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Silvanus P. Thompson

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Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916).

Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916)

Silvanus Phillips Thompson FRS (1851-1916) was a professor of physics at the City and Guilds Technical College in Finsbury. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1891 and was known for his work as an electrical engineer and as an author. Thompson's most enduring publication is his 1910 text Calculus Made Easy, which teaches the fundamentals of infinitesimal calculus, and is still in print. Thompson also wrote a popular physics text, Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism, as well as biographies of Lord Kelvin and Michael Faraday.

1851 June 19th. Born the son of Silvanus Thompson, a Quaker family in York, England. His father served as a master at the Quaker Bootham School in York and he also studied there.

1873 Silvanus Thompson was made the science master at the school.

1876 He heard Sir William Crookes give an evening discourse at the Royal Institution on The Mechanical Action of Light when Crookes demonstrated his light mill or radiometer. Thompson was intrigued and stimulated and developed a major interest in light and optics (his other main interest being electromagnetism).

1876 Appointed as a lecturer in Physics at University College, Bristol, and later was made Professor in 1878 at the age of 27.

A major concern of Thompson was the area of technical education and he made a series of continental tours to France, Germany and Switzerland to compare the continental approach to that in the UK. In 1879 he gave a paper at the Royal Society of Arts on Apprenticeship, Scientific and Unscientific in which he detailed the deficiencies in technical education in England. In the discussion, the opinion was expressed that England was too conservative to make use of trade schools and that continental methods would not be applicable in the UK. Thompson recognised that technical education was the means by which scientific knowledge could be put into action and spent the rest of his life putting his vision into practical realisation.

In 1878 the City and Guilds of London Institute for the Advancement of Technical Education was founded - Finsbury Technical College was a teaching institution created by the City and Guilds Institute and it was as its Principal and Professor of Physics that Thompson was to devote the next 30 years.

Thompson's particular gift was in his ability to communicate difficult scientific concepts in a clear and interesting manner. He attended and lectured at the Royal Institution giving the Christmas lectures in 1896 on Light, Visible and Invisible with an account of Röntgen Light. He was an impressive lecturer and the radiologist AE Barclay said that: “None who heard him could forget the vividness of the word-pictures he placed before them.”

In 1891 Thompson developed the idea of a telegraph submarine cable that could increase the distance of the electrical pulse and therefore increase the speed of transmitting words across the telegraph cable. Until then there was an average speed of between 10 to 50 words per minute but his design was to counteract the discharging of electrical energy across the cable by introducing a return earth as part of the internal electrical structure of the cable (something like coaxial cable today). His idea, written about by Charles Bright in his book "Submarine Telegraphs", discusses the idea that the two wires could be designed as separate conductors but along their path they would be connected by an induction coil. This would allow for the introduction of capacitance and therefore allow for the distance of the electrical charge to increase so increasing the word count. This was a design that would help revolutionise submarine telegraphy and the future of telephone submarine systems.

Thompson repeated Röntgen's experiments on the day after the discovery was announced in the UK and following this gave the first public demonstration of the new rays at the Clinical Society of London on 30 March 1896. William Hale White said: “The audience was thrilled, most seeing for the first time actual pieces of bones and metal. Silvanus Thompson was a prince among lecturers. I have never heard a better demonstration or attended a more memorable medical meeting.”

He was the first President of the Röntgen Society (later to become the British Institute of Radiology). He described the society as being between medicine, physics and photography. It was his genius that put its stamp on that society and has made it into the rich amalgam of medical, scientific and technical members that it is today. As he said in his presidential address to the Röntgen Society: “The pioneers have opened the way into the wilderness; they are now being followed by those who will occupy the new territory, complete its survey, and map out its features. Not until every corner is explored and charted will the work of our Society be ended.”

In 1900 Thompson was involved in the controversial Whitehall attack on Marconi's patents, when the Post Office commissioned both him and Professor Oliver Lodge to produce secret reports. The purpose was either to declare the Marconi Company patents invalid, or to produce similar, but technically different equipment: the latter involved Thompson. When the Admiralty received the two reports it was the pioneer of wireless telegraphy Captain (later, Admiral Sir) Henry Jackson, then commanding HMS Vulcan, whose opinion led a senior naval officer to report, "it would be unworthy to try to evade the Marconi Company's patent."

Thompson was committed to truth in all aspects and his 1915 Swarthmore Lecture delivered to the Society of Friends was The Quest for Truth, indicating his belief in truth and integrity in all aspects of our lives. Thompson remained an active member of the Religious Society of Friends, throughout his life.

Thompson wrote many books of a technical nature particularly Elementary Lessons in Electricity & Magnetism (1890), Dynamo Electrical Machinery (1896) and the classic Calculus Made Easy which was first published in 1910, and is still in print.

Thompson had many interests including painting, literature, the history of science, and working in his greenhouse. He wrote biographies of Michael Faraday and Lord Kelvin. He also wrote about William Gilbert, the Elizabethan physician, and produced an edition of Gilbert's De Magnete at the Chiswick Press in 1900. In 1912, Thompson published the first English translation of Treatise on Light by Christiaan Huygens.

His scientific library of historical and working books is preserved at the Institution of Electrical Engineers and is a wonderful collection (he was President of the IEE). It includes many classic books on electricity, magnetism and optics. The collection consists of 900 rare books and 2500 nineteenth and early twentieth century titles, with approximately 200 autograph letters.

In 1910 Thompson was invited to deliver the Royal Institution Christmas Lecture on Sound: Musical and Non-Musical.

Thompson was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1891 and was elected a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1894.

1916 June 12th. Died


1917 Obituary [1]

SILVANUS PHILLIPS THOMPSON was born in York in 1851.

He was brought up after the manner of Friends and from his earliest days was surrounded by evangelical Quaker influences. His father who was a schoolmaster in York for 33 years was a great botanist and doubtless fostered his son's love for science.

He attended his father's classes at Bootham School and seems to have done uniformly well all round. He next went to the Flounders Institute - a training school for teachers - at Ackworth, where he worked hard and took the London B.A. degree in 1869.

In 1870 he was appointed junior science master at Bootham, a post which he held until 1875. It is recorded that his school lessons were admirable and were generally illustrated by artistic diagrams drawn by himself. Gaining a scholarship at the Royal School of Mines he came to London and studied under Guthrie, Huxley, and Sir Edmund Frankland.

In 1875 he took the London B.Sc. degree, being bracketed first in honours. The same year also he joined the Physical Society of London, with which he was ever after closely associated.

In 1876 he went to Heidelberg, attending lectures by Bunsen and Quincke and at the same time perfecting his conversational knowledge of German.

In 1876 he was appointed to the Chair of Physics at the University College, Bristol, a post which he held for nine years and where he did most valuable work.

In 1881 he married Miss Jane S. Henderson of Pollockshields, Glasgow, an event which contributed in no small degree to his subsequent success and happiness.

The work of Thompson's which had the greatest success was his "Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism" published in 1881. The writer remembers using it as a textbook for first-year medical students in 1887, and how admirably it answered its purpose. This book ran through some 40 editions and reprints. In revising the last edition he received able help from his daughter Helen G. Thompson, B.Sc.

In 1882 he was elected a Member of the Society of Telegraph Engineers and Electricians. During this period he studied electrical problems assiduously and in 1884 published his epoch-making work "Dynamo-electric Machinery : a Manual for Students of Electrotechnics."

Practically every designer of electrical machines has gleaned his first information on the subject from this work. In the numerous editions and expansions of the work which subsequently appeared he has amplified and improved much of the original edition. Still the first edition contains nearly all that matters, and the theorems and ideas incorporated in it are still to be found in all the recently published books on design. The success of the book was instantaneous. It was much appreciated in the universities, and many young men were first attracted to engineering studies by reading it. In the preface the author carefully points out that the mathematical theory of the dynamo can only be written when the true basis on which it should be founded is discovered. This basis is the exact law of the induction of magnetism in the core of an electromagnet. To many writers this had proved an insuperable obstacle. But Thompson proved that although the exact law had not yet been given by a mathematical formula, yet an approximate method could be given which was of the greatest value in practical design.

In 1885 Thompson was elected Principal and Professor of Physics and Electrical Engineering in the City and Guilds of London Technical College, a post which he held till his death on the 13th June, 1916. As a professor, whether as a teacher or as an original investigator, he was equally admirable. His pupils, many of whom are scattered all over the world, remember him with the greatest affection and pride. His powers of exposition were almost unrivalled and his kindly and sympathetic help and advice made his students love as well as admire him.

In 1886 he was elected a Member of the Royal Institution in Albemarle-street, where he spent many of the happiest hours of his life with his friends or in hearing or giving scientific lectures. In 1887 he communicated to the Institution of Electrical Engineers a paper on Telephonic Investigations, and in the following year another on Influence Machines.

In 1890 Thompson delivered the Cantor Lectures to the Society of Arts, the subject being the electromagnet and electromagnetic mechanisms. He subsequently expanded the lectures into a book to which his brother, Dr. J. Tatham Thompson of Cardiff, contributed a chapter on the use of the electromagnet in surgery. The book is admirably lucid, and many difficult problems are successfully attacked. In several cases also his conclusions have formed the starting-point for other investigators, and the good seed he sowed has borne abundant fruit.

In 1891 he was one of the honorary Vice-Presidents of the Electrical Exhibition at Frankfort, and in the same year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He was one of the British Delegates to the Electrical Congress at Chicago in 1893. At this Congress he read a paper on a method for diminishing the distortion of the electromagnetic waves in submarine cables used for telephony.

The method was to insert inductive shunt circuits or leaks across the two lines of the cable or between the line and the earth. It undoubtedly equalizes the "attenuation" at different frequencies, and so improves the clearness of the articulation. Unfortunately, however, it greatly diminishes the loudness of the sound. The method is a perfectly valid one and useful in certain cases, but the method perfected by Pupin some years later is the one now adopted in practice. In this method inductive or "loading coils" are inserted in series in the line. Thompson, however, was the earliest pioneer of ocean telephony and his paper attracted world-wide attention.

In 1894 the University of Konigsberg conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine and Surgery. In 1895 he gave the Cantor Lectures, choosing the Arc Light as his subject. His "Polyphase Electric Currents and Motors" was published in 1896 and in the same year he gave Royal Institution lectures on "Light, visible and invisible." These were published in book form and have given pleasure and instruction to a very wide circle of readers.

In 1898 he read a valuable paper to the Institution on "Rotatory Converters." No small part of our present knowledge of the subject was first given in this paper.

In this year also was published in the Century Science Series his biography of Faraday. Thompson's sympathetic insight into the motives governing Faraday's life and his appreciation of the immense debt which the world owes to his memory made him the ideal biographer. In his preface he says, "In the recollection of such as have survived him, his image lives and moves, surrounded with gracious memories, a vivid personality instinct with rare and unselfish kindness." Surely these words apply also to Silvanus Thompson.

In 1899 he was elected President of the Institution, a post which he most worthily filled. Much of the advice which he gave in his Presidential Address we have adopted. He advocated both the mutual co-operation of scientific workers and the combination of electrical engineers in active union. "When we speak," he said, "in the name of the united profession, with the weight of the whole industry to emphasize our views" we can accomplish much for the good of the profession and also for the country.

In the battle of continuous-current versus alternating-current systems Thompson took a leading part. He felt most strongly on the way the managers of the Metropolitan Railway decided to use continuous current. He was most scornful about the so-called experiments on electric traction on this railway. In his opinion it was simply a throwing away of £30,000. When we can predict with absolute certainty what will happen it is surely pure waste to go to the cost of making the experiment. Thompson's ingenious system of electric traction by surface contact studs was described by Miles Walker in a paper to the Institution in 1899. If the local authorities in this country had made a firmer stand against overhead wires this system would probably have become popular. The danger of the studs being left alive after the car had passed over them was entirely obviated.

In 1900 Thompson was elected a member of the Senate of London University, and he was also elected the first President of the Rontgen Society. This Society has done invaluable work in perfecting apparatus and methods for X-ray photography, and consequently its work has indirectly been of almost priceless value in saving lives and obviating human suffering.

In January 1901 Thompson gave a lecture on Faraday (in German) to the Urania Society in Berlin, and in June of the same year gave a very interesting Boyle lecture at Oxford on " Magnetism in Growth." A few years afterwards he was commissioned to write the official biography of Kelvin, whom he regarded as the greatest scientist of the nineteenth century, just as he claimed Faraday as "beyond all question the greatest scientific expositor of his time." Kelvin helped Thompson in the first stages of the work, but he died before it was finished. In 1908 Thompson gave the first Kelvin lecture, and in 1910 was published the "Life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs."

In 1910-11 he delivered the Christmas lectures on Sound at the Royal Institution. In 1911 he was an honorary Vice-President of the Electrotechnical Congress at Turin. In 1912 he was given the honorary degree of LL.D. by Birmingham University and was elected President of the Optical Conference. In 1913 Bristol University made him an honorary D.Sc.

In 1914 the tragedy of War broke out. To a man of his temperament imbued with such an enthusiasm for humanity and actuated only by the highest ideals the horror of it all impressed him in a transcendent degree. Yet he never lost faith although he gazed wistfully on the past as the shadows lengthened. When the final call came on the 13th June, 1916, he was thoroughly prepared, his house in order and his life's work done.

It is too early yet to appraise Thompson's work, but that part of it which was of most immediate value in his lifetime was in connection with electrical engineering. He worked whole-heartedly for the advancement of our industry and profession, and as a direct means to this end he did everything in his power to advance the interests of our Institution. He was indefatigable in his attendance at Council and Committee Meetings and also at the Ordinary Meetings. No member of our Institution was butter known and certainly none was more loved.

He had many enthusiasms, but perhaps his greatest was that of a book collector. No one had a greater love for old books. His library at his home in Hampstead was of absorbing interest. His wonderful collection of books on electricity and magnetism is perhaps I he most valuable in the kingdom. It consists of about 13,000 items, including rare manuscripts on magnetism. Nearly 900 of the books were published prior to 1N25. Many of them are of interest, not only as showing the ideas about electricity and magnetism current in past centuries, but also because of special interest attaching to special copies. For instance, the memoirs of A. M, Ampere, "the Newton of electrodynamics "on the mutual action between two electric currents, contains Ampere's autographic inscription. Galileo's "Dialogus de Systemate Mundi" is the copy that belonged to Rene Descartes and has his signature and marginal notes. One of the books has the Aldine Anchor Mark in one of its rarest forms. Some belonged to Faraday, Gilbert, S. T. Coleridge, Delaunay, Volta, Archdeacon Barlow, Ridley, and others. Many are quaint and rare, and some are unique. To Thompson they were all well-known friends. In addition the library contains some 200 autograph papers of eminent scientific men and 34 Faraday MSS.

Lady Wilson, wife of Sir Roland K. Wilson, of Richmond, and daughter of Richard Phillips, F.R.S., who was Thompson's great-uncle, presented him with the letters Faraday wrote to her father.

Thompson's old friends thought that the best memorial of him would be to purchase his library from his executors and house it at our Institution, where it would be available for all desirous of study. It is most gratifying to know that arrangements have now been made for this to be done.

Thompson was always a warm advocate of technical education. In 1878 he read a paper on the subject at Cheltenham, and in the following year he proposed a scheme for a central institution for technical education in London, and explained the French system of apprenticeship schools. In his later years he was insistent on the urgent necessity of the closest co-operation between science and industry.

" Belittle the teachings of science ; ignore the expert trained in science ; carry on your works without him ; if you must pay him, pay him less wages than you pay a fitter ; put him under non-technical directors and managers who know no science. Then, when after years of this neglect your chickens come home to roost, and you find the progress which ought to have been made here is made in foreign countries instead, blame the patent laws, blame the lack of protective tariffs, blame the Trades Unions. Blame everything and anything except the chiefest cause —the blindness of manufacturers and men to the truth that that industry is doomed whose leaders despise and neglect science. It was so before the War ; it will be so after it."

Thompson wanted every kind of improved condition for the worker, but most of all he wanted him to know science, for, in his opinion, upon this everything else depended. A few weeks before his death he said : " We are twenty years behind the States in our appreciation of the importance of science to industry. . . . Until we have made good for backwardness and blindness it will be mostly idle to talk of Great Britain capturing the industries which have been destroyed on the Continent of Europe by the great war. . . . In persistent collaboration and co-operation of industry with science lies the road to progress."

As a popular lecturer Thompson was unrivalled. Some 20 years ago he gave a lecture in the Carpenters' Hall on the future of Electricity, in which lie described in a most entrancing way the industrial revolution that would ensue when electricity was used universally. The hygienic factories, the workpeople conveyed rapidly to their suburban homes, the small manufacturer with the aid of cheap power and assisted by his family well able to compete successfully with the factory, the absence of smoke, the roof gardens, etc., were all described in the most realistic and convincing way. One felt that electricity was on the point of revolutionizing the world.

In optics, more particularly in photometry, Thompson took the greatest delight. Some years ago he had to give expert evidence at the Law Courts as to the relative merits of various types of reflectors. The writer remembers him coming to the Faraday House laboratories to check the numbers obtained by the various experts. It was an education in itself to see how he verified their figures and tested them in every possible way.

He loved music and had an accurate musical ear. The valuable paper which he read to the Physical Society in 1910 on "Hysteresis Loops and Lissajous' Figures" was a happy mixture of magnetism, sound, and mathematical theorems. In solving mathematical problems and inventing new mathematical theorems he took the keenest delight. He did most excellent work, for instance, in simplifying Runge's method of practical harmonic analysis. He was dissatisfied, however, with the accuracy obtainable by this method. He then invented the series method of harmonic analysis. The writer remembers how pleased he was when he first discovered it and with what mutual pleasure we discussed it. He greatly appreciated the lectures which Dr. Kennelly of Harvard gave at the Institution some years ago. In proposing a vote of thanks to him he expressed himself, as usual, most happily. He said that he felt constrained to exclaim " Great is the Hyperbolic Angle and Kennelly is its Prophet." He took a keen interest in hyperbolic trigonometry, and the writer thinks that he contemplated at one time writing a little treatise on the subject.

As a Past President of the club which has the quaint title of " The Sette of Odd Volumes," Thompson took a great interest in general antiquarian literature. In 1914 he contributed to the Proceedings of the Biitish Academy a most interesting paper on " The Rose and the Winds : the Origin and Development of the Compass Card."

As a poet he attained some distinction. His monodies on Matthew Arnold and Tennyson were excellent. The following lines from the former may be appropriately quoted :— "The eager spirit pent within thy breast Hath passed from doubt to sight ; Hath found the awaited spark from heaven descend ; The light thou soughtest shining clear in view When strange and vain the earthly turmoil grew, And night has fallen as welcome as a friend."

As an artist Silvanus Thompson attained, distinction, several of his works being exhibited in the Royal Academy. He began sketching in water colours when 18 years old. He was particularly successful in painting glaciers, but he has left pictures of landscapes in Scotland, Suffolk, Whitby, the Hlack Forest, the Rocky Mountains, Arolla, Saas Fee, and the Austrian Tyrol. On these painting excursions he was absolutely happy. The last of these golden holidays was spent in the Dolomites in 1914 just before the War broke out, and alas he then laid down his brush for ever. To the Institution of Electrical Engineers the loss of Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson in the plenitude of his powers is most grievous. He has left us heavily in his debt. His work lives and will continue to live. As the years roll on we shall ever gratefully remember his enthusiasm and kindly sympathy. His memory is a precious possession.

He is survived by his widow and four daughters. His youngest daughter, Irene, is the wife of T. E. Harvey, M.P., late Warden of Toynbee Hall.

The writer has to thank Mrs. Thompson, Lady Wilson, and Mr. W. M. Mordey for kindly giving him information. He has also to acknowledge his indebtedness to a deeply interesting article by G. N. on "Professor Silvanus Thompson and his Message" which appeared in the 'Friends' Quarterly Review'.


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Sources of Information

  1. 1917 Institution of Electrical Engineers: Obituaries