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Papers of William John MacQuorn Rankine

Collection Summary

Reference Code

GB 0248 DC 320



Extent and medium of the unit of description

0.05 metres


Existence and Location of Originals

This material is original.

Name of creator

Rankine | William John MacQuorn | 1820-1872 | professor of civil engineering and mechanics, University of Glasgow

Biographical History

Biographical History

William John MacQuorn Rankine (1820-1872) was one of the founders of the study of thermodynamics and the first to formally publish scientific results in this discipline. He was a prolific writer and published in the region of 150 papers. He also wrote several seminal textbooks on applied mechanics and civil engineering.

Rankine studied scientific subjects at the University of Edinburgh from 1834-1836. This included Natural History under Robert Jameson. He was awarded the Gold Medal for his essay The Undulatory Theory of Light and a prize for his essay Methods of Physical Investigation. Financial circumstances compelled him to give up his studies and he became assistant to his father on the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway. After a year he became a pupil of Sir John Benjamin MacNeill a leading civil engineer, who was surveyor to the Irish Railway Commission at the time. During this period Rankine developed a method of setting out circular curves, since known as "Rankine's method". After completing his apprenticeship in 1842, Rankine returned to Scotland where he worked on surveys, harbours and railroads. He also began submitting papers to the Institute of Civil Engineers. In 1848 he started a series of researches on molecular physics and in particular thermodynamics. His paper Mechanical Action of Heat, (1850) was read at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. This was followed by On the General Law of Transformation of Energy, (1853 ) presented at the Glasgow Philosophical Society. He was appointed to the chair of Engineering at the University of Glasgow in 1855. During this period he published his four great textbooks, all of which went to multiple editions: Manual of Applied Mechanics, (1858), Manual of the Steam-engine and Other Prime Movers, (1859) ; Manual of Civil Engineering, (1861) and Machinery and Millwork, (1869) . In addition he authored over 150 papers, jointly authored Treatise on Shipbuilding, Theoretical and Practical, (1866) ; undertook consultancy work and devised, in 1859, the Rankine Temperature Scale for scientific experiments. Rankine also served in the Rifle Corp Volunteers, rising to the rank of Senior Major before resigning his post.

Rankine was elected Fellow of the Royal Society 1853, he was awarded the Keith Medal by the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1854 and was first president of the Institute of Engineers in Scotland from 1857. In 1857 Trinity College, Dublin awarded him the degree of LL.D.

Scope and Content

Scope and Content

The papers of William John MacQuorn Rankine consist of:

  • engineering lecture notes (1855-1857)




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