William Thomson, Lord Kelvin

Belfast born physicist

William Thomson was born at College Square, Belfast, on June 26, 1824. His father, James Thomson, started life on a small farm near Ballynahinch, Co Down, where as a child he had witnessed the defeat of the United Irishmen at the Battle of Ballynahinch. By the time of his son’s birth, he was a teacher of mathematics at the Belfast Academical Institute. In 1832, he was made professor of mathematics at Glasgow University.

Having informally attended some of their father’s lectures, William Thomson and his elder brother James matriculated at the University of Glasgow in 1834. William was only 10 years old, and in the following years he won prizes in logic, Greek, astronomy and natural philosophy. In 1841, he entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, then returned to Glasgow in 1846 when he was elected to the chair of natural philosophy.

William Thomson remained at Glasgow for 55 years despite numerous offers from other colleges. In his long professional scientific career, he made advances in electromagnetic theory, formulating the second law of thermodynamics, and practical developments in electrical and thermal measurement, devising the temperature scale that bears his name. Other practical inventions such as depth sounding and navigational apparatus hint at an abiding interest in maritime communications. Thomson’s work on the Atlantic telegraph cable—‘the greatest of all Victorian engineering projects’—won him a knighthood in 1866.

Other public honours followed. In 1892, he was created Baron Kelvin of Largs, and in 1902 was awarded the Order of Merit. The Marxist historian of science JG Crowther saw Kelvin as ‘the leading symbol of the scientific ideology of the British nineteenth century governing class.’ But it is also possible to see Kelvin’s practical, even entrepreneurial scientific outlook as a product of the liberal Belfast of his father’s youth and his own earliest education.

Lord Kelvin died in Scotland in 1907. A statue commemorating his achievements stands in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens.

Further reading:
Energy and Empire: A biographical study of Lord Kelvin (1989) by C Smith & MN Wise; Lord Kelvin (1938) by A Russell; Kelvin the Man (1925) by AG King; A Life of Lord Kelvin (1910) by SP Thompson; Lord Kelvin’s Early Home (1909) edited Elizabeth Thomson King.

Consult the Linen Hall Library catalogue