Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

Kelvin's last lecture

Lord Kelvin's last lecture at Glasgow University, 1899

Lord KelvinSir William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907), engineer and physicist who was instrumental in the success of the electric telegraph

Engineering achievements

It was his engineering work that made Lord Kelvin most famous and wealthy in his lifetime. His most notable engineering achievement was his contribution to the first successful laying of a transatlantic telegraph cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. He was deeply involved in the technical specification of the cable, in the invention of instruments of adequate sensitivity to identify the signals and in the laying of the cable itself. He was appointed as 'electrician' on board the cable layer HMS Agamemnon in 1857 and was in sole charge for the final successful installation using the "Great Eastern" in 1866.

He acted as a consulting engineer throughout his life: for example, he was an adviser to the British Aluminium Company for the design of the smelter at Foyers and to the Niagara Commission for hydro work. He invented a range of measuring instruments including the ammeters, voltmeters, and compasses for ship navigation and did fundamental theoretical and development work on refrigeration and the use of heat pumps. He was also an active industrialist as a partner in a number of firms that manufactured instruments based on his inventions.

Uniquely, he was asked to serve three terms as President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (originally known as the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians).

His Life

Age Event Year
Born 26th June in Belfast Northern Ireland to a father of Scottish descent and a Scottish mother 1824
8 Thomson family moved to Glasgow1832
10Enrolled at Glasgow University1834
16 On Fourier's Expansions of Functions in Trigonometrical Series Cambridge Mathematical Journal 1841
17 Enrolled at Cambridge University 1841
21 Graduated from Cambridge University as Second Wrangler and Smith's Prizeman 1845
22 Appointed to Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow 1846
22 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 1st February 1847
32 Awarded Royal Medal by Royal Society 1856
35 Honorary Member of the Institution of Engineers & Shipbuilders in Scotland 1859
42 Telegraph cable laid across the Atlantic for first time 1866
42 Knighted for his work on the transatlantic cable 1866
47 President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science 1871
49 President of The Royal Society of Edinburgh 1873
50 President of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians 1874
59 Awarded Copley Medal by Royal Society 1883
64 Developed the ammeter for the early electric industry 1888
64 President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (2nd term) 1889
66 President of The Royal Society of London 1890
68 President of the Institute of Marine Engineers 1892
68 Elevated to peerage as Baron Kelvin of Largs, the nation's first engineer or scientist Lord 1892
78 Fifth of twelve inaugural appointments to Order of Merit 1902
78 Privy Counsellor 1902
80 Chancellor, University of Glasgow 1904
81 Awarded John Fritz Medal by American Association of Engineering Societies 1905
83 President of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (3rd term) 1907
83 Died 17th December at Netherhall, Largs, Ayrshire. Buried in Westminster Abbey 1907

His Legacy

Lord Kelvin tends to be now remembered as a physicist for his work on the temperature scale (he was the first to recognise that there is a minimum temperature that matter can reach) and in the formulation of the Laws of Thermodynamics. He made many other fundamental contributions to physics. But Thomson himself believed that "the life and soul of science is its practical application." The footprint of many of his scientific discoveries and engineering inventions can be identified in modern engineering practice. His combined genius as a theoretical scientist/mathematician and as a hands-on engineer/inventor may be unparalleled worldwide.

More Information

Lord Kelvin, An Account of his Scientific Life and Work Andrew Gray, London, 1908
The life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs: Volume I and Volume II Silvanus P Thompson, London: Macmillan, 1910
Lord Kelvin, His Life and Work Alexander Russell, London, 1912
Ten British Physicists of the Nineteenth Century Alexander MacFarlane. New York. 1919
Lord Kelvin: his influence on electrical measurements and units Paul Tunbridge, London: Peregrinus, 1992
Kelvin's Instruments and the Kelvin Museum George Green & John T Lloyd, Glasgow, 1970
Lord Kelvin, the Dynamic Victorian Harold I Sharlan and Tiby Sharlin, Penn State University Press, 1979
Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney, Andrew Whitaker, Oxford University Press, 2008
Degrees Kelvin: a Tale of Genius, Invention, and Tragedy David Lindley, Washington, 2004
Lord Kelvin: Revolutionary Scientist is a permanent display at the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow
The Kelvin Statue in Glasgow's Kelvin Way, Kelvingrove Park unveiled in 1908
The Kelvin Statue in Belfast Botanic Gardens
Stained glass window in Westminster Abbey. Inscription "In memory of Baron Kelvin of Largs. Engineer, Natural Philosopher. B.1824.D.1907"
A wall plaque near Thomson's birthplace in Belfast
There are 30 portraits of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin in the National Portrait Gallery.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)

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