William Thomson was born in Belfast, Northern Ireland on 26 June 1824.
His father, Dr. James Thomson, was Professor of Mathematics at the Royal Academical Institution of Belfast, his mother, Margaret nee Gardner, died when he was just 6 years old, in 1830. From then on William and his elder brother James were taught by their father. James was intended to benefit from the major share of his father's encouragement, affection and financial support and was prepared for a fashionable career in engineering. However, James was a sickly youth and proved unsuited to a sequence of failed apprenticeships. William soon became his father's favourite. The younger boys were tutored by their elder sisters. There were seven children in the family in total. James senior was a strict disciplinarian and schooled his children in the latest mathematical theories. William had a gift for mathematics and quickly excelled.
In 1832 the family moved to Glasgow when William's father was named Chair of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. William began his studies at the University of Glasgow from the age of 10. The school system allowed promising students to enroll at the University to prepare for the entrance examinations. He began what we would consider university level work in 1838 when he was 14 years old. In that year (1838-9) he studied astronomy and chemistry.
The following year (1839-40) he took natural philosophy courses (today called physics) which included a study of heat, electricity and magnetism. His Essay on the 'Figure of the Earth' that year won him a gold medal from the University at just 15 years old and it was a truly remarkable work containing important ideas. The Essay showed an early facility for mathematical analysis and creativity. Throughout his life, he would work on the problems raised in the essay as a coping strategy at times of personal stress.
In 1841, aged 17 Thomson entered Cambridge and in the same year his first paper was published. This paper Fourier's expansions of functions in trigonometrical series was written to defend Fourier's mathematics against criticism from the professor of mathematics at the university of Edinburgh.
A more important paper On the uniform motion of heat and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity was published in 1842 while Thomson was studying for the mathematical tripos examinations at Cambridge. He was known for his self-confidence, and as an undergraduate at Cambridge he thought himself the sure "Senior Wrangler" (the name given to the student who scored highest on the Cambridge mathematical Tripos exam). After taking the exam he asked his servant, "Oh, just run down to the Senate House, will you, and see who is Second Wrangler." The servant returned and informed him, "You, sir!".
Further examinations saw him become first Smith's prizeman and he was elected a fellow of Peterhouse.
William read George Green's work, which was to have a major influence on the direction of his research. His interest in the French approach, and advice from his father, meant that after taking his degree he went to Paris in 1845 aged 21. He did research and gained practical experience working for Henri-Victor Regnault, a physicist and chemist. On his return from Paris he accepted a post as College Lecturer in Mathematics at Cambridge. Although he was only 21, he had established himself with an impressive reputation for his knowledge and understanding of mathematical physics.
In 1846 the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow became vacant. It seems that William's father used his influence in the University to help his son become the leading candidate for the post. William was unanimously elected professor of Natural Philosophy at the University, he remained chairman for the next 53 years. He was a successful teacher and administrator. He required that students complete laboratory work as part of their program, and he recognized outstanding students with prizes and awards.
His thermodynamical studies led him to propose an absolute scale of temperature in 1848. The absolute scale that he proposed was based on his studies of the theory of heat, in particular the theory proposed by Sadi Carnot and later developed by Clapeyron. The Kelvin absolute temperature scale, as it is now known, was precisely defined much later after conservation of energy had become better understood.
In 1851 he was accepted to the Royal Society of London. In September 1852 he married his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Crum, but her health broke down on their honeymoon and, over the next seventeen years, William was distracted by her suffering.
From 1857 to 8 and from 1865 to 6, William oversaw the construction of the trans-atlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland. He served both on the board of directors and as a scientific advisor. He designed and built a mirror galvanometer, which made communication along the cable more efficient, the completed submarine telegraph system was capable of sending a character every 3.5 seconds. He was awarded a knighthood, along with the other principals of the project, on November 10 1866 by Queen Victoria.
Sir William Thomson's wealth was secure from that point on. He enjoyed royalty income from his patents and healthy consulting fees from the engineering firms he had started. Sir William didn't stop his association with long distance cables there, he also took part in the laying of the French Atlantic submarine communications cable of 1869, and was present at the laying of the Pará to Pernambuco section of the Brazilian coast cables in 1873.
Sir William's wife had died on 17 June 1870 and he resolved to make changes in his life. Already addicted to seafaring he purchased a 126 ton schooner, the Lalla Rookh, and used it as a base for entertaining friends and scientific colleagues. Hence it was with no surprise that he took a great interest in the tides of the coastal waters of Scotland, not only as a yachtsman, but also because of his interest in the mathematical background in the calculations of tides. He decided that all the work hitherto done had been accomplished by laborious arithmetical calculation; but calculation of so methodical a kind that a machine ought to be found to do it.
Using a system of pulleys, wires and dials, William designed a tide-predictor in 1876. The dials were used to set the oceanographic and astronomical data of the coastal harbour. The results were printed in curve format on a long strip of paper. On cranking its handle, the machine, an early analog computer, calculated and printed the harbour's tide patterns for up to a year in only four hours. The machine proved the feasibility of replacing calculations performed by people with computations by a machine. Also on a nautical note he introduced a method of deep-sea sounding, in which a steel piano wire replaces the ordinary land line. The wire glides so easily to the bottom that "flying soundings" can be taken while the ship is going at full speed. A pressure gauge to register the depth of the sinker was also added. About the same time he revived the Sumner method of finding a ship's place at sea, and calculated a set of tables for its ready application.
In June 1873, Sir William was onboard the Hooper, bound for Lisbon with 2,500 miles of cable when the cable developed a fault. An unscheduled 16-day stop-over in Madeira followed and Sir William became good friends with Charles R. Blandy and his three daughters. On 2 May 1874 he set sail for Madeira on the Lalla Rookh. As he approached the harbour, he signalled to the Blandy residence Will you marry me? and Fanny (Frances Anna Blandy) signalled back Yes. Sir William married Fanny, 13 years his junior, on 24 June 1874 in Madeira, Portugal.
During the 1880s, Sir William worked to perfect the adjustable compass in order to correct errors arising from magnetic deviation owing to the increasing use of iron in naval ships. His design was a great improvement on the older instruments, being steadier and less hampered by friction, the deviation due to the ship's own magnetism being corrected by movable masses of iron at the binnacle. The innovations involved much detailed work to develop principles already identified by George Biddell Airy and others but contributed little in terms of novel physical thinking. His energetic lobbying proved effective in gaining acceptance of his instrument by The Admiralty.
Sir William did more than any other electrician up to his time to introduce accurate methods and apparatus for measuring electricity. As early as 1845 he pointed out that the experimental results of William Snow Harris were in accordance with the laws of Coulomb. In the Memoirs of the Roman Academy of Sciences for 1857 he published a description of his new divided ring electrometer, based on the old electroscope of Johann Gottlieb Friedrich von Bohnenberger and he introduced a chain or series of effective instruments, including the quadrant electrometer, which covered the entire field of electrostatic measurement. He invented the current balance, also known as the Kelvin balance or Ampere balance, for the precise specification of the ampere, the standard unit of electric current.
In 1892, Queen Victoria conferred a peerage on Sir William Thomson and he assumed the title Baron Lord Kelvin of Largs. 'Kelvin' was derived from the river Kelvin which flows through the grounds of Glasgow University while 'of Largs' referred to his country home Netherhall in the popular seaside town of Largs on the Firth of Clyde about 50 km from Glasgow. The title was to die with him as he left neither heirs nor close relatives.
In 1893 Lord Kelvin headed an international commission to decide on the design of the Niagara Falls power station. Despite his previous belief in the superiority of direct current electric power transmission, he was convinced by Nikola Tesla's demonstration of three-phase alternating current power transmission at the Chicago World's Fair of that year and agreed to use Tesla's system. In 1896, Thomson said "Tesla has contributed more to electrical science than any man up to his time."
Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin of Largs died on 17 December 1907 in Ayrshire, Scotland and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Perhaps his greatest contribution to the advancement of science may have been his penchant for and brilliance in seeing how theories from various branches of science fit together to create a more complete explanation of phenomenon. His work aided the understanding and advancement of modern physics.
But all he did was not 'great'. In 1895 he stated "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible". Then, in 1896, "I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning, I would not care to be a member of the Aeronautical Society."
Lord Kelvin is also known for an address to an assemblage of physicists at the British Association for the advancement of Science in 1900 in which he stated, "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement."
Despite these gaffs we certainly have a lot to thank Sir William Thomson, Lord Kelvin for!
Footnote: This is one of the largest 'Short Histories' I have written and I have only scratched the surface of Sir William's life and works.