Kelvin - More Than Just a Unit of Heat

Wednesday, 5 December 1888 - Glasgow, Scotland

Sir William Thomson, soon to be Lord Kelvin
This afternoon I attended a lecture by Professor William Thomson--SIR William Thomson. He is now 64-years-old. Last time I saw Thomson was 32 years ago (my basetime) eight years from now in 1896 at the 50th Anniversary of his professorship here at the University of Glasgow.

2500 guest attended, many of them predominate scientists of the day. The university library was filled with his inventions and awards. The Eastern, the Anglo-American and the Commercial Cable companies united to send a telegraph message from the university to the major cities of America and back, traveling 20,000 miles in only seven and a half minutes! Why did they do this? Because Thomson had made it possible.

By then Sir William Thomson was Lord Kelvin, the first scientist to be made a Lord. He took the title 1st Baron Kelvin for the river Kelvin that flows by the University of Glasgow campus. He will teach here for 53 years, despite generous offers from other universities.

Thomson is considered the greatest chemist of the 19th century and the father of modern physics. (It was still called Natural Philosophy, in his day.) He was a scientist, who believed science was useless without practical application, so he was also an inventor. Watching him lecture to a hall full of students, hanging on his every word, I think his role as teacher has been downplayed. He will inspire many budding scientists.

I carefully recorded his lecture. Afterwards I went up to Thomson to get a closer scan of him. Thomson is a charming, humble man with twinkling eyes despite a painful limp. I approached him as he was cleaning off the chalkboard and was able to record this short interview.

Excuse me, Sir William. My name is Dr. Howe. I would like to say I enjoyed your lecture.
Why thank you, sir. Are you a scientist?

Only of anthropology.
Ah! Have you been following Max Muller’s lectures on Natural Religion? Quite brilliant.

James Thomson, Sr.
It’s why I’m in town. Lovely city.
I always thought so, ever since my family moved here when I was nine.

You weren’t born in Glasgow?
No, my family is from Belfast. My father, James Thomson, decided to become a Presbyterian minister and University of Glasgow was one of the few colleges open to a farmer‘s son. Father returned to Ireland after he graduated. It turned out he was really a mathematician and eventually was given the Chair of Mathematics here at Glasgow.

James Thomson, Jr.
So you are not the only professor in the family?
By no means. My eldest brother, James, Jr. is teaching here now as a professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics. However, his eyesight is failing him. I’m not sure how much longer he can teach. Pity. He is really quite a genius. He has done a lot to improve turbines, water wheels and water pumps. He’s also done research on glacier motion.

So you two attended Glasgow University?
Yes, I first enrolled when I was ten.

It’s not that extraordinary. They had program at the time for able young students. However I tried to work as hard as the older students. My brother James also enrolled. He was then twelve. When I was 17 father sent me to Cambridge.

University of Cambridge? That’s my alma mater. How did you like it?
I enjoyed it. I was on the sculling team. We rowed our way to victory in the Colquhoun Sculls of 1843. The only disappointment was the science department. It really hadn’t developed past the teachings of Isaac Newton. There really weren’t any facilities for study of experimental science. So when Glasgow offered me a position as professor of Natural Philosophy, I jumped at it. They had a school of thermodynamics here, which by the way my father had helped form.

What did you do between your appointment to Glasgow and graduating from Cambridge?
I took the train to Glasgow.

They made you a professor of one of the oldest, most prestigious universities in Great Britain right after you graduated?
Yes, I was only 22. My class wasn’t much younger than myself. I think it was my work in the mathematical analysis of electricity that convinced the University. However my youth did work against me. The next year when I attended the British Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting at Oxford, the other scholars there saw me as a precocious child. I had ideas on heat and temperature they found radical.

Yes, the First and Second Laws of Thermodynamics and the absolute zero scale you invented.
Proposed. I was only able to calculate absolute zero. Some one else hopefully will fill in the rest.

[They will only be able to start on that in the mid-twentieth century. They will call the units “Kelvin” in honor of Lord Kelvin.]

Is that why they knighted you?
No, that was for my work on the Trans-Atlantic Cable. They said it couldn’t be done, and indeed it couldn’t with the current material. So I had to invent better cables and equipment. I started out as a scientific advisor and wound up as the head engineer. I never considered myself an engineer, but discovered I had a talent for it. I think I have my father and brother to thank for that. Apparently engineering runs in our blood.

So you made it possible for people in New World to communicate with those in the Old World almost instantaneously.
I wasn’t the only one who made that happen. Several of my colleagues were knighted after the completion of the project.

Are there any projects you are working on currently?
Yes, perfecting the marine compass. Since they started using so much iron in ships it has caused magnetic deviation in the old compasses. I think I‘ve solved the problem.

How did you get involved in that?
I’m quite the sailor, don’t you know. All right, I’m captain of a 126 foot schooner, the Lalla Rookh. I got interested in seafaring I think after laying all that cable in the Atlantic. When poor Margaret, my first wife, finally succumbed to her very long illness. I was quite distraught. So I took a mistress--the sea.

The Lalla Rookh
Seemed wiser than taking to the bottle, I must say. I do hope you have found another life mate.
Yes, Fanny. Lovely woman. I had become good friends with Mr. Charles Blandy and his three daughters. So one day as I approached there home by ship, I signaled “Will you marry me?” Fanny signaled back “Yes.” I figured any women that sea savvy and with a sense of humor was the woman for me.

That is a charming story. She sounds like a delightful woman.
She is indeed. Excuse me, for my rudeness but I have a meeting to attend to. It was very nice to meet you, Dr. Howe.

And very nice to meet you, too, Lord Kel--erm, I mean, Sir William Thomson.
[I nearly got in hot water that time--373.15 Kelvin!]

Future Monument to Lord Kelvin
erected by Glasgow right after his death in 1908

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