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 brother’s 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.

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