Kelvin 2007

The Institute of Physics in cooperation with the University of Glasgow held a special day of lectures on the 14th November, 2007, to celebrate the achievements of Lord Kelvin who died one hundred years ago. It was held in the recently renovated Kelvin Gallery, adjacent to the Huntarian Gallery. The conference was opened by Sir Muir Russell, Principal of the University of Glasgow, noting that he was a graduate of physics, in his welcoming address and the meeting was chaired by Professor David Saxon.

Professor Michael Berry, Bristol University, gave an entertaining, but at times dense, lecture entitled ‘Dark threads of nothing: vortices and light’on the history of physics research on vortices in light, as well as their use in artistic work. The lecture included vivid visual displays of diffraction of light and elements of the history of the mathematical study of knots.

‘The physics of cold atoms’ was the title of the lecture given by Professor Edward Hinds of Imperial College, London. Very cold atoms could be held close to metal surfaces by magnetic fields and his research was concentrating on optimising the possibilities of maintaining this state for a maximum time interval. He posed the possibility of using this effect as a basis for a quantum computer.

The lecture given by Professor Wilson Sibbett of St Andrews University ‘From technology to telecommunications’ which was more focussed on Lord Kelvin’s life and achievements. He concentrated on his involvement with the technology of submarine long distance telegraph cables. In particular Lord Kelvin’s work to overcome the failure of the 1858 attempt to lay an Atlantic cable through to the successful laying of a functioning cable in 1866. The second part of the lecture focussed on modern developments in fibre optics technology with the almost mind blowing acceleration of the technical capacity of the latest devices.

Professor Denis Weaire, Trinity College, started in his usual light hearted fashion introducing his talk – ‘Foams and Kelvin’s Legacy’ - as a play about three Irishmen and three Ethers. Reference to Irish identity is a familiar feature of Professor Weaire’s many talks at history of physics events. The nature of the ether was a major preoccupation of 19th century physicists. Tait, a collaborator of Kevin, argued it was a soft and complex fluid but strong enough to resist powerful electrical and magnetic fields. Stokes suggested the ether was a jelly; Kelvin argued it must have a certain rigidity and could be similar to a foam. This was enough for Professor Weaire to launch into his favourite subject (and research for many years) the physics of foams.

The meeting closed with concluding comments and there were several who questioned the lack of discussion of Kelvin’s other major areas of scientific interest - in particular, thermodynamics. Nevertheless, the day was a great success with an impressive series of lectures on Kelvin and aspects of modern physics

Stuart Richardson

Peter Ford It is with great pleasure that I can report the news that our Chairman, Peter Ford was awarded the MBE for services to Higher Education and Science, as announced in the New Year’s Honours List. I am sure we all send him our warmest congratulations - Editor

Lecture series –‘Kelvin in Context’

Kelvin the Telegrapher

Prof. Bruce J. Hunt
History Department
University of Texas at Austin

Lord Kelvin
Lord Kelvin in 1902

On New Year’s Day 1892, Sir William Thomson was granted a peerage.  After 25 years as Sir William, he would now need to choose a new name, since “Lord Thomson” was already taken.  Friends and relatives made various suggestions - “Lord Netherhall,” perhaps, after his big seaside house at Largs?  Another and particularly intriguing suggestion was that he call himself “Lord Cable.”

He soon settled on “Lord Kelvin,” after the small stream that flows near the University of Glasgow, where he had been Professor of Natural Philosophy for nearly 50 years.  It might seem odd to think that, had Thomson made a different choice in 1892, we might now be talking of “degrees Cable” instead of “Kelvin,” and that the American brand of refrigerator might be called the “Cablator” instead of the “Kelvinator.” “Kelvin” was certainly a good choice in the emphasis it gave to his connections with Glasgow and its University, which were so important in Thomson’s life.  But “Lord Cable” would have better reflected the main source Thomson’s wealth and fame, as well as the very close connection between science and technology, theory and practice, that permeated his work.

Submarine telegraphy was one of the characteristic technologies of the British Empire in the second half of the 19th century, and well into the 20th, and William Thomson - “Lord Cable” - sat right in the middle of it.  The most famous cables were those across the North Atlantic, but there was an extensive network running throughout the rest of the globe, particularly linking the parts of the British Empire.

World Cable Map
World Cable Map  c1900

Almost all of these cables were built, laid, and operated by British companies, and between the 1870s and 1900 all of them used instruments designed and often manufactured by Thomson and his partners.

The first successful submarine cable was laid across the English Channel from Dover the Calais in 1851.  Built, owned, and operated by a British company, it consisted of four copper wires insulated with gutta percha, a rubber-like tree gum from Malaya, and then wrapped with tarred hemp and protected by an outer layer of galvanized iron rope. It proved very profitable - especially carrying market information and other news between London and Paris - and was quickly followed by other cables to Belgium, Holland, and Ireland, as well as several cables in the Mediterranean.  Many of these early cables broke during laying or failed in other ways; in the early days of cable telegraphy, enthusiasm often outran expertise and people learned mostly by making expensive mistakes.

An important phenomenon turned up on some of these early cables, and also on insulated underground lines that were laid at about the same time.  Sharply defined signals sent in at one end of a cable emerged at the other slightly delayed and badly stretched out, so that they blurred together and often became unreadable.  (Most signals in the 1850s were received on simple needle galvanometers, the telegrapher watching the swings of the needle and calling them out to be written down by an assistant.)  This stretching and distortion came to be called “retardation,” and it put serious limits on how much traffic a cable could handle - if you tried to send too quickly, the message could not be read at the far end.  And the problem seemed to be worse on longer cables. 

Late in 1853 cable engineers demonstrated the phenomenon for Michael Faraday and asked his advice; in January 1854 he gave a lecture at the Royal Institution in which he said that retardation provided striking confirmation of the views he had developed years before about the relationship between electrical induction and conduction - views that had hitherto attracted little support from scientists.  Induction, Faraday said, must precede conduction, and only after the insulating dielectric around the wire had been put into a state of inductive strain, with the storage of a certain amount of electric charge, could the wire begin to conduct a current.  In ordinary overhead wires this happened so quickly that no one noticed and the current seemed to start flowing immediately, but submarine cables, consisting as they did of a copper wire separated by a thin layer of gutta percha from the surrounding iron armoring and seawater, were in effect very long capacitors or Leyden jars, able to store enormous static charges.  The current thus did not appear immediately at the far end of the cable once the sending key was depressed, and it did not stop immediately once the contact was broken, retarding and blurring the signals.

William Thomson (then a thirty year old professor at Glasgow) took up the problem later in 1854 and worked out “arrival curves” based on Fourier’s equations for the diffusion of heat.

Signal arrival curves
Thomson’s arrival curves for cable signals (1854)

The delay in the rise of the current was proportional, he said, to the product of the total resistance and capacitance of the cable; it was thus proportional to the square of the cable’s length.  Double the length of a cable and its retardation quadrupled, while the maximum rate of signalling fell to one quarter that on the shorter cable.  The only apparent way to hold down the retardation would be to reduce the resistance and capacitance of the cable by making its copper wire and gutta percha insulation much thicker - thus making the cable enormously more expensive.  This was obviously bad news for promoters of really long cables, and battling retardation became one of the main preoccupations of British cable engineers and physicists
 - particularly William Thomson.
By the mid-1850s, various promoters were already laying out expansive plans for long cables, especially across the Atlantic from Ireland to Newfoundland, then on to the US.  American businessman Cyrus Field began to promote such a project in 1854, and after failing to attract much capital in the US, he came to Britain and launched Atlantic Telegraph Company in September 1856, promising to lay the 2000 mile long cable the following summer.  This was an enormously ambitious project, far beyond anything previously attempted, and Field pushed it ahead at breakneck speed.

The cable Field proposed to lay across the Atlantic would not be much thicker than those already used for much shorter lines.  But if retardation increased with the square of the length, it might make signalling rates too slow to be profitable.  This was a serious problem and threatened to scare away potential investors.

At this point E. O. Wildman Whitehouse entered the picture.  He was a Brighton surgeon turned electrical experimenter, and a friend of J. W. Brett, the man behind the first Channel cable and later one of Field’s partners in the Atlantic Telegraph Company.  In 1855 Whitehouse did experiments on lengths of cable being readied for shipment to Mediterranean; he said these showed that retardation would not be a problem even on cables long enough to reach across the Atlantic or to India and Australia.  Whitehouse followed this up in 1856 with a frontal assault on Thomson’s “law of squares,” declaring that his experiments showed it to be nothing more than “a fiction of the schools.”  This was just what Field wanted to hear; he soon brought Whitehouse into the Atlantic Telegraph Company as its “electrician,” in charge of all electrical arrangements.

Thomson answered Whitehouse and they had a fairly lively exchange, mostly in the pages of the Athenaeum.  Neither was willing to back down, but Whitehouse was willing to concede that Thomson’s theory was true “as theory,” as long as Thomson would admit - as he soon did - that there might be practical ways to make a relatively thin cable work well enough to pay (mainly by using alternating positive and negative currents, which sped the discharge of the cable).  Glasgow stockholders in the Atlantic Telegraph Company elected Thomson their representative on the company’s board of directors, and from then on he played a very active role in the effort to lay the cable.

Through 1857, Whitehouse devised and patented various instruments, mainly large relays, induction coils, for use on the planned cable.  The Atlantic Telegraphy Company reportedly spent as much as £13,000 on Whitehouse’s instruments.

Thomson sailed with the first attempt to lay the cable, in summer 1857, but it proved abortive; the cable snapped and it became clear that the laying apparatus was inadequate.  The effort was abandoned until the next summer, with the cable being stored - exposed to the air and weather - on the docks at Plymouth.

Meanwhile, Thomson, with no payment from the company, devised his own very light “mirror galvanometer” to respond to very weak currents.

He also began to make measurements of the conductivity of copper and showed that different samples of supposedly pure copper could vary widely in their electrical characteristics.  He called on the company to require careful testing of materials and to insist on high specifications.  All of this required the development of more sophisticated methods of electrical measurement.

Thomson had by then been drawing on students to help with some of his experimental work for several years; he now took over a basement room at the University and turned it into the first physics teaching laboratory in Britain.

Mirror galvanometer
Thomson’s mirror galvanometer (1858)

Thomson set out with the cable-laying expedition again in the summer of 1858, and after several false starts, the first Atlantic cable was successfully completed from Ireland to Newfoundland on 5 August 1858.  The ensuing celebrations were overwhelming, especially in America; the fireworks at the New York City Hall almost burned it down.  The cable was hailed as the great triumph of the age, the annihilator of distance, the guarantor of universal peace and understanding.

But the 1858 cable never worked quite right.  During laying, the operators had signalled through it quite well using Thomson’s mirror galvanometer, but once the ends were landed and handed over to Whitehouse in Valentia, Ireland, and to his assistants in Newfoundland, they had great difficulty getting their heavy apparatus to work through it.  Desperate, Whitehouse began using high voltages - including from a five foot induction coil - that further damaged the already fragile insulation.  After a few weeks, the exasperated board removed Whitehouse and put Thomson in charge at Valentia.  Thomson managed to get some additional messages through, but by then the cable had been fatally damaged; by late September, it had failed completely.  The disappointment was profound; oceanic cable telegraphy looked like a great failed technology.

Thomson returned to Glasgow and continued working on problems of cable telegraphy.  He began to collaborate closely with a young cable engineer, Fleeming Jenkin, who was then working on the Red Sea cable project, a great Imperial effort to lay a cable down the Red Sea and across to India to improve communications in the wake of the Indian Mutiny.  The Red Sea project also proved a failure (in part because of contract provisions that guaranteed payment from the government whether the cable worked or not).  By then the government Board of Trade and the Atlantic Telegraph Company had established a Joint Committee to investigate the whole question of the construction of submarine cables.  Thomson’s testimony before the committee played a big part in its conclusion that with proper procedures - including scientific measurement and careful quality control - oceanic cable telegraphy could be made a success rather than the dismal failure it had hitherto been.

Thomson’s experience with cables convinced him that both telegraph engineers and scientists needed accurate and strictly comparable electrical units and standards, and he played a leading role in launching the British Association Committee on Electrical Standards in 1861, which went on to establish essentially the system of ohms, amps, and volts we still use today.

After a few years to regroup, Cyrus Field resurrected his Atlantic Telegraph Company, attracted financing for another attempt and chartered the Great Eastern, the only ship big enough to hold the entire length of cable.  This time the company followed scientific advice (notably Thomson’s) much more closely and saw that the cable was manufactured to much higher standards.  By summer 1865 they were ready to set off again.  Thomson again sailed on the expedition, which relied heavily on his instruments. 

Unfortunately, the cable snapped about two-thirds of the way across.  Many investors gave up, but Field tried yet again, and in 1866 a cable was successfully laid from Ireland to Newfoundland.  What’s more, the Great Eastern went back, grappled up the 1865 cable, spliced a new length to its end, and completed it Newfoundland as well.

Thomson’s mirror galvanometers were used extensively for testing during the laying of the 1865 and 1866 cables, and then for virtually all signalling once they went into operation.  Thomson was rewarded with a knighthood in November 1866. 

A boom in cable-laying soon followed, and starting around 1869 cables were laid to India, Australia, Japan, and around the coasts of South America and Africa.  Almost all of these cables were made, laid, and operated by British companies.  The global cable network became a bulwark of British imperial power in the last third of the 19th century.  It also had a big and continuing effect on British work in electrical science, both in stimulating work in precision measurement and in directing attention toward propagation and field effects.

The mirror galvanometer was very sensitive, but it produced no record of the received message and put a lot of strain on the operators, as one had to watch the spot very intently and another had to write down the signals as they were called out.  Thomson responded by inventing his siphon recorder, patented in 1867 and brought into service in 1870.

Thomson’s patented siphon recorder (1870)

This used a very delicate moving coil and a tiny glass tube that siphoned ink and squirted it electrostatically onto a moving paper tape; it was really an ink-jet device.  Like many of Thomson’s other patented devices, these were made by James White of Glasgow, with whom Thomson worked very closely - in fact becoming a partner in the business.

Thomson’s siphon recorder became standard equipment on virtually all long cables after the early 1870s, and royalties brought him a very substantial income.  In the 1860s he had formed a patent partnership with Fleeming Jenkin and another cable engineer, Cromwell Fleetwood Varley, and after some initial tough negotiations with the big cable companies, their patents brought in several thousand pounds a year for each of them through the 1870s and 1880s - this at a time when a few hundred pounds a year was a respectable academic income.  Thomson also worked as a consultant to various cable firms, bringing in substantially more money.

By 1870 Thomson was flush enough to be able to buy himself a yacht, the Lalla Rookh, and he became an avid sailor.  In 1873 he sailed the Lalla Rookh to Madeira, where he had met Frances Blandy on an earlier cable-laying trip; he proposed to her and they were married in 1874.  The next year he used some of his rapidly accumulating cable profits to build “Netherhall,” a large house at Largs on the seaside south of Glasgow.  Clearly the cable business had been very good to Thomson.

By 1890 or so, the cable industry was mature and even getting rather stodgy.  Once they had a reliable design and standard procedures, cable men were very reluctant to tinker with a successful formula; when even a small fault could ruin the value of such a huge investment, it was not worth taking much risk.  There was a huge downside if anything went wrong, and  little incentive to improve the carrying capacity by much, since the companies could make a good profit selling their available capacity at relatively high prices.  There were some improvements in terminal apparatus, but fairly minor variants of Thomson’s siphon recorder remained standard until well after 1900.  The design and manufacture of the cables themselves scarcely changed between the 1860s and the 1920s - they were still copper wires covered with gutta percha and armored with iron wire - or in some important respects until the 1950s, when the first cables with electronic repeaters were introduced.  By then the cable network was coming under serious competition from radiotelegraphy and a little later from satellite communications.  Nowadays, of course, submarine cables are a bigger business than ever, but they are all fiber optic.

Thomson remained remarkably energetic in his later years, but he also became rather conservative; by the 1880s, though held in immensely high regard, he was widely seen as being a bit out of step with new scientific ideas.  He stuck with the elastic solid theory of the ether long after most other physicists had given it up, and except for a fairly brief period in the late 1880s and early 1890s, when he was swept along by the excitement surrounding Hertz’s discovery of radio waves, he never really took up Maxwell’s theory of the electromagnetic field. He was also well known as an opponent of Darwin’s theory of evolution, arguing based on cooling rates that the earth could not be nearly old enough for the slow process of natural selection to have done its work.

In the 1880s Thomson also became very active politically as a Liberal Unionist, opposing Gladstone’s plans for Home Rule for Ireland.  (Thomson had, of course, been born in Belfast.)  It was partly as a reward for that political work, and as a way to leverage Thomson’s scientific and technological fame for political purposes, that Salisbury granted him a peerage in 1892 - and confronted Thomson with the problem of choosing a name.

Just as the submarine cable was one of the characteristic technologies of the Victorian British Empire, William Thomson was the characteristic physicist of that same era and of that same empire.  He really should have been called “Lord Cable.”

Errata for Hibbert Article in Issue 22

Page 43     Fig 4 should have had caption and attribution as shown below.

Hibbert erratum
Fig 4
Certificate of proposal for Walter Hibbert’s election to the Chemical Society, 4 May 1876.
Reproduced with kind permission of the Library and Information Centre at the Royal Society of Chemistry


Page 48   Line 3: 1/d∝  x      i.e.  1/d2 is proportional to x

Kelvin at Glasgow

Ken Skeldon, University of Glasgow

Kelvin entered University of Glasgow aged 10, studied there and then at Cambridge, and was appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow at the age of just 24. He was a professor at Glasgow for 53 years, 24 of them at the old college site in the city’s High Street and 29 of them at the present West-End site on Gilmorehill. Even when he retired in 1899, he promptly enrolled as a research student earning him the reputation of both the youngest AND oldest person ever to matriculate at Glasgow University.

He was an accomplished mathematician, an ingenious applied scientist and an innovative inventor.  It was this mix of skills that made him such a prominent contributor in so many aspects of 19th century scientific discovery and progress.  He carried out research in energy, light, electricity, magnetism and many topical issues of the time including how heat and work were inter-related, how light travelled, calculations on the age of the earth and what constituted matter.

Kelvin’s classroom
Kelvin’s classroom set up for a dynamics lecture

Kelvin’s Laboratory
Kelvin’s laboratory -photographed shortly after Kelvin’s retirement as a professor.

However it was not only Kelvin’s contributions to scientific discovery that made him famous. He was, above all else perhaps, an inspirational teacher. His methods of teaching by demonstration and encouraging students to become involved in his laboratory research, in many ways anticipated the higher research degree structure that would eventually unfold. One famous classroom demonstration is still in place to this day.

Diffusion experiment The diffusion experiment (seen on the left, and still present in the University’s Senate room (previously Kelvin’s classroom)) which he set going in 1872 is the only remaining artefact from his classroom and lab suite and is now widely considered the longest running experiment in the world. It comprises two glass tubes each 17 ½  feet long filled with alcohol and copper sulphate then topped up with water. The gradually shifting boundary layer demonstrates the migration of molecules from one liquid into the other. Kelvin estimated that it would take 10,000 years for the mixing to be complete.

Professors’ Square
No.11, Professors’ Square

There was an order of seniority expressed by the occupancy of the houses in the University’s Professors’ Square, not just in terms of the professors in post, but the subject they taught. The principal residence was at No 12 – and is the only building in the square still used as a residence today, by current Principal. Kelvin’s residence was No 11 and was the first house in the world to be lit entirely by electric lighting back in 1881. Kelvin personally oversaw the changing of all 112 gas lamps. His house, as it might have appeared following his pioneering upgrade, is shown above!

The meeting room in No.11 was most likely Kelvin’s reception room with open views beyond – now the view is onto the present Physics block, opened in 1907 – the same year as Kelvin died. The print on the wall of the reception room is a 1902 photo of Kelvin, aged 78. This painting shows Kelvin with his compass, one of the many patented instruments his city-centre firm would sell to marine organisations including the UK’s own admiralty. Notice also his distinctive diamond finger ring, which also prominently features in the X-ray taken of his hand, and held in a collection at the Royal Society in London.
(N.B. - This picture can be seen on the first page of Bruce Hunt’s article ‘Kelvin the Telegrapher’)

Free pendulum clock Another interesting feature in the reception hall of No.11 is the free pendulum clock of 1867, (seen here on the left), originally designed to drive a telescope mechanism. Its large face was added in the late 1870s after Kelvin’s wife requested it be more functional, if it was going to occupy such a large space in the house.

Other points of interest around Glasgow University’s campus include the Memorial Gates at the brow of the hill on University Avenue and upon which Kelvin has a prominent mention, alongside many other famous people associated with the University.  Close by, you can also see the statue of Kelvin by Archibald Macfarlane Shannan in Kelvingrove Park (check out the often-overlooked sculpting at the rear depicting Kelvin’s instruments).

Within the West Quadrangle of the University main building there still exists the easily overlooked fast-running clock in the south wall (used by Kelvin during various experiments on gravity).

Of interest to some might be the most recent addition to Kelvin memorabilia, specially conceived for the 2007 centenary year. This takes the shape of a new commemorative stone and accompanying gyrostat sculpture and was unveiled on December 17th, the precise day of the centenary of Kelvin’s passing. The memorial was commissioned by the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow, which Kelvin twice presided over, and can be seen adjacent to the Thomson Family stone in Glasgow’s Necropolis cemetery.
Finally, visitors to Glasgow, and the University, with an interest in Kelvin should also make a trip to the University’s Hunterian Museum, where they will find a permanent exhibition devoted to Kelvin’s life and work. Many of Kelvin’s original scientific instruments are on display as well as a host of interactive demonstrations helping to bring alive all aspects of his achievement. Admission to the museum and exhibition is free and is currently open every day except Sunday.
Commemorative stone and accompanying gyrostat sculpture

Kelvin and Ireland

Prof. Andrew Whitaker
Queen’s University Belfast

Kelvin statue
The unveiling of the statue of Lord Kelvin in Belfast's Botanic Gardens
by Sir Joseph Larmor in 1913   ŠThe Ulster Museum: Hogg Collection


William Thomson, or Lord Kelvin as he will nearly always be called here, was born in Belfast in 1824, and there is a magnificent statue to him in the Botanic Gardens in that city. However he left Belfast in 1832, when his father, James Thomson, at that time teacher and Professor of Mathematics in the Belfast Academical Institution (always called Inst), was appointed to the Chair of Mathematics in the University of Glasgow. With the exception of his period of study in Cambridge from 1841-5, Kelvin was to live in Glasgow for the rest of his life, and was Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University from 1846 to 1899. It might seem that his birth in Ireland was of little relevance to his life and work.

Quite on the contrary, though, in their famous book, Energy and Empire, Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise contend that: ‘For an understanding of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, his Irish context is essential.’ For a start, his father, an Ulsterman to the core, had an enormous influence on his upbringing and education, and the formation of his character, beliefs and approach to life, and in particular he was largely responsible for Kelvin obtaining his own Glasgow Chair. Other family members returned to Belfast, and in particular his elder brother, also James, played an important role in Kelvin’s best-known work.

Also important for the whole family was a rather special set of religious and political circumstances in Belfast at the end of the eighteenth century and for around the first third of the nineteenth. These circumstances mirrored James Thomson (Snr)’s beliefs and helped to form those of Kelvin. It may be addded that for much of his life, with family and friends in Ireland, Kelvin maintained an intense interest in Irish affairs and Irish politics, and, particularly after he had bought his yacht, the Lalla Rookh, in 1870, there would have been frequent  visits to Belfast. Lastly it may be noted that his intense interest in Irish politics was to lead, towards the end of the century, to his peerage.

James Thomson, Kelvin’s father

Let us first consider his father, James Thomson, in his own way as remarkable a man as Kelvin himself. He rose from working on the family farm near Ballynahinch in County Down, first via local study to become a teacher in the nearby school. At the same time he was learning Latin and Greek to obtain admission to the University of Glasgow. During his years of study, he did his academic work in the winter, supporting himself by teaching and farm work in Ireland during the summer. His qualifications from Glasgow enabled him to become a teacher of mathematics at the new and highly-regarded Inst, and eventually took him to the Chair at Glasgow.
Not only did he obtain these positions of steadily rising importance, but it seemed that he always and  inevitably the leader or dominant personality wherever he taught. At both Inst and Glasgow he was noted as a curriculum reformer, being particularly keen to bring up the level of teaching by the recognition of continental contributions to mathematical research. At Glasgow, he campaigned over many years to remove nepotism and patronage,and to create a University fit to match and assist the rising commercial and technological prosperity of Britain’s second city. He combined the vision to see what was required to improve the institution, with the political acumen to appreciate how this might be achieved.
James Thomson James Thompson, the father of Lord Kelvin, 1847. A drawing by Agnes Gardner King, a grand-daughter of James, based on one by Elizabeth, her mother
© National Portrait Gallery, London

We will discuss James Thomson’s beliefs in some detail, because it will be obvious to what a large extent Kelvin’s were similar. Indeed, the only major difference seems to have been that, while James was prepared to endorse comfort but certainly not frivolity – even his holidays were designed for instruction  as well as enjoyment, his son, who had not been subject to the same early struggles, could be tempted by, for example, a small boat while a student at Cambridge, and a considerably larger one when he had made his fortune.

James Thomson was a devout Presbyterian, but he was strongly non-sectarian. It must be remembered that there were effectively three classes of person in Ireland at this time. Definitely at the top were members of the Church of Ireland – Anglicans, episcopalians. In more political terms, they might be called the Ascendancy or Anglo-Irish, and they possessed full rights to own land. Just as definitely at the bottom were the Catholics who had practically with no rights. Rather awkwardly placed in the middle were the Presbyterians, who were allowed to possess land as a privilege. While the first two groups were found in all parts of Ireland, Presbyterians were mainly in Ulster in the north.

James Thomson was adamantly opposed to this state of affairs, and was proud of the fact that, at Inst, the authorities prided themselves on not even knowing the denomination of a particular pupil. He believed that people should be considered on their own merits rather than on the basis of their religious beliefs. It must be admitted, though, that neither he not his son would have had any time for the Catholic church, which both would have thought of as clerically dominated and backward, anti-commerce, anti-science, anti-technology, against, in fact, virtually everything that the Thomsons valued.

In Scotland, of course, things were different and Prebyterianism held sway. When James Thomson took up his position at Glasgow, religious tests meant that, on taking up their Chairs, Professors had to swear to uphold the Presbyterian faith. Rather than being pleased that this, in a sense, improved their standing, James, and later Kelvin, were adamantly opposed to the tests, and much of James’ politicking over many years was aimed at their removal. Indeed it was to emphasise his opposition  to this form of sectarian discrimination, as much as to the Irish form, that Kelvin, while retaining his fundamental Presbyterian views, made a point of attending Anglican and free church services on a regular basis as well as Presbyterian ones.

As often with the family, there may seem to be a certain ambivalence about the reason for their opposition to the tests. On the one hand, they clearly thought that it was wrong to discriminate against different classes of people. On the other hand there was the more pragmatic point that one could hardly hope to achieve a professoriate of distinction if Anglicans and free church members were excluded, however high their merits.

Just as he was liberal in religious beliefs, James Thomson, and following him Kelvin also, was liberal politically, against unearned privilege and patronage, an advocate of commerce and free trade. Kelvin himself was a keen supporter of the Whig and  then liberal parties, until there was a dramatic parting of the ways towards the end of the century, with important personal consequences as we shall see at the end of this account.

It might be said that James Thomson showed himself to be a good Ulster Protestant with his strong work ethic. We have alrady seen his work rate as he rose in life. Even when he was in a comfortable position  at Inst, he still rose early in the morning to spend four or five hours each day writing a series of best-selling mathematical textbooks. Again we may note a little ambivalence about his motives. On the one hand he certainly believed that his books, which expressed a modern and practical approach to mathematics, deserved to replace competing texts and were a service to education, On the other he felt no apology was necesary for the fact that the books made him a great deal of money; the labourer, he certainly felt, was worth of his hire!

Again and quite obviously Kelvin was to follow his father. Enthusiastic about pure research as he was, he also felt it an worthwhile use of his time, not only to design, build and make operational novel and useful devices, but to promote their adoption where required in government committee, and to fight for due rights in court. Yet again we may notice some ambivalence. On the one hand he made far more money from these activities than his professorial salary. On the other, his marine inventions – compass, depth-finder and so on, had the specific aim of making seamanship safer, and did indeed save many lives, and Kelvin regarded telegraph cables as an undoubted benefit to mankind, bringing nations together.

To return to the father, we could go further than calling him an extremely capable academic politican. Glasgow University was, at the time or Thomson’s arrival, a hotbead of nepotism. If your father had a chair there, you stood every possibility of following him. But of course that was exactly the type of practice that Thomson was trying to stamp out. In that context, his three-year campaign which successfully installed his own son at the age of 22 into the Chair of Physics, despite his youth, his lack of experience in physics as distinct from mathematics, and the slightness of his experience in teaching, must enable him to be reckoned as the academic wheeler-dealer of all time. Of course the resulting appointment was triumphantly successful.

Liberal Belfast c. 1790-1830

In the eighteenth century, Presbyterians in Ireland had at least moderate reason to be dissatisfied with their lot, and a number had elected for comparative religious liberty in America. It will be remembered that a number of Ulster Prebyterians were among the signatories of the Declaration of Independence. (Today ‘Irish-Americans’ are thought of as almost exclusively Catholic, but that wave of immigration relates to the later famine period. The early Presbyterians had become founding Americans.)

It is scarcely surprising that, in the 1790s, the period of the French and American Revolutions, Presbyterians were broadly supportive of what was seen as a similar movement in Ireland – the United Irishmen under Wolfe Tone. This movement differed greatly from later nationalistic organisations in Ireland in that it avowedly linked ‘Catholics and dissenters’, and was in fact anti-clerical, aiming at religious tolerance. The 1798 rebellion was strongly supported by many Presbyterians including James Thomson, but it was put down in violent fashion.

However the spirit of liberalism implicit in the United Irishmen remained strong in Belfast in the first third of the nineteenth century. Indeed it is quite amusing to realise that several people who must have been quite close to being hanged around 1798 soon became pillars of the establishment. Several institutions, such as the Ulster Reform Club and the Linenhall Library, which were founded in this period, retain a general spirit of liberalism to this day. Foremost was the Belfast Academical Institution, Inst, founded in 1810 specifically to promote liberalism and non-sectarianism.  In its early years this doubled as a school and a small college, and James Thomson had positions teaching mathematics in both; he soon became the dominant personality. By 1832 he was married with seven children; with his textbook earnings he was reasonably well-off, and was able to but a substantial house opposite Inst.

However in 1830 tragedy struck the family when Thomson’s wife died. Within two years he had moved with his children to become Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. It is not clear which of several possible reasons was the spur for this move. Of course the widower may have liked the idea of a fresh start in a new location. Also while he had the title of Professor in the Collegiate Department at Inst, the move to a full University would probably be seen as a step up.

Lastly by the 1830s, the political mood in Belfast was changing for the worse. The popular Presbyterian preacher Henry Cooke was successfully persuading members of his flock to form a united front with Anglicans in opposition to Catholics, and the crude sectarian divisions were forming which have largely characterised politics in the city to this day. While Glasgow itself, of course, was to be far from free from sectarian strife, Thomson may still have felt the move may have been benficial on these grounds as well.

Over the next decade, Thomson established himself as the leading personality in the University of Glasgow, and had considerable success in achieving a variety of reforms. Thus when the Queen’s Colleges were founded in Belfast, Cork and Galway in 1845, it seemed natural that Thomson should become President of Queen’s College Belfast (QCB).

Cooke, however, would not countenance a non-sectarian liberal in such a position, which he coveted himself. He threatened that, if apppointments were made of which the Presbyterian church disapproved, no trainee from the ministry would be allowed to attend Queen’s. The result was that neither Thomson nor Cooke was appointed and the position went to Dr Pooley Henry, an inoffensive minister, and an adminstrator rather than an academic or even an educationalist. Thomson was offered the position of Vice-Principal, at a salary exactly half that of the Principal,  a post he naturally turned down. This position went to a student of Thomson’s, Thomas Andrews, who was to become well-known as the instigator of the famous Andrews’experiment, which demonstrated the difference between a vapour, whcih may be liquefied by pressure alone, and a gas which may not.

James Thomson, Kelvin’s brother, and thermodynamics

Kelvin’s brother, James,  two years older than Kelvin himself, was also an exceptional character. His obsession was engineering, but he was, in some ways, a more rigorous thinker than his brother; Larmor desribed him as ‘the philosopher who plagued his pragmatical brother’.

Until he was in his thirties, his life was something of a struggle; he seemed to feel he was under the shadow of his younger brother, and ill-health disrupted his engineering apprenticeships. However his sister Anna, who had married a Presbyterian minister and returned to Belfast, encouraged James to return to Belfast also. He became Professor of Engineering at Queen’s from 1854 to 1873, and during this period, as well as performing his academic duties, he played a larger part in the various schemes to improve the sanitation and standard of life in the rapidly growing industrial city. He moved to take the chair at Glasgow in 1873, retiring in 1889 and dying in 1892.

He had made a major contribution to Kelvin’s own thoughts leading to thermodynamics; indeed he may be regarded as one of the founders of thermodynamics in his own right. Indeed even before the first full understanding of thermodynamics in 1850-1, the brothers made what may be seen in retrospect as the first application of the theory. As early as 1824, Sadi Carnot had put forward and analysed his Carnot cycle, which, in modern thermodynamic terms says that high temperature heat obtained from fuel cannot be wholly used for work; some heat must be deposited at a lower temperature. James pointed out that if a Carnot cycle is used to repeatedly freeze and melt ice/water, and work is performed when the freezing takes place, the Carnot cycle must be between different temperatures, In other words there must be a depression of the freezing point under pressure. This important result was soon confirmed experimentally by William.

The two brothers had thought deeply for many years about a dilemma at the heart of the physics of heat and work. Heat or human effort could be used to perform mechanical tasks; however in other circumstances it may appear to have no product. The brothers also saw the same dilemma between the arguments of James Joule, who claimed that heat was a form of energy and energy was conserved, and Carnot, who had shown that it was impossible to make complete use of any quantity of heat.

This dilemma was actually part of an important question about the ultimate fate of the universe. Until the early 1830s, it had been generally assumed that the motion of the solar system, and presumably by extension that of the universe, was stable and unchanging. However the discovery at that time of a slowing down of Encke’s comet, indicating the presence of a resisting medium in space, seemed to indicate an eventual end to the universe. For the brothers, this was related to a major  theological conundrum in their set of Presbyterian beliefs. On the one hand, they believed in the principle of conservation; only God could create or destroy. However, on the other hand they felt the significance of texts such as ‘The world shall wax old like a garment’ and ‘The things that are seen are temporal’, which indicated dissipation, change and decay, a direction or arrow of time, and the eventual end of the universe,

Rather amazingly the dilemma became resolved clearly in the first and second laws of thermodynamics. The first law, attributed by Kelvin to James Joule, expresses the conservation of energy. The second, attributed to Carnot, however, says that, though energy is conserved, it may be rendered ‘unavailable’; thus we obtain dissipation of energy, an arrow of time and irreversibility.

The laws of thermodynamics are usually attributed to Rudolf Clausius and William Macquorn Rankine as well as to Kelvin, Rankine being at the time Professor of Engineeering at the University of Glasgow. Indeed technically Clausius was the first to publish his work. However the interests of Clausius were mainly limited to the steam engine, and Rankine thought in terms of molecular models rather than large scale systems. It was Kelvin who had the vision to see thermodynamics as central to the whole history of the Universe, and it is not fanciful to say that this enhanced understanding was stimulated by the two strands of his Presbyterian beliefs.

Kelvin and Irish mathematicians and scientists

Anyone who studies Kelvin’s life and work will realise that he had many interactions of different types with mathematicians and scientists who were Irish or had Irish connections, and in general had a high opinion of Irish science and mathematics. For the latter point, it may be mentioned that, when he became Editor of the Cambridge Mathematical Journal in 1845, he replaced Cambridge by Cambridge and Dublin, in order to encourage contributions, in fact,  from all parts of Ireland.

It is interesting to present a brief list of Kelvin’s contacts who had Irish connections. We may start with James MacCullagh (1809-47), a theoretical physicist from Trinity College Dublin (TCD), who studied the passage of light through solids; we may speak of this as an early contribution to study of the ether, a material through which it was supposed that light should travel. Many Irish scientists including Kelvin spent much of their careers studying the properties of the ether, and Kelvin was heavily influenced by MacCullagh..

Today everybody who uses statistics or the computer has heard of the work of George Boole (1815-64). Much of his early work was performed when he was an amateur mathematician, and Kelvin played a considerable part on obtaining for him his first position as a mathematician when, on the foundation of the Queen’s Colleges in Ireland, he became first Professor of Mathematics in Queen’s College Cork in 1849.

William Rowan Hamilton (1805-65) of TCD was, of course, one of the most famous mathematicians of the nineteenth century. Kelvin fully appreciated his early work  on optics and dynamics, but though most of Hamilton’s work on his own discovery of quaternions, of which Hamilton himself was most proud,  was published under Kelvin’s editorship, Kelvin came to consider quaternions ‘an unmixed evil to those who have touched them in any way’.

In this opinion, he disagreed with P.G. Tait (1831-1901), in most other ways his greatest supporter. Tait was a Scotsman, but was Professor of Mathematics at QCB from 1854 to 1860, before becoming Professor of Natural Philosophy [Physics] at Edinburgh. Kelvin and Tait collaborated on the famous Treatise on Natural Philosophy always known as T and T’, which was the first book on physics to be centred around the new paradigm of energy rather than Newtonian force. Tait was a devotee of quaternions and wished them to appear in the book, but Kelvin overruled this suggestion. Another relevant scientist with QCB connections was Thomas Andrews (1813-85), who we have already met.

George Stokes (1819-1903) from County Sligo, famous today for several Stokes’ Laws and Theorems, was Lucasian Professor at Cambridge from 1849. He was the scientist closest to Kelvin, and they communicated mainly via innumerable letters on the ether and many other branches of physics.

John Tyndall (1820-93) from Carlow, on the other hand, was Kelvin’s greatest scientific opponent. He was a self-made man who rose to be Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Royal Institution, and, as a follower of Thomas Huxley and a fellow agnostic, his approach to life was completely opposed to that of Kelvin. Tyndall’s famous ‘Belfast address’ to the Britsh Association of Science in 1874 was a celebration of materialism, and a call for any religious input to science to be eliminated.

Samuel Haughton (1821-97) became Professor of Geology in TCD as early as 1851, later gaining a medical qualification and becoming Registrar of the School of Medicine. As a geologist, he was a strong supporter of Kelvin in his battle over the ages of the Earth and the Sun. Kelvin argued that these ages must be very limited, indeed far too small to allow the processes demanded by the evolutionists and most geologists. The discovery of radioactivity was to render Kelvin’s age limit completely wrong, and the reputations of both Kelvin and Haughton were to suffer from their (actually quite mild) opposition to the theory of evolution over the question of the enormous periods it would take.

John Everett (1831-1904) was acknowledged by Kelvin as his most able student in the whole of his 53 years in Glasgow. Subsequently he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at QCB from 1867-97, where his main interest was one of Kelvin’s, the establishment of a practical set of electrical units.

George Francis Fitzgerald (1851-1901), another great figure from TCD, is best known today for his proposed explanation of the Michelson-Morley result – the so-called Fitzgerald(-Lorentz) contraction. He was an ardent follower of Clerk Maxwell’s electromagnetism, and thus, though he admired Kelvin and his work in general immensely, he became a strong critic of Kelvin’s failure to agree with Maxwell as a result of his failure to obtain a physical understanding of the displacement current.

John Perry (1850-1920) was a graduate of QCB; he worked with Kelvin in Glasgow in the 1870s, and then, together with William Ayrton, took Kelvin’s methods to Japan. Back in England in the 1890s, he became the most prominent critic from the physics point of view of Kelvin’s arguments on the ages of the Sun and the Earth. Perry considered these arguments correct in  principle, but suggested that the specific answers obtained depended on detailed assumptions which were rather arbitrary.

Joseph Larmor (1857-1942) was a native of County Antrim. After study at QCB, he moved to Cambridge, where he became Senior Wrangler in 1880. He was Professor of Natural Philosophy in Queen’s College Galway  from 1880 to 1885, when he returned to Cambridge as a lecturer, succeeding Stokes as Lucasian Professor in 1903. In turn he was succeeded by Dirac in 1932. His main interests were in electromagnetism and the ether, and he interacted frequently with Kelvin in connection with these areas of science. He was to edit the collected works of both Stokes and Kelvin.

Lastly we mention John Townsend (1868-1957). A native of Galway, he studied at TCD before worked with J.J. Thomson in Cambridge, and in 1900 he became the first Wykeham Professor of Physics at Oxford. It is interesting that Kelvin, then in his 70s, wrote references for Townsend, and, when he had accepted the Oxford position,  assisted him to obtain a Royal Society grant for equipment.

It is interesting to speculate on and generalise Kelvin’s interactions, positive and negative, with scientists from Ireland. Some have suggested the existence of an Irish tradition, or possibly an Irish-Scottish tradition, including, for example, Maxwell, and clearly one could construct an argument along these lines centred around studies of the ether  . Some have even suggested a mutually supporting ‘Irish mafia’, and pointed to, for example,  the large number of Irish names among those giving testimonials for Kelvin when he obtained his Glasgow chair.

While these suggestions are worthy of further study, it should be noted that Irish and Scottish science was strong in the nineteenth century. England and Wales had only two Universities between them until well into the century, Universities obviously of the highest achievement at their best, but certainly not continuously at their best. Even when the ‘redbrick’ Universities were founded, initial achievement in science was low, and it was practically the end of the century by the time that, for example, Oliver Lodge and John Poynting made their substantial contributions.

In contrast, TCD and the Scottish Universities were well-established and, at least from the eighteenth century, of respectable achievement, while the Queen’s Colleges, particularly QCB, made a quite auspicious start. Irish and Scottish mathematicians and physicists may have interacted closely merely because there were a substantial number of successful ones.

Kelvin and industry in Ireland

As is well-known, as well as his science, Kelvin made enormous contributions to technology, playing the largest part in the establishment of the Atlantic cable, and designing and constructing many important devices, several of great use for the safety of ships – the mariner’s compass and the depth sounder, for example. From the point of view of this article, the main significance was that Kelvin’s contributions, as he saw them, to the power and properity of the British Empire convinced him of the importance for Ireland of remaining within the fold. This belief shaped his political stance in the latter decades of his life.Here we mention two of the examples of his technical prowess in Ireland.

The first is the famous Giant’s Causeway tramway of 1883, the first in the UK, and the first to use hydroelectric power in the world. Kelvin had long been a proponent of the use of electrical power and became a Director of, and Technical Consultant to the project.

Kelvin also had the excellent idea that the light from lighthouses should be modulated by Morse code to indicate which lighthouse was its source, an idea of great use to lost seafarers. The lighthouse at Holywood near Belfast was the first to utilise this scheme.

A tram on the Giant’s Causway tramway at Dunluce Castle c.1890

© The Ulster Museum; Welch Collection

Kelvin and Liberal Unionism

Through his life Kelvin was liberally minded, non-sectarian and against all forms of patronage. As late as 1884 he had actually been asked to stand as the Liberal candidate for the University seat of Glasgow and Aberdeen.Yet from the following year, events took place within the Liberal party that led to his campaigning strongly against it over the issue of Home Rule for Ireland.

As has been said, Kelvin had become a strong supporter of the British Empire and he saw every benefit, cultural, technical and commercial, for Ireland to remain an equal partner. In contrast he saw the Home Rule movement on the second half of the nineteenth century as against commerce and technology and clerically dominated.  He considered the Catholic church irredeemably backward-looking.

In the 1885 General Election, the Irish party under Charles Stewart Parnell gained the balance of power between the Liberals under William Gladstone, and the Conservatives under Lord Salisbury, and in the following year, Gladstone, with the support of the Irish party, put forward a Home Rule Bill. However this split the Liberal party. Many Liberals, especially in the West of Scotland, were unable to stomach Home Rule, more than 90 Liberal MPs voted against the Bill, and it was defeated.

In the forthcoming election campaign, a large section of the Liberals split from Gladstone, forming the Liberal Unionists. Among them was (as he then was) William Thomson, who campaigned vigorously against Gladstone. In the election, 78 Liberal Unionists were elected, and the Conservatives defeated the Liberals heavily. The Liberal Unionist MPs broadly supported the Conservative government under Salisbury, though for tactial reasons they sat on the Opposition benches with Gladstone’s Liberals. By 1900 those left in the Liberal Unionists were essentially united with the Consevatives, and the merger into the Conservative and Unionist Party was completed in 1912.

Thomson remained an enthusiastic Liberal Unionist, attending rallies and giving speeches, and in 1891 became President of the West of Scotand Liberal Unionist Association, the Honorary President being the Duke of Devonshire. It was the Duke who suggested to Salisbury that Thomson would make an excellent Liberal Unionist peer, and in 1892 he was indeed ennobled as Baron Kelvin of Largs. This would not have happened had it not been for his science and technology; equally it would not have happened but for his political activities.

At the next General Election in 1892, Gladstone was back in power with the support of the Irish party, and in the following year his Second Home Rule Bill passed through the House of Commons but was easily defeated in the Lords. This was to spell the end of Gladstone’s political career. The Conservatives were in power from 1895 for over ten years, and Kelvin’s worries over Home Rule must gradually have subsided. This general complacency led to the Liberal Unionists themselves splitting over fiscal reform, and in 1906 the Liberals were returned to power. Over the next fifteen years, immense changes were to take place in Ireland, but of course Kelvin died in 1907 so they lie outside our story.


Kelvin was  born in  Ireland but spent nearly all of his life based in Scotland, It may be best to think of him and the Thomson family as Ulster-Scots. Their descendents had moved from Scotland to Ulster in the mid-seventeenth century. It was natural for James Thomson (Snr) to study in Glasgow, and for both James and William to seek Chairs in Glasgow. It was equally natural for William’s sister, Anna, and his brother James (Jr) to return to Belfast. It is quite clear that Kelvin retained an intense interest in every aspect of Irish life – political, cultural,commercial and technogical. Certainly once he was in possession of his ocean-going yacht, one would have found him sailing regularly to Belfast for a political talk, a scientific or technical discussion, a family get-together, equally interested in, and concerned and involved with the affairs of Ireland as those of Scotland.


The two standard works on the life of Kelvin are The Life of Wiliam Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs by Silvanus P. Thompson (MacMillan, London, 1910; Chelsea, New York, 1976 (2 vols.)) and Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin by Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise (Cambridge University Press, 1989). Both have been of great use in the writing of this paper.

In order to save space, further references are not given here, but may be found in those books or in my article ‘Kelvin : The Legacy’ in Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy edited by Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker (Oxford University Press, 2008), or in other chapters in that book.

Kelvin and the Clyde

Prof. Crosbie Smith
Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine
University of Kent

On the occasion of his installation as Chancellor of the University of Glasgow on 29 November 1904, Lord Kelvin recalled how, some 90 years earlier, his father and a party of fellow-students from Ulster landed at Greenock and set out on foot to complete their journey to the University:

On their way they saw a prodigy – a black chimney moving rapidly beyond a field on the left side of the road. They jumped the fence, ran across the field, and saw to their astonishment Henry Bell’s Comet – then not a year old – travelling on the river Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock. Their [student] successors, five years later, found in David Napier’s steamer Rob Roy (which in 1818 commenced plying regularly between Belfast and Glasgow) an easier, if a less picturesque and adventurous, way between the College of Glasgow and their homes in Ireland.[1]

It is certainly no exaggeration to claim that not only was William Thomson born into an era of steam navigation but that his whole life, from beginning to end, was interwoven with that maritime context.

Back in the 1810s of course things were very different. On occasions even the 40-foot Comet had scarcely enough depth to navigate the Clyde. William’s father had had to endure three-day passages between Belfast and Glasgow – on one of which the sailing smack, laden with lime for Glasgow’s iron works, had been carried by the tidal streams three times around Ailsa Craig, the 1000-foot high haystack-like island in the entrance to the Firth of Clyde known to seafarers as ‘Paddy’s Milestone’.[2]

William’s mother had also made her first visit from Glasgow to Belfast on board a sailing packet. The then Margaret Gardner set out in May 1816 to visit a cousin, William Cairns, Professor of Logic and Belle Lettres at the newly established Belfast Academical Institution. The sailing packet, departing from Bowling, had taken at least twelve hours to reach Greenock, a few miles down river, where the wind had failed completely.[3]

Margaret recorded the experience in her correspondence. ‘Much as I had heard of the badness of the accommodation of these Packets’, she wrote, ‘the scene presented upon first stepping down to the Cabin far surpassed anything I had imagined’. In a space no more than nine feet square were stowed ‘four children nursing’, four more able to stand on their feet, eight women, and one ‘very big man’, in addition to herself and her two companions. Later, the ‘very big man’ insisted ‘upon lighting a candle to amuse the children’ while amusing ‘himself by smoking’. And in reply to objections raised against the smoking, he told his critics ‘that he did not come here to pay and not be allowed to do as he pleased’.[4] 

Transferring to another packet possessed of what she regarded as superior accommodation, Margaret reached Belfast in a 20-hour passage from Greenock. It was during this, her first visit to Ireland that she became acquainted with James Thomson whom she married the following year (1817).[5]

Eight years later, with four children including one-year-old William, the Thomsons paid their first visit as a family to Glasgow. This time the spiritual, moral and material ‘improvers’ of steam navigation had displaced the old sailing packets on the North Channel.[6] Belfast to Glasgow’s Broomielaw in summer now took just under 24 hours. One of the most energetic promoters of such cross-channel steamship services was George Burns, youngest son of the minister of Glasgow’s Barony Church and brother of Glasgow University’s regius professor of surgery, Dr John Burns. Both families were mainstream Presbyterians, the Thomsons belonging to one of Belfast’s newest Presbyterian congregations (Fisherwick) and the Burnses to one of Glasgow’s oldest. Both were strong admirers, as well as close friends, of the Reverend Thomas Chalmers, Scotland’s leading Presbyterian preacher of the day.[7]

Not everyone in Scotland shared the Burnses’ and Thomsons’ unbridled enthusiasm for steam navigation. A deeply pessimistic Calvinism, which emphasized the inevitable consequences of human depravity, commanded a popular following, especially outside Glasgow and Edinburgh. These popular forebodings were recalled by the celebrated naval architect John Scott Russell (builder of the Great Eastern). The early steamer Glasgow had departed around 1816 on a short sea passage, the venture being described by so-called friends of the ship’s crew as ‘a tempting of Providence’.[8]

Although the Comet only foundered after eight years service and then without loss of life, the second Comet fulfilled the gloomy prognostications of Scotland’s Calvinists with a melancholy disaster – involving heavy loss of life – following collision with another steamer on Trafalgar Day, 21 October, 1825, not far from Greenock and only a few weeks after the Thomsons had returned by steamer to Belfast.  The sinking of this second Comet occasioned much moralising. One anonymous pamphleteer quickly highlighted ‘the fate of the Comet as a signal instance of the uncertainty of life, and the constant peril which besets those who “go down to the sea in ships”’. And while the Edinburgh Observer concluded as a result of the disaster that it would ‘require a considerable length of time to restore public confidence in steam navigation’, the Edinburgh Weekly Journal lamented in strong evangelical tones the tragedy of ‘so many immortal creatures … in a few brief seconds, hurried to their eternal audit’.[9] Needless to say, none of these grim warnings deterred the Thomsons from their love of steam navigation. 

Clyde-built and Clyde-owned

The River Clyde and its wide Firth, the numerous sheltered lochs to the north and the cross-channel voyages to Ireland acted as the testing ground for several generations of early passenger steamers. Very soon, however, certain families and social networks earned a reputation for trustworthiness and reliability.

The Napiers and Dennys of Dumbarton had long been skilled in iron as blacksmiths and iron founders. David Napier made the boiler and castings for the Comet and set up a foundry in Glasgow to produce small engines for river steamers. He voyaged to and from Ireland to observe the behaviour of sailing ships in rough weather and then constructed models for testing hulls on a ‘burn’ near his works (using a falling weight connected over a pulley to the model as the means of propulsion). On the basis of these experiments he constructed the first cross-channel steamer (1818), the Rob Roy. With this fulfilment of promises, orders flowed in. His engineer/managers included David Tod and John MacGregor, famous in their own right from the 1840s as builders of large ocean-going iron steamers in Glasgow.[10] 

Robert Napier, originally intended for the Kirk, took over part of cousin David’s works and constructed his first ‘side lever’ engine for a river steamer in 1823. His engineer/manager David Elder designed the engine which combined ease of access at sea with exceptional strength and reliability. It was also compact compared to Boulton & Watt beam engines. Very soon Napier (and Elder) had a reputation for the best marine engines in Scotland (and later the world).[11]

George Burns entered coastal shipping in the 1820s, first in sail and then in steam. Deeply religious, he worked closely with the Rev. Chalmers to ‘improve’ the condition of Glasgow’s growing mass of poor (mostly displaced from the Highlands) through moral education, teaching self-restraint and self-reliance. Burns (and his associates) believed that God (Providence) did not act arbitrarily to punish individuals and societies. Rather, God acted through laws of nature and society. But individuals (and societies) could bring disaster upon themselves by ‘tempting Providence’: by over-population, wasteful use of resources, or putting to sea in less-than-seaworthy ships. As a result, the Burnses became known for the very high practical and moral standards of their ships and masters. George (and brother James) established a large network of coastal and cross channel steamers and joined forces with rival David MacIver in the 1830s.[12]

George Burns, David MacIver, Robert Napier and David Elder were instrumental in the launch of the British & North American Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1840 – subsequently known as the Cunard Steamship Company. George Burns’s elder son John (later First Baron Inverclyde) assumed the chairmanship of the Cunard Line of Steamers from the late 1870s and remained a close friend of Sir William Thomson. Indeed, the Burnses and the Thomsons were near-neighbours, with their respective country seats at Castle Wemyss and Netherhall overlooking the upper Firth where Clyde-built ships ran their speed trials at that time.[13]

Marine engine economy

Two years after Margaret’s death in 1830, James Thomson took up the chair of mathematics in Glasgow College. Throughout the 1830s, the family spent most summer vacations on the coasts of the Firth of Clyde – with Arran a particular favourite. Steamers and the sea were an integral part of their education. While at Kirn near Dunoon in 1836, for example, William’s older brother James (aged 14) observed the passing steamers and noticed the way in which each paddle blade struck the surface awkwardly before lifting an immense weight of water – with consequent waste of power. He therefore set about inventing an arrangement whereby the paddles would dip perpendicularly into the sea, strike back, and rise without raising unnecessary water. The arrangement was embodied in a working model. His father then took him to Glasgow to show the arrangement to unnamed experts there – who informed him that a patent for a similar purpose had been taken out only a few weeks before.[14]

In the summer of 1839 the Thomson family travelled for the first time to London and the Continent. There was then no railway between Glasgow and Carlisle. So they embarked on the Burns and MacIver steamer City of Glasgow, built by John Wood (builder of the first Comet) and engined by Robert Napier four years earlier as one of the quality show-pieces of Clydeside shipbuilding and engineering. This state–of-the-art paddle steamer had reduced the passage time between Greenock and Liverpool to under 20 hours (typically the passage time by steamer was over 30 hours). Scaled-up versions of these kinds of steamer provided the design for the first four – and subsequent – Cunard mail steamers for the Liverpool, Halifax and Boston service.[15]

In the autumn of 1843, with William an undergraduate in Cambridge, his brother James began an engineering apprenticeship at William Fairbairn’s shipbuilding yard at Millwall, Isle of Dogs, on the River Thames. The yard had strong Scottish engineering connections: Fairbairn himself and James’s master (Robert Murray). It was later incorporated into John Scott Russell’s yard for the construction of the Great Eastern. But most significantly for William and his brother it was to provide the context of marine engineering economy for the reworking of the theory of the motive power of heat.[16]

In letters to William in the summer of 1844, James articulated Sadi Carnot’s theory of the heat engines in which the work done by a steam engine depended on the temperature difference between boiler and condenser, analogous to the difference of water levels accounting for the motive power of water wheels. James’s reading gave particular attention to questions of waste – in the context of enhancing the economy of marine steam engines for ocean steamers – and several times referred to ‘the sea’ as the base level (of gravitation or of temperature) below which neither waterwheels nor heat engines would deliver useful work or mechanical effect. Correspondingly, the engineer’s quest was to minimise loss of mechanical effect ‘higher up’ – through spillage, conduction and so on during the passage of water (or heat) from source to sea.[17]

Over the following decade, these early considerations lay behind much of the brothers’ scientific and engineering agendas: James’s patents for efficient vortex turbines  (horizontal waterwheels); William’s formulation of an absolute scale of temperature from Carnot’s theory; their understanding of the depression of freezing point of ice under pressure; William’s debates with James Joule on the mechanical value of heat; and the construction of the new science of heat and energy.[18]

Thermodynamics and energy brought William – professor of natural philosophy in Glasgow from 1846 – into close association with Glasgow engineers: the successive University professors of engineering Lewis Gordon and Macquorn Rankine (as Ben Marsden has shown), as well as practical shipbuilders and engineers including John Elder (a son of David Elder and former pupil of Gordon), John Scott (who attended the natural philosophy class in the late 1840s), William Denny, and (most closely) James Robert Napier (son of Robert Napier).[19] 

Close friendships coincided with shared academic and business concerns. ‘The Gaiter Club’ in Glasgow unified its members by virtue of their common interest in walking tours in Scotland wearing gaiters. The President was John Burns (Cunard chairman), the Secretary was his brother James Cleland Burns (also a Cunard partner of the second generation), and the Chaplain was the Reverend Norman Macleod (minister of the Barony and editor of the best selling periodical Good Words). Members included Sir William Thomson and novelist Anthony Trollope.[20] Not surprisingly, Macleod elicited a good many contributions from these friends for Good Words, including articles on ‘Energy’ and the ‘Mariner’s Compass’ from Thomson. With Sir William devoting much time to navigational instruments (notably his compass and sounding machine), it is equally unsurprising that the coastal steamers of Burns were among the first to adopt the new technologies.[21]

From the early 1880s Captain ‘Jacky’ Fisher (later the Admiralty’s First Sea Lord) found in Sir William Thomson a major scientific ally in the causes of naval reform. His ‘reading’ of Sir William was one of economy of time and energy: of efficiency and effectiveness. They first became acquainted when Fisher vigorously pursued the cause of Sir William’s patent magnetic compass (and sounding machine) with the Admiralty. Sir William already had strong Admiralty connections. He had been a member (along with Rankine and William Froude) of the Committee upon the Design of Ships of War which recommended major hull design changes to an earlier Dreadnought in the wake of the capsize in 1870 of HMS Captain. He was a close friend of James Robert, son of Admiralty contractor and Clyde shipbuilder Robert Napier. He was also a very old friend of Cambridge wrangler Archibald Smith (brought up near Glasgow) whose work on compass error culminated in an Admiralty manual on the subject. But his own compass design had been scorned by the Astronomer Royal, G.B. Airy, and contested by the Hydrographer, F.J. Evans. Foreign navies – but especially the British merchant service – had meanwhile shown considerably greater enthusiasm.[22]

By 1882 Fisher was in command of HMS Inflexible (1876), at 11,900 tons displacement the largest fighting ship in the Royal Navy and a participant in the bombardment of Alexandria. He later reported that ‘the firing of the eighty ton guns of the Inflexible … blew my cap off my head and nearly deafened me, [but] had no effect on … [Sir William’s] compasses, and enabled us with supreme advantage to keep the ship steaming about rapidly and so get less often hit whilst at the same time steering the ship with accuracy amongst the shoals’.[23]

A successful outcome of the compass battle became imminent in 1889 when the subject was brought formally before the Board of Admiralty and Hydrographer. Fisher’s advice to Sir William was to ‘stand entirely aloof from the whole business and let your disciples do the fighting’. Sir William travelled by overnight train from Glasgow to London, ‘drove at once to Admiral Fisher’s, where he had his bath before 8.30 breakfast’ prior to attending the formal hearings. The rhetorical strategy involved ridicule of the old compass. When asked by the Judge at the inquiry whether the Admiralty compass was sensitive, Fisher, as Sir William’s witness, replied: ‘No, you had to kick it to get a move on’. By that time, the decision was a foregone conclusion. The Thomson compass became the standard one between c.1889 and c.1904 until displaced by a new Admiralty liquid compass.[24]

Given Fisher’s long enthusiasm for electricity, it is not surprising that he also found common cause with Sir William on the subject of electric lighting aboard ships of war. Among many technical innovations, HMS Inflexible had been fitted two devices for electricity supply in which Sir William had a deep practical and scientific interest: a.c. generators and Faure accumulators (large-capacity storage batteries). Fisher, however, called his attention to a report that a crew member had received a nasty shock through touching an arc lamp powered by generators at some 600 volts. Diagnosing the problem as ‘a nasty little leak, but not likely to be dangerous to life’, he accidentally touched the bare wire of the offending cable and simultaneously leapt into the air. His revised verdict was ‘Dangerous, very dangerous to life. I will mention this to the British Association’. The subsequent death of a stoker due to a similar leak resulted in 80 volts being adopted as standard aboard Royal Naval ships.[25]

Fisher’s close friendship Kelvin had extended over more than two decades. In February 1894, for example, just two years after Sir William Thomson’s elevation to the peerage as Baron Kelvin of Largs, Admiral Gerard Noel recorded dining at the Fishers where he met Lord and Lady Kelvin and Joseph Chamberlain. Kelvin’s ennoblement as the first British scientist to be made a peer owed much to his active involvement in West of Scotland Liberal Unionism.[26]

Splitting from Gladstone’s Liberals over the issue of Irish Home Rule in 1885-86, Liberal Unionists represented a powerful alliance of aristocrats (including their leader Marquis of Hartington and the Earl of Selborne), civic and imperial interests (including Chamberlain), and men of science (including Kelvin). Theirs was a vision of a quintessentially rational, scientific, industrial and Protestant Britain and her Empire defined in opposition to what they saw as reactionary, mystical and rural nationalist movements exemplified by Irish nationalism. Their Unionist vision was one of an Empire united (and defended) by the science and engineering prowess of Britain, exemplified by the heavy industries of the Clyde, the Tyne and Belfast. Many of the leading figures shared in crusades for economy and efficiency against any ideology – whether materialist, agnostic or Roman Catholic – that threatened an avowedly Protestant and British faith.[27]

Maximum efficiency and economy were the hall-marks of the science of energy, whether in physical science, engineering or political economy and industrial economy. From his earliest meetings with Kelvin aboard HMS Inflexible, Fisher admired above all Kelvin’s facility for ‘redeeming the time’. He later cited as telling examples the cases of sounding machine and compass, both supposedly worked out when Sir William was rendered otherwise inactive by a broken leg and both designed not only to minimise waste of ships and lives but to economise on human and physical energy.

Fisher thus suggested later that Kelvin’s sounding machine, instead of the ‘laborious’ and ‘inaccurate’ practice of stopping the ship, enabled depths to be gauged ‘no matter how fast the ship was going’. And Sir William had told Fisher in 1892 that ‘A ship with us is never detained on account of weather for the adjustment of her compasses’.[28]

Appointed as First Sea Lord in succession to the aristocratic Lord Walter Kerr in 1904, Fisher won the right to establish a Committee on Designs with Fisher as President, ostensibly ‘to devise new types of fighting ships’. But he privately admitted that the designs had already taken shape and that ‘it was a politic thing to have a committee of good names’ for the critics to fire at. To get his way with the politicians, Fisher would again invoke the authority and expertise of esteemed scientific men who would appear aloof from all political dealings and controversies – while of course owing their positions to Fisher. And of all the scientific men, it was the 80-year-old Lord Kelvin who could be represented in an iconic role, adding credibility, lustre, and trustworthiness to the Committee’s deliberations and advice.[29]

In practice, ill-health restricted Kelvin’s attendance, but in correspondence he typically posed questions about the fuel capacity and consumption of the new leviathans:

We shall want information about coal supply both for voyages and for fighting times and places. I suppose the constructors will be able to tell us how much coal per hour will be needed for 21 kn[ot] new battleship, 25½ kn armoured cruiser, and destroyers 36 kn; and how much coal each can carry in going into action.

A week later he informed Fisher that he was ‘in correspondence with Froude about submerged shape of ram-less battleships’ while in March he urged the First Sea Lord to take a day off in April in order that he, as Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, might confer on him an honorary doctor of laws: ‘I think your name ought to be on the Honours’ Roll of the most naval University in the world’.[30]


In this resume of Lord Kelvin in the context of the Clyde, I have stressed how, from start to finish, those maritime contexts of marine steam engineering and iron/steel shipbuilding were inseparable from his life and work. Indeed, I argue that it is impossible to understand – let alone do justice to – the natural philosophy of William Thomson without locating his theories and practices and inventions in those maritime contexts. Moreover, it is scarcely accidental that his choice of name for the peerage in 1892 fell on the River Kelvin – which both embraced the new University site on Gilmorehill and, laden with symbolism, was a significant tributary of the larger commercial and shipbuilding River, the Clyde. University knowledge, laboratory science in particular, Lord Kelvin’s forte, fed the larger maritime enterprises of Glasgow’s engineers and industrialists just as their wealth, power and philanthropy fed the construction of that great cathedral of knowledge, the University of Glasgow.

[1] Quoted in Silvanus P. Thompson, The Life of William Thomson. Baron Kelvin of Largs (2 vols., London, 1910), vol. 1, p.4.
[2] Ibid., p.4.
[3] Elizabeth King, Lord Kelvin’s Early Home (London, 1909), pp. 14-16.
[4] Ibid., pp. 15-16 (quoting Margaret Gardner’s letter to her sister dated 26 May 1816).
[5] Ibid., pp. 18-19.
[6] Ibid., pp. 33-34.
[7] Crosbie Smith and M. Norton Wise, Energy and Empire. A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge, 1989), pp. 13-14 (Chalmers and the Thomsons); Crosbie Smith and Anne Scott, ‘“Trust in Providencerdquo;: Building Confidence into the Cunard Line of Steamers’, Technology and Culture 48 (2007): 471-96 (Chalmers and the Burnses).
[8] Ibid., p. 475.
[9] Ibid., p. 478.
[10] See for example James Napier, Life of Robert Napier of West Shandon (Edinburgh and London, 1904)pp. 18-28
[11] Ibid., pp. 29-68.
[12] Smith and Scott, ‘Trust in Providence’, pp. 475-80.
[13] Ibid., pp. 471-96; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, pp. 705 (Netherhall), 776 (John Burns).
[14] King, Early Home, pp.118-32, esp. p.129.
[15] Ibid., p.146; Smith and Scott, ‘Trust in Providence’, pp. 480, 488-94.
[16] Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, pp. 288-89.
[17] Ibid., pp.289-91
[18] Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy. A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (Chicago and London, 1998), pp. 30-99.
[19] Ibid., esp. pp. 150-66.
[20] Edwin Hodder, Sir George Burns, Bart. His Times and his Friends (London, 1890), pp. 333-38.
[21] For example, Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, p. 776.
[22] This section draws directly on the ‘Kelvin’ parts of my recent article ‘Dreadnought science: the cultural construction of efficiency and effectiveness’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society 77 (2007): 191-215, esp. pp.202-05.
[23] Ibid., p. 204.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., pp.204-05.
[26] Ibid., p.206; Smith and Wise, Energy and Empire, pp. 799-814 (fuller development).
[27] Smith, ‘Dreadnought science’, p. 206.
[28] Ibid., p.207.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.