The next time you make a trans-Atlantic phone call, raise a glass, smile and tip your hat to an ingenious Irishman; a man that Charles Darwin once described as being “like an odious specter.” This man had incurred the wrath of Darwin for daring to oppose his theory of natural selection. Always outspoken, he was never afraid to disagree with many widely accepted theories put forth by eminent scientists and mathematicians of the time, if he thought they were wrong in their assumptions.
He entered University at age ten and wrote his first scientific paper at age sixteen. As a teenager, he learned French so well that he read and understood the work of eminent French mathematician, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier. When Philip Kelland, Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh University, criticized Fourier's work on the theory of heat, this young man disagreed and stated that Kelland was wrong. Later scientists agreed with him.
In 1846, aged only 22, he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University, Scotland. He remained in this post for 53 years. Eager to see students involved in practical experiment, he established the first university physics laboratory. At the University of Glasgow, he did important work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics. Possessing a keen mind, he also had great ability for solving problems. He worked closely with mathematics professor Hugh Blackburn in his work.
He also had a career as an electric telegraph engineer and inventor, which propelled him into the public eye and ensured his wealth, fame and honor. For his work on the successful laying of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable in 1866, Queen Victoria awarded him a knighthood. He thereafter was known as Sir William Thomson.
He was elevated to the House of Lords and became Lord Kelvin. The title refers to the River Kelvin, which flows close by his laboratory at the University of Glasgow.
William Thomson was born at 21-25 College Square East in Belfast, Co. Antrim, in 1824. This location was later home to the first cinema in Belfast named 'The Kelvin'.
From 1841 to 1845 he attended Cambridge University and according to all reports he was an excellent student. After graduating, he worked in Paris with physics professor Victor Regnault. His earliest influences were the mathematical ideas of George Green, a self-taught miller's son from Nottingham. He later brought an essay of Green's to the attention of fellow mathematicians and physicists by republishing it in a respected scientific journal. Until then the essay on mathematical analysis, electricity and magnetism had gone largely unnoticed.
Among his many other accomplishments he gained worldwide renown for:
Devising the absolute temperature scale, now called the 'Kelvin scale.'
Formulating the second law of thermodynamics.
Working to install telegraph cables under the Atlantic.
He also had extensive maritime interests, most notably, his work on the mariner's compass.
Books available at: