Knighted in 1866 on the successful completion of the Transatlantic cable, France awarded him the Legion of Honour, Germany made him a Knight of the Order “Pour Le Mérite”.  The Royal Society of London, of which he had been elected a Fellow at the age of 27, had made him its President, as had the Institution of Electrical Engineers and the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


All this was indeed a long way from the Old College buildings in the High Street of Glasgow where Thomson started teaching in 1846.  Even at 22, the new Professor had already had a glittering career and had published a dozen scientific papers.   Born in Belfast on 26th June 1824 to an Ulster father and a Scots mother, he had come to Glasgow as a child of eight when his father, James, had been appointed as Professor of Mathematics at the University.  At what was, even then, the exceptionally early age of 10 years 5 months, William matriculated as a student at Glasgow University.  Despite his extreme youth William won two prizes during his first session in 1834-35 and went on to win a University Medal, although he left Glasgow without graduating.   Having reached the age of 16¾ he went south, to Peterhouse College, Cambridge.   At 21 he graduated with high honours from Cambridge, becoming second wrangler, that is, taking second place in the final degree examinations in mathematics and then winning the University’s Smith Prize for mathematics.  He went to Paris to study for a year, returning in 1846 to take up the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow. 


Natural Philosophy was what we would now refer to as physics.  While Thomson’s particular interest lay in the interface between mathematics and physics he took a very wide sweep through all the physical sciences from telegraphy and refrigeration to atomic theory and geology.  He was an inspiring, if demanding, teacher and one of his students, William Jack, who became Professor of Mathematics at Glasgow, wrote in an obituary appreciation that:


His enthusiasm and passionate interest in the great questions with which he dealt in his lectures were contagious and irresistible.


Something of Thomson’s style comes across in his own comments at his Jubilee celebrations:


To me the professor and his class of students are coefficients, fellow-workers, each contributing to whatever can possibly be done by their daily meetings together.  I dislike the term lecture applied here.  I prefer the French expression “conference”.  I feel that every meeting of a professor with his students should be rather a conference, than a pumping-in of doctrine from the professor perhaps ill understood and not well received by his students.


Thomson’s lectures or “conferences” undoubtedly stretched his students.  The story is told that, while absent in London receiving his knighthood his assistant, a Mr. Day, a less brilliant but perhaps more accessible lecturer, took Thomson’s classes.  On the last day of Thomson’s absence a student (clearly well versed in St John’s Gospel) wrote on the lecture room blackboard the following punning, if heartfelt message:


Work, while it is Day: the Knight cometh, when no man can work.


Thomson’s great contribution to University education in physical science lay in the development of experimental laboratories for undergraduate teaching.  In 1846 no such laboratories existed in British universities.  Their absence in Glasgow is perhaps not surprising given that the Glasgow University buildings were still much as they had been in the seventeenth century.   Picturesque, perhaps, but hardly suited to the needs of scientific and technical education.  Thomson was one of the leading figures in the move in the 1860s to re-locate the University from its old High Street site to new buildings at Gilmorehill, then on the city’s western edge.


William Thomson’s greatest public fame came in 1866.   The original Atlantic telegraph cable had been laid in 1857 and had promptly failed within weeks, having only transmitted a few hundred messages.   Thomson had been involved with the first attempt but he was to play an increasingly large part in the preparations for the successful attempt by the Great Eastern in 1865/1866, accompanying the giant ship on its cable-laying voyage.  Thomson believed both in practical involvement in the application of science and in the commercial development of scientific ideas.  He was a director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, besides acting as technical superintendent for the project, which after many setbacks and struggles eventually succeeded in August 1866.   On Thomson’s return to Britain on the Great Eastern not only was he knighted by Queen Victoria but he also received the freedom of his adopted city of Glasgow.   Sir William, as he now was, went on to act as consultant engineer for a number of other submarine cables over the next ten years.  Two of Thomson’s inventions which were crucial to the success of the submarine cables were the mirror galvanometer, used for conductivity testing of the cable and the siphon recorder, patented in 1867, which became the standard means of recording cable messages.


In 1876 Thomson visited the United States and saw early demonstrations of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone.  On his return to Glasgow he brought back the first pair of Bell telephones to be seen in Britain.  New ideas always appealed to Thomson, his Glasgow house was the first private home in the city to be equipped with electric lighting.


Appropriately for a scientist working in Glasgow, the centre of the Clyde shipbuilding industry and the birthplace of so much of the world’s shipping, Thomson devoted a great deal of time and thought to questions of navigation.  He patented a sounding device which made it easier and quicker to determine the depth of water under a ship.  Previously this information had only been available by stopping and manually casting a lead weight over the side and measuring the length of cord run out before it hit the bottom.  Thomson’s instrument recorded the water pressure operating on a sinker by means of a pressure gauge and recorded this by either chemical action or the compression of a steel spring.   His other important navigational device was an improved mariner’s compass.  The development of iron and steel ships had given problems with the old form of compass – the metal of the ship affecting the compass needle.  Earlier compensating compasses had used larger and larger needles and heavy masses of compensating magnetic material.  Thomson’s compass used the smallest possible magnetic needles and easily adjustable correcting magnets and, despite initial Admiralty scepticism, was soon in general use.   He also developed a device for producing tidal predictions.


Thomson established a company in partnership with James White, his instrument maker, to manufacture and exploit his scientific inventions and patents. These inventions – Thomson was to register 70 British patents – made him a rich man.  He died leaving an estate valued at over £160,000.   His annual earnings from telegraph patents alone earned him several times his professorial salary and enabled him to build his mansion house at Largs and run his 126 ton schooner yacht Lalla Rookh,  named after the heroine of an oriental tale by the Irish writer Thomas Moore.  A keen musician, a founder of the Cambridge University Musical Society, Thomson was also an active sportsman, and while at Peterhouse had rowed in  his college boat and won the University’s Colquhoun Silver Sculls.  Later in life he walked with a slight limp a result of a broken thigh sustained in a fall on the ice while enjoying a game of curling.


The celebrations of 1896 might have marked Kelvin’s fiftieth year as Professor but it certainly did not signal his retirement and he was to continue to work, to contribute scientific papers and to speak at conferences throughout the remainder of his life.  Indeed he continued to register patents until the last year of his life.   He carried out his duties as Professor of Natural Philosophy until 1899, by which time he was aged 75.  With typical enthusiasm he then applied to the Senate of the University to be appointed as a Research Student.  This kept his name on the University books and entitled him to pursue his investigations in the laboratories of the Department of Natural Philosophy.  Kelvin’s affection for Glasgow University was great – his title came from the River Kelvin which flows past the University buildings on Gilmorehill and the figures he chose as the supporters for his coat of arms were a sailor and a Glasgow student.  He three times refused the offer of the prestigious Cavendish professorship of physics at Cambridge University, preferring to stay in Glasgow.   He wrote on the occasion of the third offer that each time he had felt “…forced to the conclusion that Glasgow was the place for me…” because of the facilities and environment he had created:                         “I have things in train here to allow me to make the most of my capacity for work …”


Nor did 1896 end the flood of honours in Kelvin’s life.  In 1902, King Edward VII created the Order of Merit, as a special mark of distinction for eminent persons.  The Order was to be limited to 24 members – and Kelvin became the one of the first group of recipients.  In 1904 Glasgow University appointed him as Chancellor – the titular head of the University.


In his installation address as Chancellor Kelvin told how his father, James Thomson, and some friends, coming from Belfast to study at Glasgow University in the 1813-14 session, and walking from Greenock to Glasgow, had been amazed to see what they took to be a tall black chimney moving beyond a field beside the road.  On running across the field they discovered that they were looking at Henry Bell’s steamship Comet, then less than a year old, plying between Glasgow and Greenock.  James Thomson had just seen Europe’s first commercial steamship.


P.S. Comet


By the end of his son’s life, ocean liners hundreds of time larger than the 28 ton Comet were safely navigating the waters of the world, in part due to Thomson’s inventions.   Glasgow and the Clyde had become the world’s greatest shipbuilding and engineering centre.  The city’s University was at the forefront of scientific research and technical education, with a world-wide reputation that owed much to Thomson’s prestige.


Perhaps the most fitting and lasting tribute to Kelvin is his inclusion in that distinguished group of scientists whose names have been given to units of measurement – Watt, Joule, Pascal, Herz, Faraday, etc.   The degree Kelvin has been adopted as the Système Internationale base unit of thermodynamic temperature. An apt choice, reflecting Kelvin’s early researches to establish the absolute zero of temperature.   Kelvin was, appropriately enough, an enthusiastic advocate of metric measurements, denouncing what he described as the:


…absurd, ridiculous, time-wasting, brain-destroying, British system of weights and measures


In his later years he became politically active, responding to his Ulster roots by becoming an active Liberal Unionist in opposition to Gladstone’s Irish Home Rule Bill of 1886.  He married twice but had no children from either marriage.   Kelvin died, aged 85, at Largs on 17th December 1907.  Such was his reputation that there was little doubt that he should be buried in London, alongside the great national figures in Westminster Abbey.  Some feelings were expressed that this essentially Glaswegian figure should have his resting place in his adopted city but, perhaps inevitably, Westminster Abbey won the day.  His funeral took place on 23rd December 1907.  A crowded international gathering of scientists, statesmen, and representatives of the many worlds in which William Thomson had moved with such distinction saw him buried next to Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin.  At noon, as the Abbey ceremonies were taking place, flags on the ships in the Clyde flew at half mast and the bells of Glasgow University and the city churches tolled in memory of a man who had for so long been at the centre of the city’s life.



(c) Brian D Osborne


This article originally appeared in “The Highlander” magazine


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