Lord Kelvin: from 10-year-old Glasgow student to science giant

1 On October 13, 1846, almost 175 years ago, a young man was admitted as a professor in the Department of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. William Thomson, then 22, would hold the post for 53 years, becoming better known as Lord Kelvin.

2 Although not born in Glasgow (he was originally from Belfast), Lord Kelvin is inextricably linked to the city, settling here at the age of six when his father accepted a teaching post at the ‘University of Glasgow. Its title takes its name from the river that flows past the university where he made his name as a giant of science. He was the fourth child in a family of seven whose mother died as a young child. Young William and his brother James actually enrolled at the University of Glasgow in 1834 at the age of 10 and 11 respectively, becoming the institution’s youngest students.

3 Thomson won a gold medal at the age of 15 for “An Essay on the Figure of the Earth,” the first of many academic awards, and his first published article appeared at the age of 16. He went to Cambridge in 1841, then Paris, before returning to Glasgow in 1846. He made many advances in physics, including the creation of the Kelvin temperature scale and the formulation of the second law of thermodynamics which explains that heat will not shift from a colder body to a warmer body.

4 Other impressive accomplishments of Lord Kelvin included the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable between Ireland and Newfoundland in the early 1860s and the development of a compass for iron ships. His home on the University of Glasgow campus was the first house in the world to be fully electrically lit, using 106 lamps.

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5 Lord Kelvin is buried in Westminster Abbey next to Isaac Newton, under a window which pays homage to him as “engineer, natural philosopher”.


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