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William Thomson

Date of birth : 1824-06-26
Date of death : 1907-12-17
Birthplace : Belfast, Ireland
Nationality : Scottish
Category : Science and Technology
Last modified : 2011-01-14

The Scottish physicist William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs, was the originator of the absolute scale of temperature and was one of the founders of thermodynamics.

William Thomson was born on June 26, 1824, at Belfast, Ireland. His father taught mathematics and joined the University of Glasgow faculty in 1831. He devoted much of his time to the education of his sons and arranged for them to audit university classes. Thus when William was 10, he matriculated in the university and did well. After a tour of the Continent, Thomson entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1841.

In 1846 Thomson was appointed professor of natural philosophy at the University of Glasgow. He held this position for 53 years. In addition to teaching and inaugurating the first physics laboratory for students in the British Isles, he continued his mathematical and physical studies.

In 1847 Thomson learned of James Joule's work on the relationships between heat and work. In 1848 he originated his absolute temperature scale, and in 1851, independently of the findings of R. J. E. Clausius in the preceding year, he proposed the second law of thermodynamics.

From 1850 until 1860 Thomson's researches focused on thermoelectric effects, resulting in his discovery of the "Thomson heat effect." His other work on the principles of cyclic heating and refrigeration and his collaborative work with Joule on the cooling of gases by expansion are part of the contributions which justify listing him as one of the founders of thermodynamics.

By the end of 1855 Thomson, then 31, had published 96 papers and had reached his peak in pure physics. He devoted the remainder of his life chiefly to the application of physics, especially in the field of electricity. Between 1855 and 1865 he wrote a series of papers on telegraphic signaling by wire which were important to the laying of the first Atlantic cable. He developed and patented much equipment, such as the mirror galvanometer (1858), the quadrant electrometer, the siphon recorder for telegraphy (1867), and stranded conductors. As a leading member of the British Association Committee on Electrical Standards, he was instrumental in the adoption of the system of electrical units which later was adopted internationally.

Thomson became wealthy through his many discoveries and inventions and famous as well. In 1866 he was knighted and in 1892 was elevated to the peerage as Baron Kelvin of Largs. Almost every honor that can come to a scientist was awarded to him, including burial in Westminster Abbey. He died on Dec. 17, 1907, at his country home "Netherhall," near Largs.

Agnes G. King, Kelvin the Man (1925), provides an interesting view of Kelvin. See also Silvanus P. Thompson, The Life of William Thomson (1910). A more recent study is in David K.C. MacDonald, Faraday, Maxwell, and Kelvin (1964). A detailed biographical account of Kelvin is in James Gerald Crowther, Men of Science (1936). A short study is in Bryan Morgan, Men and Discoveries in Electricity (1952).




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