Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/263

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259
KELVIN IN THE SIXTIES

KELVIN IN THE SIXTIES[1]
By Professor W. E. AYRTON, F.R.S.

CENTRAL TECHNICAL COLLEGE, SOUTH KENSINGTON

THERE is the stereotyped teacher—the teacher who is like a collection of phonograph records which the human phonograph rolls out before his class in the same order annually—the talking text-book, who instructs his students what it will pay them to read, payment being made in examination marks—the type of teacher whose students, machine-made like himself, will grind out the tune, after the clockwork has been wound up, by due preparation on the candidates' part, the tune required written out by the examiner, and the clockwork started.

And, on the other hand, there is the great teacher, the inspired teacher, he who soars above scientific fashion, whose doxy becomes scientific orthodoxy, who produces thinkers, not mere successful examinees. Such was William Thomson, who became Lord Kelvin.

In the sixties, after the British Association Committee on Standards of Electrical Resistance had been started, but was still in its infancy, I had the rare good fortune to be one of Thomson's students. I, therefore, add to the many memoirs that have recently appeared a loving tribute from one who was at the Glasgow University when the quadrant-electrometer, the syphon recorder, the mouse mill influence machine, and many other instruments that have attained world-wide renown were being developed. Even after his severe illness in 1905 he never lost his keen interest in science, but at the time I am referring to he was not only a giant mentally, but of extraordinary physical activity.

When he came into his class-room, a room festooned with wires and spiral springs hanging from the ceiling like the rigging of a ship, he had hardly given a thought to what he was going to talk about—if it were Monday morning he had just returned from staying the week-end with Tait at Edinburgh, and he gave us an enthusiastic account of their talk, bubbled over with what they had been doing, was full of suggestions about it, told us how the manuscript of "Natural Philosophy" was progressing. We felt that we also had been discussing these points with Tait in his Edinburgh study, and listened with rapt attention to Thomson's narrative.

At that time the advanced proofs of only a fragment of that book had been printed off for the class. We saw the book grow, we felt pride in its growth, we almost felt that we were helping that growth.


  1. From the Engineering Supplement of the London Times.