Thomson | Sir | William | 1824-1907 | Baron Kelvin | professor of natural philosophy, University of Glasgow

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

Sir William Thomson was Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University from 1846-1899, where he had previously studied. Spending some time in Paris, he met Joseph Liouville (1809-1882) and others, and this was hugely influential on the path he went on to follow. He developed earlier work done by Sadi Carnot (1796-1832), and James Prescott Joule (1818-1889), on the two thermodynamic laws of equivalence and transformation, as well as producing the doctrine of available energy.

His aquaintance with Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz (1821-1894) from 1855 laid the basis for developing the mathematical theory of electrical oscillation. This in turn led to his work on wireless telegraphy. Further work in the field of electricity saw his participation in the laying of cable across the Atlantic and his advocation of the establishment of electrical standards. Thomson also applied mathematics to magnetism and was in favour of metrication.

Thomson related his work in science to the practical needs of the world. He contributed a new mariner's compass and tide prediction apparatus to the maritime world and showed the possibilities of hydro-electricity. Collaboration with James White, a Glasgow optical and philosophical instrument maker, led to the eventual establishment of the firm, Kelvin & White, which later became Kelvin & Hughes.


His father was James Thomson (1786-1849), Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Institution, Belfast, and then at the University of Glasgow.

His father-in-law was chemist Walter Crum (1796-1867).

Other Significant Information

Noteable publications:

Treatise on Natural Philosophy, ( 1867) (contibution to)

Reprint of Papers on Electrostatics and Magnetism, ( 1872)

Mathematical and Physical Papers, ( 1911)

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1845: Awarded Bachelor of Arts, University of Cambridge

1845: Awarded Smith's Prize, University of Cambridge

1846-1899: Appointed Chair of Natural Philosophy, University of Glasgow

1851: Elected Fellow, Royal Society

1856: Royal Society Bakerian lecturer

1866: Awarded Knighthood

1871: Appointed President, British Association (Edinburgh)

1881: Appointed President, British Association, Physical and Mathematical Section (York)

1883: Awarded Royal Society Copley Medal

1883: Appointed Honorary Fellow, Edinburgh Maths Society

1898-1900: Appointed President, London Maths Society

1892: Awarded Baronetcy

1890-1894: Appointed President, Royal Society

1902: Awarded Order of Merit

1902: Appointed Privy Councillor

1904: Appointed Chancellor, University of Glasgow


List of sources for the biographical information:

Gillispie, Charles Coulston (Ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography, (New York, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, ( London, William Benton, 1976)

Concise Dictionary of National Biography, ( London, Oxford University Press, 1992)

University of St Andrews, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), (, University of St Andrews, July 1999)