Childhood & Early Life
Lord Kelvin was born as William Thompson on 26 June 1824 in Belfast, Ireland. His father James Thompson was a noted engineer and mathematician at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. His mother’s name was Margaret Gardner.
He was born fourth among his parents’ six surviving children. He grew up with elder sisters, Elizabeth King and Anna Bottomley; and elder brother, James A. Thomson. He also had younger brothers, named John and Robert, and a younger sister called Margaret Marshall.
In 1830, when Kelvin was six years old, his mother passed away. Thereafter, the children were brought up by their father in a strict Presbyterian tradition. Very soon, the father and the son developed a close relationship.
Kelvin began his formal education at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. At home, he and his elder brother James were tutored by their father, who taught them most recent principles of mathematics that were yet to be included in the British curriculum.
In 1832, James Thompson was appointed the professor of mathematics at the Glasgow University and moved to Glasgow. In October 1833, the children also relocated there; and William and James started attending a school under the University of Glasgow, studying there for the next six years.
Kelvin was equally interested in classics, earning a prize for translating ‘Lucian of Samosata's Dialogues of the Gods’ from Latin to English at the age of 12. In 1838, at the age of 14, he began studying university level mathematics.
He studied astronomy and chemistry between 1838 and 1839, winning a gold medal from the University of Glasgow for his work ‘Essay on the Figure of the Earth’. During this time, he took a course in physics, then known as natural philosophy, to study heat, electricity and magnetism.
Towards the end of 1840, Kelvin came across Jean-Baptiste Joseph Fourier’s ‘The Analytical Theory of Heat’ at the university library. He mastered the work, which dealt with the application of abstract mathematics to heat flow, within a fortnight. By then, he had also read Laplace's ‘Mécanique céleste’.
By 1841, Kelvin became thoroughly familiar with the phenomena of heat, electricity, and magnetism. Concurrently with formal education, he and his brother were also exposed to the cosmopolitan atmosphere. They were sent to London in mid-1839, and to Germany and the Netherlands in mid-1840. They also traveled to Paris, where they learned French.
In 1841, Kelvin entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he continued to study science, publishing his first paper under the pseudonym of P.Q.R in the same year. Entitled, ‘Fourier's expansions of functions in trigonometrical series’, the paper defended Fourier's mathematical theories against criticism by many British mathematicians.
In 1842, while studying for the mathematical Tripos examinations, he published an important paper on the same subject. It was titled ‘On the uniform motion of heat and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity’.
Concurrently with studying science, especially electricity, Kelvin took a keen interest in the classics and literature. He also played the cornet and was equally active in sports, especially rowing, winning the Colquhoun Silver Sculls for single-seater boats in 1843.
In 1845, he took the final part of the mathematical Tripos examinations. He earned his BA degree as Second Wrangler and first Smith prizeman in the same year. In June, he was elected a fellow of Peterhouse.
After graduation, Kelvin moved to Paris with his fellowship, working for some time in the physical laboratory of Henri-Victor Regnault. Here he met and interacted with famous scholars like Jean-Baptiste Biot, Augustin-Louis Cauchy, Joseph Liouville, and Charles-François Sturm.
On Liouville’s request, he soon started working on Faraday's idea that electric induction takes place through an intervening medium, not by ‘action at a distance’, giving its first mathematical development. He also devised the mathematical technique of electrical images, used for solving problems of electrostatics.
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In 1846, 22 years old Lord Kelvin began his career at the ‘University of Glasgow’ as the professor of natural philosophy. He was unanimously elected to the prestigious chair, which had fallen vacant that year. Very soon, he became known in the academic circle as an upcoming scientist.
In 1847, he began to work with George Gabriel Stokes, known for establishing the science of hydrodynamics. The collaboration continued for the next 50 years and they often exchanged letters on important scientific theories.
Kelvin attended the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science where he heard James Prescott Joule arguing against the caloric theory of heat as well as the theory of the heat engine and stressing on inter-convertibility of heat and motion instead.
Although Kelvin found his ideas intriguing, he was skeptical about them. Very soon, he started studying Carnot–Clapeyron theory, which led to him proposing an absolute scale of temperature in 1848.
In March 1851, he was able to establish Joule’s theory, publishing an important treaty entitled ‘On the Dynamical Theory of Heat’ on it. It also contained his version of the second law of thermodynamics thus, taking an important step towards his pet project, the unification of scientific theories.
After the publication of ‘On the Dynamical Theory of Heat’, Joule began to correspond with Kelvin; which was the beginning of a fruitful collaboration between the two, lasting from 1852 to 1856. Joule conducted experiments and Kelvin analyzed them, often suggesting further experiments.
In 1852, while working with Joules, Kelvin observed that the temperature of gas decreases when it expands in a vacuum. Later, the phenomenon became known as ‘Joule-Thompson effect’ or ‘Kelvin-Joules effect’. Their collaborations helped bring acceptance for Joule’s works and theories.
As an Engineer
Stokes wrote a letter to Lord Kelvin on 16 October 1854, asking his opinion on Michael Faraday’s experiments on the proposed transatlantic telegraph cable. Kelvin published his calculations on the project in 1855, showing that the project was economically viable.
In an analysis in 1855, he stressed on the importance of the cable design, saying that the speed of the signal through a given cable was inversely proportional to the square of its length. In 1856, the idea was disputed by the Atlantic Telegraph Company electrician, Wildman Whitehouse
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Following Whitehouse’s attack, Kelvin explained his idea in an article in the popular Athenaeum magazine. It caught the attention of the authorities; and in December 1856, he was elected to the board of directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. Meanwhile, he continued with his teaching and research endeavors.
In 1856, he began his work on electricity and magnetism, which would later lead James Clark Maxwell to develop his theory of electromagnetism. Sometime now, Kelvin also introduced laboratory work in degree courses. However, he was not a very successful lecturer as he often spoke on topics that his students hardly understood.
Kelvin took some time off from his teaching career in August 1857 and set sail on the cable laying ship, HMS Agamemnon, in an advisory capacity. Unfortunately, the voyage ended after 380 miles due to technical reasons. He later published a paper on the stresses involved in the submarine cable laying process.
In 1858, he once again joined the cable laying expedition aboard HMS Agamemnon. By then, he had developed a complete system for operating a submarine telegraph, using the mirror galvanometer and the siphon recorder. However, since Whiteman refused to give permission, Kelvin could not use the system.
In June 1858, HMS Agamemnon had to return after a disastrous storm. When the board decided to give up the project, Kelvin, Cyrus West Field and Curtis M. Lampson urged them to continue.
The third expedition, led by Whitehouse, met with a disaster and he was removed from his post. However, the catastrophe enabled Kelvin to acquire some engineering skills and a knack for solving practical problems. He now began to lead the problem-solving team from the front.
The fourth cable laying expedition, led by Kelvin, started in July 1865. Unfortunately, it had to be abandoned after laying 1,200 miles of cables. Finally, in 1866, they succeeded in not only laying new cables in two weeks, but also recovering and completing the previous year’s cable.
On his return from the expedition, Kelvin entered into partnerships with two different companies, C.F. Varley and Fleming Jenkin. While working for the latter, he devised an automatic curb sender, a sort of telegraph key, capable of sending messages on a cable.
Concurrently with laying submarine communication cables, he continued to pursue his academic interests. He collaborated with Peter Guthrie Tait on a text book from 1855 to 1867 thus, founding the study of mechanics. Later, he also worked on the vortex theory of atom and allied subjects.
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During the 1880s, Kelvin worked on perfecting the adjustable compass. He also invented a tide machine and depth-measuring equipment. He filed 70 patents in his career.
In the 1890s, he was the head of an international commission that decided the design of the Niagara Falls power station.
Lord Kelvin is best remembered for his work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and magnetism. He also played an important role in the formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.
The Kelvin ‘K’, the base unit of the absolute temperature scale, is named after him because he was the first to propose an “Absolute Thermometric Scale”.
His other works include the dynamic theory of heat, the geophysical determination of the age of Earth, and other fundamental works in hydrodynamics.
Outside the scientific circle, Kelvin is known for his contribution in laying transatlantic telegraph cables. Apart from working with the Atlantic Telegraph Company, he assisted in laying the French Atlantic submarine communications cable in 1869, the Western, Brazilian and Platino-Brazilian cable in 1873.
Awards & Achievements
Lord Kelvin was knighted by Queen Victoria on 10 November 1866. Later in 1892, he received peerage and became 1st Baron Kelvin of Largs. He was appointed a privy counsellor and a member of the Order of Merit by King Edward VII in 1902.
In 1851, he was elected to the Royal Society, receiving the Society’s Royal Medal in 1856 and Copley Medal in 1883. He also served as its president from 1890 to 1895. In addition to that, he also received numerous other prizes and awards.
Kelvin was a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and served as its president first from 1873 to 1878, then from 1886 to 1890, and lastly from 1895 until his death in 1907.
Family & Personal Life
Lord Kelvin married his childhood sweetheart Margaret Crum in September 1852. Unfortunately, her health broke down during their honeymoon, and she never recouped from it. She died on 17 June 1870.
On 24 June 1874, Thompson married Fanny Blandy, daughter of Charles R. Blandy. She was 13 years his junior. He did not have any children from either of his marriages.
He caught a cold in November 1907, and his condition deteriorated very quickly. He passed away on December 17, 1907 at his Scottish residence, Netherhall, in Largs at the age of 83.
The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow houses a permanent exhibition on his works. It not only showcases many of his original papers, but also his instruments and personal artifacts, including his smoking pipe.