Lord Kelvin (1824 - 1907)


William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin) was born June 26, 1824 in Belfast, Ireland,
and was part of a large family whose mother died when he was six. His father
taught Kelvin and his brothers mathematics to a level beyond that of university
courses of the time.

Kelvin was somewhat of a genius, and had his first papers published in 1840.
These papers contained an argument defending the work of Fourier (Fourier
transforms), which at the time was being heavily criticized by British
scientists. He proved Fourier’s theories to be right. In 1839 Kelvin wrote an
essay which he called " An Essay on the Figure of the Earth." He used this essay
as a source and inspiration for ideas all his life and won an award from the
University of Glasgow in Scotland. Kelvin remained at the University for the
rest of his working life.

Kelvin first defined the absolute temperature scale in 1847, which was later
named after him. In 1851 he published the paper, "On the Dynamical Theory of
Heat", and in the same year was elected to the Royal Society. This work
contained his ideas and version of the second law of thermodynamics as well as
James Joule’s idea of the mechanical equivalent of heat. This idea claimed that
heat and motion were combined, which now is taken as second nature. At the time,
heat was thought to have been a fluid of some kind.

Kelvin also maintained an interest in the age of the sun and calculated values
for it. He assumed that the sun produced its radiant energy from the
gravitational potential of matter falling into the sun. In collaboration with
Hermann von Helmholtz, he calculated and published in 1853 a value of 50 million
years. He also had an interest in the age of the earth, and he calculated that
the earth was a maximum of 400 million years old. These calculations were based
on the rate of cooling of a globe of matter after first solidification occurs (
such as the beginning of the earth). He also calculated that molecular motion
stops at -273 degrees Celsius. He called this temperature absolute zero.

Kelvin started work in 1854 on the project of laying transatlantic cables. His
idea was that electrical current flow was similar to that of heat flow, and by
applying ideas on heat flow, helped in the problem of transmitting electrical
signals over long distances. In 1866, Kelvin succeeded in laying the first
successful transatlantic cable.

Kelvin invented the mirror galvanometer which he patented in 1858 as a long
distance telegraph receiver. Other inventions by Kelvin include the flexible
wire conductor of ‘flex’, a law which calculated how much a cable costs in
respect of electrical losses and a gyro-compass among a host of others.

In 1889 Kelvin retired from the university after having been professor there for
53 years. In the year 1890 he became president of the Royal Society and held
that position until 1895. He was created Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892 and in
1902 received the Order of Merit. After a long and successful career, publishing
many papers and being granted numerous patents, Kelvin died at his home on
December 17, 1907 in his estate close to Largs, Scotland. He is buried at
Westminster Abbey, London.


Interesting Information

- William Thomson went to the University of Glasgow at age 10.

- He had his first papers published at the ages of 16 and 17.

- In 1839 at the age of 15 he wrote a major essay called "An Essay on the Figure
of the Earth".

- At the age of 22 Thomson was elected to professor of physics at the University
of Glasgow.

- He was Knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria for his work.

- The transatlantic cable laying expeditions made Thomson an extremely wealthy
man.

- He published 661 papers in his career.

- He patented 70 inventions in his lifetime.

- In 1892 he was created Baron Kelvin of Largs.

- In 1902 he received the Order of Merit.

Category: Science