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William Thomson: Obituary

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1908 Obituary [1]

WILLIAM THOMSON, Baron KELVIN OF LARGS, O.M., P.C., G.C.V.O., D.C.L. (Oxon.), LLB. (Cantab.), was born at Belfast on the 36th June, 1824, and died on the 17th December, 1907. He was interred in a grave adjoining that of Newton in Westminster Abbey.

Lord Kelvin’s father was a teacher of mathematics at Belfast from 1812 to 1832, when he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow, a position which he held until his death in 1849.

Lord Kelvin’s elder brother, James Thomson, achieved great distinction in physical investigation, and was in succession Professor of Engineering at Belfast and at Glasgow.

After studying in the University of Glasgow, Lord Kelvin entered St. Peter’s College, Cambridge, in 1841, was placed second wrangler and first Smith‘s prizeman in 1845, and was subsequently elected a Fellow of his college. There were then no physical laboratories open to students in this country, and Lord Kelvin spent some time in Regnault’s laboratory in Paris.

In 1846, at the age of 22, he was appointed to the chair of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a position which he held for 53 years. There he made laboratory work an essential part of the college curriculum.

In 1896, his Jubilee as Professor was celebrated, a unique gathering of friends, former pupils and delegates of universities and scientific societies, assembling to do him honour.

In 1904, he became Chancellor of the University in which he had so long taught.

During this long scientific career he carried out the remarkable series of mathematical and physical investigations which led to his recognition as the foremost physicist and most influential and accomplished scientist of his time. In the Royal Society Catalogue to the year 1883, 262 Papers are credited to him.

As an engineer, he made brilliant inventions in navigation, telegraphy and electrical engineering. The originality and importance of his work was early recognized. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, and later received from the Society the Royal and Copley Medals, and was elected President in 1890. He was President of the British Association in 1871. For services rendered in laying the Atlantic cable he was knighted in 1866, and in 1892 he was elevated to the peerage. He was enrolled in the Order of Merit at its institution in 1902, and also received the Grand Cross of the Victorian Order. He was a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, a Knight of the Prussian Order 'Pour le Merite,' a Foreign Associate of the Institute of France and Foreign Membeorf the Royal Prussian Academy. During a period in which the advance of science in all departments has been enormously rapid, Lord Kelvin held the unquestioned rank of leader.

In 1847, at the British Association, Lord Kelvin first met Joule, and by a timely interposition secured attention to a Paper by him which proved to be an epoch-making exposition of the doctrine of the conservation of energy. Joule had recently measured the mechanical equivalent of heat. Kelvin at once adopted the new views, and became one of the founders of the dynamical theory of heat. His proposal of an absolute scale of temperature removed many difficulties in the way of its acceptance. Almost simultaneously with Clauaius he propounded the second law of thermodynamics, one of the great discoveries of the century. In the hands of Clausius and Kelvin, aided by Rankine, Tait and Joule, the applications of the doctrine of the conservation of energy were rapidly developed in many departments of science.

Kelvin was soon led to the further principle of the dissipation of energy, announced in 1852, and to considerations as to the age of the globe. From the observed variation of temperature in the earth’s strata, he concluded that the extreme uniformitarian views of some geologists were untenable and that at some period, probably not more than 100,000,000 years ago, the earth must have had a temperature too great to be habitable. Geologists are not content with this allowance and the controversy as to the question is not ended.

In hydrodynamics, Kelvin developed the theory of vortex motions originated by Helmholtz. To him is due the conception of a vortex atom, which according to Fitzgerald is the most far-reaching of any hypothesis suggested as a solution of the problem of the structure of matter. Theories of the constitution of matter and the relation between ether, electricity and ponderable matter, had a fascination for Kelvin to the end of his life.

His last great memoir, presented to the British Association at Leicester, was entitled 'On the motions of Ether produced by collisims of Atoms or Molecules containing or not containing Electrons.'

Lord Kelvin’s services to navigation were very great. Led to consider the conditions for securing steadiness in the mariner’s compass he realized at once that, in order to reduce oscillation, it was a mistake to use heavy, sluggish and strongly magnetized needles.

The real remedy for unsteadiness was to make the period of vibration of the compass as different as possible from that of the ship. Kelvin made the compass card as light as possible, and to render its correction easy he used short needles, feebly magnetized and of small magnetic moment. Directive force was secured by delicacy of adjustment. His form of compass, introduced in 1876, was generally adopted, and is still largely used, especially in the mercantile marine.

He also invented a sounding machine in which strong pianoforte wire, with a light sinker weighing about 30 lbs., replaced the clumsy apparatus previously employed. This not only permits soundings to be taken to the greatest depths, but in depths up to 100 fathoms they can be taken while the ship is going at full ordinary speed.

In 1867, Kelvin served on a committee of the British Association for collecting and collating tidal observations. He afterwards gave much attention to problems of wave-motion and tidal theory.

He invented or suggested three important tidal instruments:- a Tide Gauge for registering the form of the tidal curve at any port, from which to deduce the tidal constants; a Tide Analyser, based on an invention of his brother James Thomson, for mechanically determining the tidal constants from the tidal curve; and a Tide Predicter, which, supplied with the constants deduced by harmonic analysis for any port, traces a tidal curve for any period of time. It can be worked at such a speed that the curve of tides for a year can be drawn in the course of a morning. Kelvin suggested the tide predicter in 1872, and the machine was constructed by Roberts and Lege under his supervision. It is now at the National Physical Laboratory. A Paper describing these instruments was presented by him to The Institution in 1881.

In 1883 he delivered a lecture before The Institution on 'Electrical Units of Measurement.'

Lord Kelvin was early consulted as to the possibility of an Atlantic cable and as to the arrangements for submarine telegraphy. He had announced the law that speed of signalling would vary inversely as the square of the length of cable, and this appeared at first to render the commercial success of such a cable doubtful. The high potential currents used by Whitehouse on the short-lived cable of 1858 undoubtedly led to the breakdown of the insulation. Lord Kelvin declared that feeble currents must be used, and his invention of the sensitive mirror galvanometer and, later, of the siphon recorder, overcame the difficulties of submarine telegraphy and, indeed, proved essential elements in its successful working.

He introduced the 'curb' system of signalling, the effect of which is to stop the current from continuing to increase after it has attained an observable magnitude, thus permitting another signal to be sent without loss of time.

Lord Kelvin took an active part in the laying of the 1858 cable, and directed the electrical arrangements on the Great Eastern when laying the successful cables of 1865 and 1866.

A large part of Lord Kelvin’s work related to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism. The adoption of an absolute system of electrical and magnetic measurement, proposed by Gauss and Weber, was greatly promoted by his enthusiastic advocacy. About 1880 he invented the quadrant electrometer and absolute electrometer, and later, the ampere and watt balances, which have been such important aids in the advancement of electrical science. He also introduced for generating stations a recording feeder-log. A very interesting account of Lord Kelvin’s work, especially of his more speculative researches, will be found in an essay by Professor G. F. Fitzgerald, written for the record of the Jubilee Celebration at Glasgow:

A charter for utilizing the water-power at Niagara Falls on a large scale was obtained by Mr. Evershed in 1886, and in 1890 the problem of the method to be adopted to carry this into effect had assumed a position of great industrial importance. In order to bring to bear on the solution of the problem the best scientific and engineering knowledge then available, an open international competition was instituted, and a commission, consisting of Lord Kelvin (President), Professor E. Mascart, Colonel Th. Turretini, Dr. Coleman Sellers and Professor W. C. Unwin, was formed to consider and report on the projects submitted. A very remarkable series of hydraulic and electrical plans were placed before the commission. Very little had then been accomplished in the distribution of electrical energy except for lighting. But it soon became clear that the economical development of Niagara power could best be effected by a hydraulic station of great capacity and by electrical distribution of the energy. The hydraulic part of the problem, involving the use of turbines of greater power than any previously constructed, and ingenious and novel methods of speed regulation, was solved in the plans before the commission. The method of electrical distribution finally adopted, the use of high-tension polyphase alternating current of low periodicity, was only arrived at after protracted discussion. A great installation of 105,000 horsepower, delivering energy to local industries, mechanics and electrochemical, was successfully created. It has been the type on which many hydro-electric installations, in various parts of the world, have since been constructed. At Niagara alone generating stations which, when complete, will supply 650,000 horse-power, are in course of construction.

A few words of appreciation must conclude this brief, and therefore, necessarily imperfect account of a great and versatile career. Lord Kelvin combined the highest mathematical ability and great originality and insight in physical research over a singularly wide field, with the power of applying his vast attainments to practical and industrial problems. He was a tireless worker and preserved to the end of his life a vivid interest in every advance in science and every new application of knowledge to practical needs. The noble simplicity and dignity of his character gained for him the affection and respect of his students, whilst all who had relations with him were impressed by the charm of his personality.

Lord Kelvin was elected a Member of The Institution of Civil Engineers on the 12th May, 1874, for eminence in the electrical and telegraphic branch of the profession. He served on the Council from 1879 to 1889, and was made an Honorary Member on the 21st May, 1889, “ because of his distinguished attainments as a Physicist and of his researches on the sources of energy in nature, valuable to man for the production of mechanical effect.”

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