William Hopkins

The field of geology is studded with some notable names and one name in particular that deserves a lot of honor and praise is that of William Hopkins. He is mathematician and a geologist from England who is quite well-known for his contributions to the field of geology and for his private tutor role to Cambridge undergraduates who aspired to be mathematicians. It was this private tutor role that earned him the nickname the “Senior-wrangler maker”.

William Hopkins also made a lot of studies that were centered in letting it be known that Earth’s interior is solid and not a liquid. It was because of this model that he was able to explain quite a number of geological phenomena. Despite the fact that his conclusion about the solid interior was correct, his physical and mathematical reasoning were deemed unsound.


His early life

Hopkins was born in February 2, 1793 at Kingston-on-soar which is found in Nottinghamshire. He was the only son born to William Hopkins who was a farmer. He wasn’t a farmer really because he was more of a gentleman farmer and this meant he didn’t so much work the land with his own hands but rather he owned the farms and made money from them. During his early years, he was in Norfolk where he learned the more practical agricultural basics then his father rented a modest-sized farm for him in Suffolk at Bury St Edmunds. He wasn’t very successful at farming and as a farmer so when his first wife died around the year 1821, he grabbed the chance to mitigate whatever losses he had incurred and enroll in St. Peter’s college at the University of Cambridge to study for a B.A. degree in 1827 and was a second wrangler. He obtained his Master’s Degree in 1930.


Before graduating from St. Peter’s college, Hopkins got married to Caroline Frances Boys and this made him ineligible for fellowship from the school. In order for him to make money he became a private tutor to budding mathematicians who were after the Senior Wrangler title which just so happened to be a very prestigious distinction back then. He may have been a failure at farming but he was quite successful as a tutor and earned around £700-£800 per year. By the time 1849 rolled in, he had already tutored around 200 wranglers of which 17 became senior wranglers. Some famous students of his were G.G. Stokes and Arthur Cayley. He also had the honor of being a tutor to Lord Kelvin, Isaac Todhunter, and James Clerk Maxwell. Francis Galton had nothing but praise for William Hopkins’ style of teaching which was informative and entertaining which explained why it was so effective.

William Hopkins was also the coach to Edward Routh who nabbed the prestigious a Senior Wrangler title and also turned into “wrangler-maker”. In the year 1833, Hopkins came out with this Elements of Trigonometry and was then recognized for his prowess as a mathematician.


Somewhere in the year 1833, William Hopkins met a man named Adam Sedgwick while he was at Barmouth and thus was able to join in several expeditions and this was when he developed a keen interest in geology and the structure of the earth. From that time on, he began to publish papers in the Cambridge Philosophical Society and the Geological Society of London where he talked about the physical geology as a discipline and helped define it. He even made mathematical studies on the effects of an elevator force that was moving below the crust of the earth, would have on the surface of the Earth in the form of faults and fissures. It was through this that he managed to talk about the denudation and elevation of the Waldean area, the Lake District, and Bas Boulonnais.

He had this idea that the Earth was solid but was never fully at rest and was in fact, dynamic and had cavities that contained extremely hot fluids and vapors that could create a local elevator pressure. William Hopkins’ model of the Earth wasn’t quite in sync with scientific theories of Charles Lyell who believed that the Earth was in a “steady state”. Charles Lyell believed that the Earth and a solid crust but was liquid on the inside.

For his part, William Hopkins submitted papers to the Royal Society between the years 1838 and 1842 and these papers talked about the rotation of the Earth and its nutation and precession as well. He used his observations to prove that his theory about what the interior of the Earth was made of and that it was not fluid like Charles Lyell believed. He didn’t stop there though because he also studied volcanoes and Earthquakes by way of the same theory or so it was stated in a report submitted to the British Association in 1847.

Hopkins worked hard figure out what enormous amounts of pressure did to the melting points and the thermal conductivity on a number of substances and with support of the Royal Society in form of a grant, he was able to recruit William Fairbairn and James Prescott Joule to help in the collecting of measurements which he used to support his theory. Hopkins also asserted that even though the Earth was cooling, this really had no effect on the climate.

It was mentioned that while his theory of the Earth’s structure was spot on, Thomson tactfully pointed out that Hopkins’ physical reasoning and his mathematical equations were all wrong.


He made some studies on the movement of glaciers but in doing so, he crossed J.D. Forbes. J.D. believed the subject of glaciers was his specialty and he was not at all impressed and was even contemptuous of Hopkins and believed he was inexperienced in the field.

Personal life

He married his second wife and they had a son and three daughters- one of who was Ellice Hopkins that became the morality campaigner. Hopkins was a smart man who enjoyed landscape painting, music, and poetry so it was too bad that his final years were spent inside a lunatic asylum where he died of exhaustion and chronic mania. Indeed, it was rather a sad end to such an illustrious life.