1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kelvin, William Thomson, Baron
KELVIN, WILLIAM THOMSON, Baron (1824–1907), British physicist, the second son of James Thomson, LL.D., professor of mathematics in the university of Glasgow, was born at Belfast, Ireland, on the 26th of June 1824, his father being then teacher of mathematics in the Royal Academical Institution. In 1832 James Thomson accepted the chair of mathematics at Glasgow, and migrated thither with his two sons, James and William, who in 1834 matriculated in that university, William being then little more than ten years of age, and having acquired all his early education through his father’s instruction. In 1841 William Thomson entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, and in 1845 took his degree as second wrangler, to which honour he added that of the first Smith’s Prize. The senior wrangler in his year was Stephen Parkinson, a man of a very different type of mind, yet one who was a prominent figure in Cambridge for many years. In the same year Thomson was elected fellow of Peterhouse. At that time there were few facilities for the study of experimental science in Great Britain. At the Royal Institution Faraday held a unique position, and was feeling his way almost alone. In Cambridge science had progressed little since the days of Newton. Thomson therefore had recourse to Paris, and for a year worked in the laboratory of Regnault, who was then engaged in his classical researches on the thermal properties of steam. In 1846, when only twenty-two years of age, he accepted the chair of natural philosophy in the university of Glasgow, which he filled for fifty-three years, attaining universal recognition as one of the greatest physicists of his time. The Glasgow chair was a source of inspiration to scientific men for more than half a century, and many of the most advanced researches of other physicists grew out of the suggestions which Thomson scattered as sparks from his anvil. One of his earliest papers dealt with the age of the earth, and brought him into collision with the geologists of the Uniformitarian school, who were claiming thousands of millions of years for the formation of the stratified portions of the earth’s crust. Thomson’s calculations on the conduction of heat showed that at some time between twenty millions and four hundred millions, probably about one hundred millions, of years ago, the physical conditions of the earth must have been entirely different from those which now obtain. This led to a long controversy, in which the physical principles held their ground. In 1847 Thomson first met James Prescott Joule at the Oxford meeting of the British Association. A fortnight later they again met in Switzerland, and together measured the rise of the temperature of the water in a mountain torrent due to its fall. Joule’s views of the nature of heat strongly influenced Thomson’s mind, with the result that in 1848 Thomson proposed his absolute scale of temperature, which is independent of the properties of any particular thermometric substance, and in 1851 he presented to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a paper on the dynamical theory of heat, which reconciled the work of N. L. Sadi Carnot with the conclusions of Count Rumford, Sir H. Davy, J. R. Mayer and Joule, and placed the dynamical theory of heat and the fundamental principle of the conservation of energy in a position to command universal acceptance. It was in this paper that the principle of the dissipation of energy, briefly summarized in the second law of thermodynamics, was first stated.
Although his contributions to thermodynamics may properly be regarded as his most important scientific work, it is in the field of electricity, especially in its application to submarine telegraphy, that Lord Kelvin is best known to the world at large. From 1854 he is most prominent among telegraphists. The stranded form of conductor was due to his suggestion; but it was in the letters which he addressed in November and December of that year to Sir G. G. Stokes, and which were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society for 1855, that he discussed the mathematical theory of signalling through submarine cables, and enunciated the conclusion that in long cables the retardation due to capacity must render the speed of signalling inversely proportional to the square of the cable’s length. Some held that if this were true ocean telegraphy would be impossible, and sought in consequence to disprove Thomson’s conclusion. Thomson, on the other hand, set to work to overcome the difficulty by improvement in the manufacture of cables, and first of all in the production of copper of high conductivity and the construction of apparatus which would readily respond to the slightest variation of the current in the cable. The mirror galvanometer and the siphon recorder, which was patented in 1867, were the outcome of these researches; but the scientific value of the mirror galvanometer is independent of its use in telegraphy, and the siphon recorder is the direct precursor of one form of galvanometer (d’Arsonval’s) now commonly used in electrical laboratories. A mind like that of Thomson could not be content to deal with any physical quantity, however successfully from a practical point of view, without subjecting it to measurement. Thomson’s work in connexion with telegraphy led to the production in rapid succession of instruments adapted to the requirements of the time for the measurement of every electrical quantity, and when electric lighting came to the front a new set of instruments was produced to meet the needs of the electrical engineer. Some account of Thomson’s electrometer is given in the article on that subject, while every modern work of importance on electric lighting describes the instruments which he has specially designed for central station work; and it may be said that there is no quantity which the electrical engineer is ordinarily called upon to measure for which Lord Kelvin did not construct the suitable instrument. Currents from the ten-thousandth of an ampere to ten thousand amperes, electrical pressures from a minute fraction of a volt to 100,000 volts, come within the range of his instruments, while the private consumer of electric energy is provided with a meter recording Board of Trade units.
When W. Weber in 1851 proposed the extension of C. F. Gauss’s system of absolute units to electromagnetism, Thomson took up the question, and, applying the principles of energy, calculated the absolute electromotive force of a Daniell cell, and determined the absolute measure of the resistance of a wire from the heat produced in it by a known current. In 1861 it was Thomson who induced the British Association to appoint its first famous committee for the determination of electrical standards, and it was he who suggested much of the work carried out by J. Clerk Maxwell, Balfour Stewart and Fleeming Jenkin as members of that committee. The oscillatory character of the discharge of the Leyden jar, the foundation of the work of H. R. Hertz and of wireless telegraphy were investigated by him in 1853.
It was in 1873 that he undertook to write a series of articles for Good Words on the mariner’s compass. He wrote the first, but so many questions arose in his mind that it was five years before the second appeared. In the meanwhile the compass went through a process of complete reconstruction in his hands a process which enabled both the permanent and the temporary magnetism of the ship to be readily compensated, while the weight of the 10-in. card was reduced to one-seventeenth of that of the standard card previously in use, although the time of swing was increased. Second only to the compass in its value to the sailor is Thomson’s sounding apparatus, whereby soundings can be taken in 100 fathoms by a ship steaming at 16 knots; and by the employment of piano-wire of a breaking strength of 140 tons per square inch and an iron sinker weighing only 34 ℔, with a self-registering pressure gauge, soundings can be rapidly taken in deep ocean. Thomson’s tide gauge, tidal harmonic analyser and tide predicter are famous, and among his work in the interest of navigation must be mentioned his tables for the simplification of Sumner’s method for determining the position of a ship at sea.
It is impossible within brief limits to convey more than a general idea of the work of a philosopher who published more than three hundred original papers bearing upon nearly every branch of physical science; who one day was working out the mathematics of a vortex theory of matter on hydrodynamical principles or discovering the limitations of the capabilities of the vortex atom, on another was applying the theory of elasticity to tides in the solid earth, or was calculating the size of water molecules, and later was designing an electricity meter, a dynamo or a domestic water-tap. It is only by reference to his published papers that any approximate conception can be formed of his life’s work; but the student who had read all these knew comparatively little of Lord Kelvin if he had not talked with him face to face. Extreme modesty, almost amounting to diffidence, was combined with the utmost kindliness in Lord Kelvin’s bearing to the most elementary student, and nothing seemed to give him so much pleasure as an opportunity to acknowledge the efforts of the humblest scientific worker. The progress of physical discovery during the last half of the 19th century was perhaps as much due to the kindly encouragement which he gave to his students and to others who came in contact with him as to his own researches and inventions; and it would be difficult to speak of his influence as a teacher in stronger terms than this.
One of his former pupils, Professor J. D. Cormack, wrote of him: “It is perhaps at the lecture table that Lord Kelvin displays most of his characteristics. . . . His master mind, soaring high, sees one vast connected whole, and, alive with enthusiasm, with smiling face and sparkling eye, he shows the panorama to his pupils, pointing out the similarities and differences of its parts, the boundaries of our knowledge, and the regions of doubt and speculation. To follow him in his flights is real mental exhilaration.”
In 1852 Thomson married Margaret, daughter of Walter Crum of Thornliebank, who died in 1870; and in 1874 he married Frances Anna, daughter of Charles R. Blandy of Madeira. In 1866, perhaps chiefly in acknowledgment of his services to trans-Atlantic telegraphy, Thomson received the honour of knighthood, and in 1892 he was raised to the peerage with the title of Baron Kelvin of Largs. The Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order was conferred on him in 1896, the year of the jubilee of his professoriate. In 1890 he became president of the Royal Society, and he received the Order of Merit on its institution in 1902. A list of the degrees and other honours which he received during the fifty-three years he held his Glasgow chair would occupy as much space as this article; but any biographical sketch would be conspicuously incomplete if it failed to notice the celebration in 1896 of the jubilee of his professorship. Never before had such a gathering of rank and science assembled as that which filled the halls in the university of Glasgow on the 15th, 16th and 17th of June in that year. The city authorities joined with the university in honouring their most distinguished citizen. About 2500 guests were received in the university buildings, the library of which was devoted to an exhibition of the instruments invented by Lord Kelvin, together with his certificates, diplomas and medals. The Eastern, the Anglo-American and the Commercial Cable companies united to celebrate the event, and from the university library a message was sent through Newfoundland, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Florida and Washington, and was received by Lord Kelvin seven and a half minutes after it had been despatched, having travelled about 20,000 miles and twice crossed the Atlantic during the interval. It was at the banquet in connexion with the jubilee celebration that the Lord Provost of Glasgow thus summarized Lord Kelvin’s character: “His industry is unwearied; and he seems to take rest by turning from one difficulty to another—difficulties that would appal most men and be taken as enjoyment by no one else. . . . This life of unwearied industry, of universal honour, has left Lord Kelvin with a lovable nature that charms all with whom he comes in contact.”
Three years after this celebration Lord Kelvin resigned his chair at Glasgow, though by formally matriculating as a student he maintained his connexion with the university, of which in 1904 he was elected chancellor. But his retirement did not mean cessation of active work or any slackening of interest in the scientific thought of the day. Much of his time was given to writing and revising the lectures on the wave theory of light which he had delivered at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in 1884, but which were not finally published till 1904. He continued to take part in the proceedings of various learned societies; and only a few months before his death, at the Leicester meeting of the British Association, he attested the keenness with which he followed the current developments of scientific speculation by delivering a long and searching address on the electronic theory of matter. He died on the 17th of December 1907 at his residence, Netherhall, near Largs, Scotland; there was no heir to his title, which became extinct.
In addition to the Baltimore lectures, he published with Professor P. G. Tait a standard but unfinished Treatise on Natural Philosophy (1867). A number of his scientific papers were collected in his Reprint of Papers on Electricity and Magnetism (1872), and in his Mathematical and Physical Papers (1882, 1883 and 1890), and three volumes of his Popular Lectures and Addresses appeared in 1889–1894. He was also the author of the articles on “Heat” and “Elasticity” in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.