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William Thomson [Lord Kelvin]

(1824 - 1907)





Born on 26 June 1824 in Belfast , Ireland, William Thomson became one of the leading physical scientists and greatest teachers of his time. His family were committed to liberal political reform and personal advancement. Both he and his elder brother James Thomson (1822-1892), who also became a prominent physicist, were educated at home by their father.

In 1832, Thomson's father took up the post of Professor of mathematics at Glasgow University . Thomson himself entered the University two years later at the age of ten to study Natural Philosophy (Science). He was elected to the position of Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, at the age of 22, where he created the first physics laboratory in a British University. He spent most of his life there.



Thomson patented 70 inventions and published 661 papers in all, the first of which was at the age of 16. He did important research in Thermodynamics , investigating the interrelation of heat and mechanical energy. Over the years, Thomson collaborated with British physicist James Prescott Joule ; Joule's experimental prowess matched Thomson's theoretical ability. In 1852 they discovered the Joule-Thomson cooling effect , which causes gases to undergo a fall in temperature as they expand through a nozzle.

Thomson's mirror galvonometer, used in the first transatlantic telegraph cable linking Ireland with Canada.

In 1848, Thomson proposed the absolute scale of temperature. In 1851 he published the paper "On the dynamical theory of heat", and also that year was elected to the Royal Society. He was also interested in the age of the sun and the earth and calculated values for each. He designed many new devices, including the mirror-galvonometer which was used in the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable , in 1866. Thomson often risked his life while supervising the laying of such cables.

In 1870, after buying a large yacht, Thomson became interested in problems of navigation. He designed a new improved compass, consisting of eight narrow steel needles suspended from a light aluminium ring under a thin circular card. In 1882, it was adopted by all British navy vessels.



He was knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria as Lord Kelvin, for his work. Among his many honours were the Royal Society's Copley medal in 1883, the Presidency of the Royal Society from 1890 to 1894, and the Order of Merit in 1902. His legacy is remembered today in the SI unit for temperature, Kelvin (K) .

The Thomson compass.

He is also known for an address given to an assemblage of physicists at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900 in which he stated, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement."


Later life:

Thomson retired from his chair at Glasgow in 1899. After a long and fruitful career he died at his home in Largs , Ayrshire, Scotland on 17 December 1907. He was buried at Westminister Abbey,London.

There is a Crater Thomson on the moon.

There was a statue erected in his honour at the Botanic Gardens, Belfast in 1913.

Here are some famous skeptical quotes by William Thomson

"Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible"

"Radio has no future"

"X-rays are a hoax"