◀ ▲ ▶History / 19th-century / Person: Thomson (2), William (Lord Kelvin)
Person: Thomson (2), William (Lord Kelvin)
William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow at a very young age. He made important contributions to many areas of Physics including electricity, magnetism and thermodynamics. His work on the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable made his fortune.
Mathematical Profile (Excerpt):
- William attended Glasgow University from the age of 10.
- Thomson began what we would consider university level work in 1838 when he was 14 years old.
- His Essay on the Figure of the Earth won him a gold medal from the University of Glasgow when he was 15 years old and it was a truly remarkable work containing important ideas which Thomson returned to throughout his life.
- At the end of session 1839-40 Thomson read Fourier's The Analytical Theory of Heat a work on the application of abstract mathematics to heat flow.
- In particular the works of Lagrange, Laplace, Legendre, Fresnel and Fourier were treated with "reverence" to use a word which Thomson himself would later use to describe the attitude that his lecturers had towards these French mathematicians.
- Thomson also read Laplace's Mécanique céleste in session 1839-40 and visited Paris during this session.
- from 1838 to 1841, William appears to have become thoroughly familiar with the phenomena of heat, electricity, and magnetism.
- In 1841 Thomson entered Cambridge and in the same year his first paper was published.
- A more important paper On the uniform motion of heat and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity was published in 1842 while Thomson was studying for the mathematical tripos examinations at Cambridge.
- At Cambridge Thomson was coached by William Hopkins, a famous Cambridge coach who played a more important role than the lecturers.
- Despite the efforts of Babbage, Peacock and Herschel to introduce the new French mathematics into Cambridge, the style of the Mathematical Tripos taken by Thomson still left much to be desired.
- Thomson took the final part of the Mathematical Tripos examinations in 1845.
- Also in 1845 Thomson read George Green's work which was to have a major influence on the direction of his research.
- Perhaps the most profitable discussions that Thomson had in Paris were with Liouville.
- It was at Liouville's request that Thomson began to try to bring together the ideas of Faraday, Coulomb and Poisson on electrical theory.
- Thomson was led to study the whole methodology of a physical science, distinguishing 'physical' parts of a theory from 'mathematical' parts.
- Thomson returned from Paris to Glasgow and, in 1846, was unanimously elected professor of natural philosophy at the University.
- In 1847-49 he collaborated with Stokes on hydrodynamical studies, which Thomson applied to electrical and atomic theory.
- The thermodynamical studies of Thomson led him to propose an absolute scale of temperature in 1848.
- It derives its name from the title, Baron Kelvin of Largs, that Thomson received from the British government in 1892, and named after Thomson because of his proposal in this 1848 paper.
- Thomson published between 1849 and 1852 three influential papers on the theory of heat.
- However, historians of science have already called attention to Thomson's difficulties in reconciling a principle formulated by James Prescott Joule with another principle formulated by Nicolas Leonard Sadi Carnot, and to errors Thomson made in his calculations.
- Thomson somehow let the meaning of 'recovery' escape him.
- In 1852 Thomson observed what is now called the Joule-Thomson effect, namely the decrease in temperature of a gas when it expands in a vacuum.
- Joule's ideas on heat were to change Thomson's views over the years.
- The dynamical theory of heat led Thomson to also think of a dynamical theory for electricity and magnetism.
- This work by Thomson in 1856 on electricity and magnetism is important for it was these ideas which led Maxwell to develop his remarkable new theory of electromagnetism.
- One might think that Thomson would have eagerly supported Maxwell's theory which his own work had helped to create, but this was not so.
- Thomson had ideas of his own which he hoped would lead to a unifying theory, and his ideas took him further and further from accepting those of Maxwell.
- On vortex motion which Thomson published in 1867, set out his ideas.
- However, Thomson's initial hope that his theory could explain electromagnetism, light, gravity, and chemical processes slowly faded.
- W Thomson was the first who tried to treat mathematically Faraday's conception of lines of force, and he introduced J C Maxwell to the problems of the electromagnetic field not only by his works, but also by his personal initiative.
- This seems too extreme a view, but Thomson's refusal to accept atoms, his opposition to Darwin's theories, his incorrect speculations as to the age of the Earth and the Sun, and his opposition to Rutherford's ideas of radioactivity, certainly put him on the losing side of many arguments later in his career.
- Having studied some of Thomson's research contributions, let us comment on the innovations he introduced into teaching at the University of Glasgow.
- There were also prizes which Thomson gave to the student that he considered most deserving.
- Not only did Thomson take a unified view of the physical world in his research, but he carried this into his teaching.
- Another of Thomson's famous pieces of work was his joint project with Tait to produce their famous text Treatise on Natural Philosophy which they began working on in the early 1860s.
- They worked by posting a notebook back and forward to each other on this huge project which Thomson envisaged as covering all physical theories.
- Thomson achieved his greatest fame through an event that we have still to discuss.
- He was always greatly interested in the improvement of physical instrumentation, and Thomson designed and implemented many new devices, including the mirror-galvanometer that was used in the first successful sustained telegraph transmissions in transatlantic submarine cable.
- Thomson had joined a group of industrialists in the mid 1850s on a project to lay a submarine cable between Ireland and Newfoundland.
- The electrician who was in charge of the practical side of the operation was E O W Whitehouse, who insisted on using his own system against Thomson's advice.
- However it was soon discovered that he had substituted Thomson's mirror-galvanometer for his own instruments and there was a furious row between Whitehouse, Thomson and the other directors.
- Thomson's instruments were fully used for the third attempt at laying a cable in 1865 and this proved highly successful with rapid transmission of signals possible.
- For his work on the transatlantic cable Thomson was knighted in 1866 and made Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892.
- The Kelvin is the river which runs through the grounds of Glasgow University and Largs is the town on the Scottish coast where Thomson built his house.
- And were the principal electrical instruments employed in testing and working the cable not manufactured by Mr White, the optician of this city, though under Professor Thomson's directions?
- Thomson published more than 600 papers.
- Thomson served as president of yet a third society when he was elected as president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1871.
Born 26 June 1824, Belfast, Ireland. Died 17 December 1907, Netherhall (near Largs), Ayrshire, Scotland.
View full biography at MacTutor
Tags relevant for this person:
Astronomy, Knot Theory, Origin Ireland, Physics
Adapted from other CC BY-SA 4.0 Sources:
- O’Connor, John J; Robertson, Edmund F: MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive