Glasgow University's new campus at Gilmorehill where Rankine taught in his final years.

Glasgow University at Gilmorehill

William John Macquorn Rankine

1820 – 1872

William John Macquorn Rankine

civil engineer, polymath, educator and researcher. Pioneer of thermodynamics.

Engineering Achievements

Rankine was a founding contributor, with Rudolf Clausius and  William Thomson (1st Baron Kelvin), to the "pure" science of thermodynamics. Rankine developed a complete theory of the steam engine and indeed of all heat engines. The application of the doctrine, that 'heat and work are convertible,' to the discovery of new relations among the properties of bodies was made about the same time by all three. Thomson cleared the way by his account of Carnot's work on the 'Motive Power of Heat,' and following James Joule pointed out the error of Carnot's assumption that heat is a substance and therefore indestructible. Rankine in 1850, and Clausius in the same year, showed in very different ways the nature of the further modifications which Carnot's theory required. Thomson in 1851 put the foundations of the theory in the form they have since retained.

Rankine's ideas on thermodynamics regarded energy as being classified into two kinds, kinetic and potential, and his thermodynamic theory was developed by considering the transformation of one into the other. He began with the hypothesis that matter was constituted by molecular vortices (without considering the cyclic process) and obtained the quantities "pressure", "specific heat", etc., from that consideration. His classification of energy was similar to, but not exactly the same as, that of Clausius. Both Rankine and Clausius approached the second law of thermodynamics from the point of view of the transformation from one kind of energy to the other. But whereas Clausius considered the conversion between heat and work and the flow of heat from high to low temperature in a cyclic process, Rankine concentrated on the change from kinetic (molecular) to potential energies, and related this change to heat flow by use of his "heat-potential" function.

The entropy function was defined by Rankine and later extended by Maxwell. Rankine identified the phenomenon now known as "fatigue" in the metal of railway axles, wrote on earth pressures in soil mechanics, and the stability of walls. He also developed methods to solve the force distribution in frame structures and worked on hydrodynamics and the design of ships.

Rankine was one of main developers of systematic programmes of training for engineers. On his arrival in Glasgow University engineering was part of the Faculty of Arts, but was not recognised as a subject qualifying for graduation in Arts. By the time of his death a B.Sc. degree was introduced. Rankine emphasised the mutual dependence and harmony between sound theory and good practice, and he was responsible for establishing the University's famous sandwich courses in co-operation with leading industrialists in Scotland. Rankine worked closely with Clyde shipbuilders, especially his friend and life-long collaborator James Robert Napier to make naval architecture into an engineering science. He was a founding member and first President of the Institution of Engineers & Shipbuilders in Scotland in 1857.

His Life

  1. 1820 Born 5th July in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of David Rankine, civil engineer
  2. 1828 Age: 8 Attended Ayr Academy
  3. 1830 Age: 10 Attended Glasgow High School. Family moved to Edinburgh - Rankine educated at home
  4. 1834 Age: 14 Read Newton's Principia in original Latin. Attended Scottish Military and Naval Academy
  5. 1836 Age: 16 Began classes at University of Edinburgh
  6. 1838 Age: 18 Gold Medal for An Essay on the Undulatory Theory of Light. Pupil of civil engineer John Benjamin Macneill in Dublin
  7. 1842 Age: 21 Returned to Edinburgh, working with railway companies and consultants. Fellow of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts
  8. 1843 Age: 22 Associate of Institution of Civil Engineers on 7th March
  9. 1844 Age: 24 Employed under Locke and Errington on Caledonian Railway projects
  10. 1849 Age: 28 Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 7th January
  11. 1850 Age: 30 Published On the mechanical action of heat, especially in gases and vapours
  12. 1851 Age: 31 Awarded Keith Prize by Royal Society of Edinburgh
  13. 1853 Age: 33 Fellow of the Royal Society of London
  14. 1854 Age: 34 Corresponding member of the Royal Society of Van Diemen's Land (now the Royal Society of Tasmania) on 15th March
  15. 1855 Age: 35 Regius Professor of civil engineering and mechanics at Glasgow University on 3rd December. Lecture on "Outlines of the Science of Energetics" Glasgow Philosophical Society, published in The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal
  16. 1857 Age: 37 First President of Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland . Awarded Doctor of Laws, Trinity College, Dublin
  17. 1858 Age: 38 Published Applied Mechanics
  18. 1859 Age: 39 Published The Steam Engine and other Prime Movers. Commissioned captain in Glasgow University Corps of Rifle Volunteers
  19. 1860 Age: 40 Senior major in Glasgow University Corps of Rifle Volunteers
  20. 1862 Age: 42 Published Civil Engineering
  21. 1863 Age: 43 Elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  22. 1866 Age: 46 Published Shipbuilding, Theoretical and Practical
  23. 1867 Age: 48 Elected to Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
  24. 1869 Age: 49 Published Machinery and Millwork. Appointed to Board of Enquiry into sinking of HMS Captain
  25. 1870 Age: 50 Published On the mechanical principles of the action of propellers
  26. 1871 Age: 51 Vice President of Royal Society of Edinburgh
  27. 1872 Age: 52 Recommended Henry Dyer for the post of Principal of Imperial College of Engineering, later to become Tokyo University. University of Glasgow established a BSc in Engineering
  28. 1872 Age: 53 Died 11.45pm on 24th December at 8 Albion Crescent, Dowanhill, Glasgow (NOT 59 St Vincent Street as some biographers state). Buried on 28th December at Sighthill Cemetery, Glasgow, after a service in Glasgow University chapel

His Legacy

His works on the steam engine, machinery, shipbuilding, applied mechanics, etc., became standard textbooks; and he did much for the new science of themodynamics and the theories of elasticity and of waves. The thermodynamic cycle for the analysis of the maximum efficiency of a heat-engine or heat pump using condensable vapour as working fluid is still called the Rankine Cycle. The Rankine Theory on earth pressure continues to be featured in geotechnical text books. His manuals of engineering science and practice continue to influence engineering education. They were republished for many decades after their launch in the 1850s and 1860s. He published several hundred papers and notes on science and engineering topics, from 1840 onwards. The Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, which he co-founded, continues to thrive.

More Information

Other Selected Publications:
On the causes of the unexpected breakage of the journals of railway axles, and on the means of preventing such accidents by observing the law of continuity in their construction. Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Vol.2, pp.105-107 (1843).
Description of a method of laying down railway curves on the ground Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers. Vol.2, pp.108-111 (1843).
On the Means of improving the Water Supply of Glasgow. Glasgow: 1852.
On the mechanical principles of the actions of propellers. Naval Architecture Transactions. Vol.6: 13-39. 1865.
Report on the design and construction of masonry dams. The Engineer. Vol.33, pp.1-2 (5 January 1872).
Songs and Fables. London: MacMillan. 1874.

Other sources:
Ten British Physicists of the Nineteenth Century Alexander MacFarlane. New York. 1919
Investigation, appraisal and re-use of a cast-iron structural frame. MN Bussell and MJ Robinson. The Structural Engineer, Vol.76, no.3, pp.37-42 (February 1998)
Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers, Volume 2: 1830-1890. Peter Cross-Rudkin and Mike Chrimes (eds.) London: The Institution of Civil Engineers. 2008.
W.J.M. Rankine and the rise of thermodynamics. K Hutchison. British Journal for the History of Science, Vol.14, no.46, pp.1-26 (1981).
Fatigue testing instruments Robert C. McWilliam in Instruments of Science: an historical encyclopedia. R. Bud and D J Warner (eds.) New York: Garland for the Science Museum and the Smithsonian. 1998.
Fortuna Domus. A series of Lectures delivered in the University of Glasgow in commemoration of the Fifth Centenary of its foundation. J B Neilson (ed.) Glasgow: Morgan & Scott for the University of Glasgow, 1952.
W.J.M. Rankine: a commemorative lecture. R V Southwell. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Part 1. Vol.5, pp.177-193. (1956).
Rankine: his life and times H B Sutherland. London: The Institution of Civil Engineers. 1973.
The harmony of theory and practice: the engineering science of W.J. M. Rankine David F. Channell, Technology and Culture, 1982, vol. 23, no. 1, pp 39-52.
Professor William John Macquorn Rankine. H B Sutherland. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol.132, no.4, pp.181-187. (November 1999).
History of the Strength of Materials. S P Timoshenko. New York: McGraw-Hill. 1953 (reprinted New York: Dover. 1982).
There are two portraits of Rankine held in the National Portrait Gallery.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)
Death Registration Certificate: Partick, Glasgow, 27th December 1872. Informant Alex Grahame, uncle-in-law.

Engineering and Scientific Terminology and other Homage to Rankine:
The Rankine Absolute Fahrenheit Scale.
Rankine, a small impact crater near the eastern limb of the Moon.
The Rankine Hugoniot equation for propagation of shock waves governs the behaviour of shock waves normal to the oncoming flow.
The Organic Rankine Cycle was derived to use organic, high molecular mass fluid with a liquid vapour phase-change occurring at a lower temperature than the water-stem phase change. It was exhibited in 1961 and enables Rankine Cycle heat recovery from low temperature sources such as biomass, industrial waste heat, geothermal heat, solar ponds.
The method for setting out circular curves by chaining and angles at the circumference fully exploited the accuracy of the theodolite is called the Rankine Method (although it had been derived concurrently by others engaged in railway surveying).
A Rankine Body is a concept used in computing the flow of liquid around a body or surface.
The Rankine Gordon formula is still applicable to cast iron columns.
A Rankine Vortex model is a mathematical approach to describing the velocity profile through vortices in real viscous fluids.
A bust of Rankine was presented to Virginia Polytechnic Technical Institute & State University, USA in 1940 by its class of 1902.
The Rankine Lecture is hosted by the British Geotechnical Association of the Insitution of Civil Engineers. It is widely viewed as the most prestigious invited lecture in geotechnics.
The William Rankine Building of the University of Edinburgh houses the Institute for Infrastructure and the Environment.
The Rankine Building of the University of Glasgow houses the Department of Civil Engineering.

His name is on one of 19 commemorative plaques to Civil Engineers (4 of them Scottish) fixed to the Dept of Civil Engineering Skempton Building of Imperial College, London.

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