William Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin was an eminent physicist, mathematician, engineer and inventor. He is best known for his contributions to physics in the development of the second law of thermodynamics, the electromagnetic theory of light and the absolute temperature scale, which is measured in kelvins in his honor.
He also contributed to hydrodynamics and provided inventions for the first transatlantic communication cable.
Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, he was awarded their prestigious Copley medal in 1883, and served as their president from 1890 until 1895.
The second son of seven children, William Thomson was born at College Square in Belfast, Ireland on June 26, 1824. His father was James Thomson, professor of mathematics at the Belfast Academical Institution and his mother was Margaret Gardner. His mother died when he was six years old and two years later in 1832, the family moved to Glasgow when his father accepted the Glasgow University chair of mathematics.
William attended Glasgow University from the age of 10, in 1834 along with his older brother James. This early age is not quite as unusual as one would think, for at that time the universities and colleges in Scotland to some extent competed with the schools for the most able junior pupils. William and James studied at Glasgow for the next six years. William focused on engineering, mathematics and natural philosophy.
Continuing his education, William Thomson entered Peterhouse College, University of Cambridge in 1841 where, in addition to his studies, he enjoyed walking, skating, swimming, reading and a wide circle of friends. A keen rower, in 1843 he won the Colquhoun silver sculls for single-seater boats. He also enjoyed music and played the cornet.
At Cambridge, Thomson showed a precocious ability in mathematics and physics and after graduating in 1845 as Second Wrangler (first class honors, in second place) he became professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow in 1846, aged just 22. He would remain at Glasgow for the rest of his career, retiring in 1899 after 53 years of service.
Contributions and Achievements:
Thomson introduced innovations into teaching at the University of Glasgow. He initiated laboratory work into the degree courses, keeping this part of the work distinct from the mathematical side.
In 1847, he became aware of physicist James Prescott Joule’s argument for the mutual convertibility of heat and mechanical work and for their mechanical equivalence. In 1848, Thomson proposed an absolute temperature scale in which a unit of heat descending from a body A to a body B would give out the same mechanical effect, whatever be the number. Such a scale would be quite independent of the physical properties of any specific substance. Thomson determined that -263.15oC was absolute zero, the lowest limit of temperature. Later this became 0oK (on the kelvin temperature scale) in his honor.
He helped develop the second law of thermodynamics and Thomson argued that the key issue in the interpretation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics was the explanation of irreversible processes. In his mathematical treatise “On the Dynamical Theory of Heat” in 1851 he noted that if entropy always increased, the universe would ultimately reach a state of uniform temperature and maximum entropy from which it would not be possible to extract any work. He called this the Heat Death of the Universe. Therefore, he proposed a thermodynamical theory based on the dominance of the energy concept, on which he believed all physics should be based. He said the two laws of thermodynamics expressed the indestructibility and dissipation of energy.
From his undergraduate years onwards, Thomson worked on electricity and magnetism publishing many papers and he was a mentor to Cambridge graduate and second wrangler, James Clerk Maxwell who would later formulate the theory of electromagnetic radiation.
In 1852, he married his second cousin Margaret Crum. Unfortunately, her health deteriorated shortly after the marriage and she remained an invalid until her death in 1870.
Thomson became involved in the theoretical electrical matters for a proposed transatlantic submarine communication cable and became a director of the newly formed Atlantic Telegraph Company in 1856. Always greatly interested in the improvement of physical instrumentation, he designed his telegraph receiver, called the mirror-galvanometer, in 1858 and the siphon recorder for the automatic recording of telegraph signals on moving paper tape in 1867. For his efforts in the successful project he was knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria.
He collaborated with mathematical physicist Peter Guthrie Tait to produce their famous textbook “Treatise on Natural Philosophy”. They began working on this project in the early 1860s and the book was published in 1867. Unusually, they worked by posting a notebook back and forward to each other on this huge project which Thomson envisioned as covering all physical theories.
Thomson was also an able yachtsman and he loved the sea. Shortly after the death of his first wife, he purchased the 126 ton schooner-rigged yacht “Lalla Rookh” in 1870. Installing a ‘floating laboratory’ and never one to be idle, he introduced a method of deep-sea sounding, in which a steel piano wire replaces an ordinary land line. The wire glides so easily to the bottom that “flying soundings” can be taken while the ship is travelling at full speed. A pressure gauge to register the depth of the sinker was later added by Thomson.
Involved in instrument making for much of his career, Thomson was involved in the manufacture of telegraphic and navigational instruments.
He married Frances Anna Blandy in 1874, who he met in Madeira on one of his yacht voyages. They had no children.
Interested in creation and evolution, Thomson investigated the Earth’s cooling and made historical inferences of the Earth’s age. He contended that the laws of thermodynamics operated from the birth of the universe and envisaged a dynamic process that saw the organization and evolution of the solar system and other structures, followed by a gradual heat death. In 1897,after careful consideration he estimated (incorrectly) the Earth to be between 20 million and 40 million years old.
Attending the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in Oxford in 1900, he famously stated:
“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
Honors and the End:
Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, he was awarded their prestigious Copley medal in 1883 and served as their president from 1890 until 1895.
He was knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria.
Thomson received a peerage in 1892 and took the title Baron Kelvin of Largs, to be addressed as Lord Kelvin.
His marvelous pieces of work have no match, as they were unique and helped many in carrying out their daily chores. Like other scientists, some of Thomson’s predictions were proved false, but this great man is ranked among the famous most scientists of history as his remarkable work has become the standard texts for many generations of scientists.
William Thomson, Lord Kelvin died at his main home from a severe chill at Netherhall, near Largs in Scotland, on 17 December 1907, aged 83.