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The Lord Kelvin
Sir William Thomson, Baron Kelvin by T. & R. Annan & Sons - Original.jpg
Kelvin, c. 1900, by T. & R. Annan & Sons
President of the Royal Society
In office
1 December 1890 – 30 November 1895
Preceded by Sir George Stokes
Succeeded by The Lord Lister
Personal details
Born (1824-06-26)26 June 1824
Belfast, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Died 17 December 1907(1907-12-17) (aged 83)
Largs, Scotland
Political party Liberal (1865–1886)
Liberal Unionist (from 1886)
Margaret Crum
(m. 1852; died 1870)

Frances Blandy
(m. 1874⁠–⁠1907)
Children None
Alma mater
Known for
  • First Smith's Prize (1845)
  • Royal Medal (1856)
  • Keith Medal (1864)
  • Matteucci Medal (1876)
  • Albert Medal (1879)
  • Copley Medal (1883)
  • John Fritz Medal (1905)
Scientific career
Institutions University of Glasgow
Academic advisors William Hopkins
Notable students
It is believed the "PNP" in his signature stands for "Professor of Natural Philosophy". Kelvin also wrote under the pseudonym "P. Q. R."

William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, OM, GCVO, PC, FRS, FRSE (26 June 1824 – 17 December 1907) was a British mathematician, mathematical physicist and engineer born in Belfast. He was the Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow for 53 years, where he undertook significant research and mathematical analysis of electricity, the formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, and contributed significantly to unifying physics, which was then in its infancy of development as an emerging academic discipline.

Absolute temperatures are stated in units of kelvin in his honour. The Joule–Thomson effect is also named in his honour. While the existence of a coldest possible temperature, known as absolute zero, was known prior to his work, Kelvin is known for determining its correct value as approximately −273.15 degrees Celsius or −459.67 degrees Fahrenheit.


William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin was born to [James Thomson (mathematician)|James Thomson]] and Margaret Thompson. His father was a teacher of mathematics and engineering at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, and the son of a farmer. Margaret Thomson died in 1830 when William was six years old.

William had 6 siblings: three brothers and two sisters. William and his elder brother James were tutored at home by their father while the younger boys were tutored by their elder sisters.

In 1832, his father was appointed professor of mathematics at Glasgow and the family moved there in October 1833. Much of Thomson's life during the mid-1840s was spent in Germany and the Netherlands. Language study was given a high priority.


PSM V72 D191 William thomson lord kelvin at the age of twenty two
William Thomson, aged 22
University, Glasgow, Scotland, ca. 1895
The meander of the River Kelvin containing the Neo-Gothic Gilmorehill campus of the University of Glasgow designed by George Gilbert Scott, to which the university moved in the 1870s (photograph 1890s)

He attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where his father was a professor in the university department. In 1834, aged 10, he began studying at the University of Glasgow; the University provided many of the facilities of an elementary school for able pupils, and this was a typical starting age.

In school, Thomson showed a keen interest in the classics along with his natural interest in the sciences. At the age of 12 he won a prize for translating Lucian of Samosata's Dialogues of the Gods from Ancient Greek to English.

In the academic year 1839/1840, Thomson won the class prize in astronomy for his Essay on the figure of the Earth which showed an early facility for mathematical analysis and creativity. His physics tutor at this time was his namesake, David Thomson.

Throughout his life, he would work on the problems raised in the essay as a coping strategy during times of personal stress. On the title page of this essay Thomson wrote the following lines from Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. These lines inspired Thomson to understand the natural world using the power and method of science:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides;
Go measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old Time, and regulate the sun;

Thomson became intrigued with Fourier's Théorie analytique de la chaleur and committed himself to study the "Continental" mathematics resisted by a British establishment still working in the shadow of Sir Isaac Newton. Unsurprisingly, Fourier's work had been attacked by domestic mathematicians, Philip Kelland authoring a critical book. The book motivated Thomson to write his first published scientific paper under the pseudonym P.Q.R., defending Fourier, and submitted to the Cambridge Mathematical Journal by his father. A second P.Q.R. paper followed almost immediately.

While on holiday with his family in Lamlash in 1841, he wrote a third, more substantial P.Q.R. paper On the uniform motion of heat in homogeneous solid bodies, and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity. In the paper he made remarkable connections between the mathematical theories of heat conduction and electrostatics, an analogy that James Clerk Maxwell was ultimately to describe as one of the most valuable science-forming ideas.


William's father was able to make a generous provision for his favourite son's education and, in 1841, installed him, with extensive letters of introduction and ample accommodation, at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

While at Cambridge, Thomson was active in sports, athletics and sculling, winning the Colquhoun Sculls in 1843. He also took a lively interest in the classics, music, and literature; but the real love of his intellectual life was the pursuit of science. The study of mathematics, physics, and in particular, of electricity, had captivated his imagination. In 1845 Thomson graduated as Second Wrangler. He also won the First Smith's Prize, which is a test of original research.

In 1845, he gave the first mathematical development of Michael Faraday's idea that electric induction takes place through an intervening medium, or "dielectric", and not by some incomprehensible "action at a distance". He also devised the mathematical technique of electrical images, which became a powerful agent in solving problems of electrostatics, the science which deals with the forces between electrically charged bodies at rest. It was partly in response to his encouragement that Faraday undertook the research in September 1845 that led to the discovery of the Faraday effect, which established that light and magnetic (and thus electric) phenomena were related.

He was elected a fellow of St. Peter's (as Peterhouse was often called at the time) in June 1845. On gaining the fellowship, he spent some time in the laboratory of the celebrated Henri Victor Regnault, at Paris; but in 1846 he was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Glasgow. At twenty-two he found himself wearing the gown of a professor in one of the oldest Universities in the country, and lecturing to the class of which he was a first year student a few years before.

Scientific research

His scientific research spanned various fields, including:

Electricity and Magnetism

Lord Kelvin invented the international system of telegraphy, which revolutionized long-distance communication. He also devised the mathematical technique of electrical images, which was instrumental in solving problems of electrostatics.

Thomson made significant contributions to atmospheric electricity for the relatively short time for which he worked on the subject, around 1859. He developed several instruments for measuring the atmospheric electric field, using some of the electrometers he had initially developed for telegraph work. Thomson's water dropper electrometer was used for measuring the atmospheric electric field at Kew Observatory and Eskdalemuir Observatory for many years, and one was still in use operationally at the Kakioka Observatory in Japan until early 2021. Thomson may have unwittingly observed atmospheric electrical effects caused by the Carrington event (a significant geomagnetic storm) in early September 1859.


Lord Kelvin made significant contributions to the development of the second law of thermodynamics and the absolute temperature scale, which is now measured in kelvins. He introduced the word "thermodynamics" in 1848.

Kelvin also formulated the heat death paradox (Kelvin's paradox) in 1862, which uses the second law of thermodynamics to disprove the possibility of an infinitely old universe; this paradox was later extended by Rankine.

Lord Kelvin's work on the dynamical theory of heat and his investigations into the nature of energy were crucial in laying the foundations for modern physics.


Lord Kelvin's research in hydrodynamics, the study of fluids in motion, was influential in understanding the behavior of water and other fluids.


Lord Kelvin was interested in geophysical questions, such as the age of the Earth. He opposed Darwin's views on natural selection, arguing that the Earth was too young for it to have occurred.

Kelvin made an early physics-based estimation of the age of the Earth. He contended that the laws of thermodynamics operated from the birth of the universe and envisaged a dynamic process that saw the organisation and evolution of the Solar System and other structures, followed by a gradual "heat death". He developed the view that the Earth had once been too hot to support life and contrasted this view with that of uniformitarianism, that conditions had remained constant since the indefinite past.

Thomson's initial 1864 estimate of the Earth's age was from 20 to 400 million years old. These wide limits were due to his uncertainty about the melting temperature of rock, to which he equated the Earth's interior temperature, as well as the uncertainty in thermal conductivities and specific heats of rocks. Over the years he refined his arguments and reduced the upper bound by a factor of ten, and in 1897 Thomson, now Lord Kelvin, ultimately settled on an estimate that the Earth was 20–40 million years old.

Navigation and Communication

Lord Kelvin's practical problem-solving abilities led him to invent instruments that improved communication and marine navigation, such as his own version of an astronomical clock and a sounding machine for deep-sea exploration. He worked extensively on the mariner's compass, which previously had limited reliability.

Sir Lord Kelvin Mariner's Compass with Sun Dial
Kelvin Mariner's Compass

Thomson introduced a method of deep-sea depth sounding, in which a steel piano wire replaces the ordinary hand line. The wire glides so easily to the bottom that "flying soundings" can be taken while the ship is at full speed. A pressure gauge to register the depth of the sinker was added by Thomson. About the same time he revived the Sumner method of finding a ship's position, and calculated a set of tables for its ready application.

Sir William Thomson's telegraphic syphon recorder
William Thomson's telegraphic syphon recorder, on display at Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, in January 2019

For his work on the transatlantic telegraph project, he was knighted in 1866 by Queen Victoria, becoming Sir William Thomson.

Despite his significant contributions to science, Lord Kelvin's reputation has been somewhat overshadowed by his skepticism towards the new physics that emerged in the late 19th century, as exemplified by his dismissal of X-rays as a hoax


He was ennobled in 1892 in recognition of his achievements in thermodynamics, and of his opposition to Irish Home Rule, becoming Baron Kelvin, of Largs in the County of Ayr. The title refers to the River Kelvin, which flows near his laboratory at the University of Glasgow's Gilmorehill home at Hillhead.

Personal life

Thomson was merried twice but had no children.

In September 1852, he married childhood sweetheart Margaret Crum, daughter of Walter Crum; but her health broke down on their honeymoon, and over the next 17 years, Thomson was distracted by her suffering. Thomson's wife, Margaret, died on 17 June 1870.

In June 1873, Thomson and Jenkin were on board the Hooper, bound for Lisbon with 2,500 miles (4,020 km) of cable when the cable developed a fault. An unscheduled 16-day stop-over in Madeira followed and Thomson 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 (Blandy's daughter Frances Anna Blandy) signalled back "Yes". Thomson married Fanny, 13 years his junior, on 24 June 1874.

Hubert von Herkomer03
Lord Kelvin by Hubert von Herkomer

Later years

Despite offers of elevated posts from several world-renowned universities, Kelvin refused to leave Glasgow, remaining until his eventual retirement from that post in 1899. Active in industrial research and development, he was recruited around 1899 by George Eastman to serve as vice-chairman of the board of the British company Kodak Limited, affiliated with Eastman Kodak. In 1904 he became Chancellor of the University of Glasgow.

He resided in Netherhall, a redstone mansion in Largs, which he built in the 1870s.

Death and funeral

The Thomson family grave and memorial, Glasgow Necropolis
The grave of the Thomson family, Glasgow Necropolis

In November 1907 he caught a chill and his condition deteriorated until he died at his Scottish country seat, Netherhall, in Largs on 17 December.

At the request of Westminster Abbey, the undertakers Wylie & Lochhead prepared an oak coffin, lined with lead. The coffin was placed in a special Midland and Glasgow and South Western Railway van. The train set off at 8.30 pm for Kilmarnock, where the van was attached to the overnight express to St Pancras railway station in London.

Kelvin's funeral was to be held on 23 December 1907. The coffin was taken from St Pancras by hearse to Westminster Abbey, where it rested overnight in St Faith's Chapel. The following day the Abbey was crowded for the funeral, including representatives from the University of Glasgow and the University of Cambridge, along with representatives from France, Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, and Monaco.

Kelvin's grave is in the nave, near the choir screen, and close to the graves of Isaac Newton, John Herschel, and Charles Darwin. The pall-bearers included Darwin's son, Sir George Darwin.

Back in Scotland the University of Glasgow held a memorial service for Kelvin in the Bute Hall. Kelvin had been a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, attached to St Columba's Episcopal Church in Largs, and when in Glasgow to St Mary's Episcopal Church (now, St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow). At the same time as the funeral in Westminster Abbey, a service was held in St Columba's Episcopal Church, Largs, attended by a large congregation including burgh dignitaries.

William Thomson is also memorialised on the Thomson family grave in Glasgow Necropolis. The family grave has a second modern memorial to William alongside, erected by the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow; a society of which he was president in the periods 1856–1858 and 1874–1877.

Pronouncements later proven to be false

Baron Kelvin 1906
Kelvin in 1906 by Russell & Sons

Like many scientists, Thomson made some mistakes in predicting the future of technology.

When Röntgen's discovery of the X-rays was announced at the end of 1895, Lord Kelvin was entirely skeptical, and regarded the announcement as a hoax.

His forecast for practical aviation (i.e., heavier-than-air aircraft) was negative. In 1896 he refused an invitation to join the Aeronautical Society, writing that "I have not the smallest molecule of faith in aerial navigation other than ballooning or of expectation of good results from any of the trials we hear of." And in a 1902 newspaper interview he predicted that "No balloon and no aeroplane will ever be practically successful."

In 1898, Kelvin predicted that only 400 years of oxygen supply remained on the planet, due to the rate of burning combustibles. In his calculation, Kelvin assumed that photosynthesis was the only source of free oxygen; he did not know all of the components of the oxygen cycle. He could not even have known all of the sources of photosynthesis: for example the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus—which accounts for more than half of marine photosynthesis—was not discovered until 1986.

Interesting facts about Lord Kelvin

  • Thomson had heart problems and nearly died when he was 9 years old.
  • He was fluent in several languages. He could speak French, knew Ancient Greek and Latin.
  • He became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University at 22.
  • He received the Royal Society's Copley Medal in 1883, and served as its president from 1890 to 1895.
  • In 1892, he became the first British scientist to be elevated to the House of Lords.
  • Thomson published more than 650 scientific papers and applied for 70 patents (not all were issued).
  • Thomson remained a devout believer in Christianity throughout his life; attendance at chapel was part of his daily routine.
  • He remained something of a celebrity on both sides of the Atlantic until his death.
  • The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow has a permanent exhibition on the work of Kelvin, which includes many of his original papers, instruments, and other artefacts, including his smoking pipe.

Lord Kelvin quotes

  • "In science there is only physics; all the rest is stamp collecting."
  • "Science is bound, by the everlasting vow of honour, to face fearlessly every problem which can be fairly presented to it."
  • "The true measure of a man is what he would do if he knew he would never be caught."


A variety of physical phenomena and concepts with which Thomson is associated are named Kelvin, including:

  • Kelvin bridge (also known as Thomson bridge)
  • Kelvin functions
  • Kelvin–Helmholtz instability
  • Kelvin–Helmholtz luminosity
  • Kelvin–Helmholtz mechanism
  • Kelvin material
  • Joule–Kelvin effect
  • Kelvin sensing
  • Kelvin transform in potential theory
  • Kelvin wake pattern
  • Kelvin water dropper
  • Kelvin wave
  • Kelvin's heat death paradox
  • Kelvin's circulation theorem
  • Kelvin–Stokes theorem
  • Kelvin–Varley divider
  • The SI unit of temperature, kelvin

Mount Kelvin in New Zealand's Paparoa Range was named after him by the botanist William Trownson.


Bronze bust of Baron Kelvin
Bronze bust of Lord Kelvin by A. McFarlane Shannan, Glasgow, Scotland
  • Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1847.
    • Keith Medal, 1864.
    • Gunning Victoria Jubilee Prize, 1887.
    • President, 1873–1878, 1886–1890, 1895–1907.
  • Foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, 1851.
  • Fellow of the Royal Society, 1851.
  • Hon. Member of the Royal College of Preceptors (College of Teachers), 1858.
  • Hon. Member of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland, 1859.
  • Knighted 1866.
  • Commander of the Imperial Order of the Rose (Brazil), 1873.
  • Commander of the Legion of Honour (France), 1881.
    • Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, 1889.
  • Knight of the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite, 1884.
  • Commander of the Order of Leopold (Belgium), 1890.
  • Baron Kelvin, of Largs in the County of Ayr, 1892. The title derives from the River Kelvin, which runs by the grounds of the University of Glasgow. His title died with him, as he was survived by neither heirs nor close relations.
    The memorial of William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin, University of Glasgow
    The memorial of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin in Kelvingrove Park next to the University of Glasgow
  • Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order, 1896.
  • Honorary degree Legum doctor (LL.D.), Yale University, 5 May 1902.
  • One of the first members of the Order of Merit, 1902.
  • Privy Counsellor, 11 August 1902.
  • Honorary degree Doctor mathematicae from the Royal Frederick University on 6 September 1902, when they celebrated the centennial of the birth of mathematician Niels Henrik Abel.
  • First international recipient of John Fritz Medal, 1905.
  • Order of the First Class of the Sacred Treasure of Japan, 1901.
  • He is buried in Westminster Abbey, London next to Isaac Newton.
  • Lord Kelvin was commemorated on the £20 note issued by the Clydesdale Bank in 1971; in the current issue of banknotes, his image appears on the bank's £100 note. He is shown holding his adjustable compass and in the background is a map of the transatlantic cable.
  • In 2011 he was inducted to the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame.
  • World Refrigeration Day, is 26 June. It was chosen to celebrate his birth date and has been held annually, since 2019.


Coat of arms of Lord Kelvin
William Thomson Arms.svg
The arms of Lord Kelvin consist of:
A cubit arm erect, vested azure, cuffed argent, the hand grasping five ears of rye proper.
Argent, a stag's head caboshed gules, on a chief azure a thunderbolt proper, winged or, between two spur revels of the first.
On the dexter side a student of the University of Glasgow, habited, holding in his dexter hand a marine voltmeter, all proper. On the sinister side a sailor, habited, holding in the dexter hand a coil, the rope passing through the sinister, and suspended therefrom a sinker of a sounding machine, also all proper.
Honesty without fear.

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