Letters of William Thomson, 1824-1907, Baron Kelvin of Largs

Scope and Content

Letters to David Reid 1904-1905

Administrative / Biographical History

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, (1824-1907 ) attended the  University of Glasgow from the age of 10. He began what we would consider university level work in 1838 when he was 14 years old. In the session 1838-1839 he studied astronomy and chemistry. The following year he took natural philosophy courses (today called physics) which included a study of heat, electricity and magnetism. His Essay on the Figure of the Earth won him a gold medal from the University of Glasgow when he was 15 years old and it was a truly remarkable work containing important ideas, which Thomson returned to throughout his life. In  1841  Thomson entered the University of Cambridge. A year later an important paper he had written concerning the uniform motion of heat and its connection with the mathematical theory of electricity, was published, while he was studying for the mathematical tripos examinations. He graduated with a BA, and was elected a fellow of Peterhouse.

Thomson then went to Paris and studied the whole methodology of a physical science, distinguishing physical parts of a theory from mathematical parts. In 1846 the chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow became vacant. Thomson's father used his influence in the University to help his son become the leading candidate for the post. Upon his return from Paris to Glasgow he was unanimously elected professor of natural philosophy at the University. In 1847-1849 he collaborated with Stokes on hydrodynamical studies, which Thomson applied to electrical and atomic theory. His thermodynamical studies led him to propose an absolute scale of temperature in 1848. The Kelvin absolute temperature scale, as it is now known, was precisely defined much later after conservation of energy had become better understood. The dynamical theory of heat led Thomson to also think of a dynamical theory for electricity and magnetism, or what became known as electromagnetism.

Thomson had several innovative teaching practices. He introduced laboratory work into the degree courses, keeping this part of the work distinct from the mathematical side. He encouraged the best students by offering prizes. Some prizes were awarded to the best student, a vote being organised among the students to determine the recipient. There were also prizes which Thomson gave to the student that he considered most deserving. For his work on the transatlantic cable, Thomson was created Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1866. The Kelvin is the river which runs through the grounds of Glasgow University and Largs is the town on the Scottish coast where Thomson built his house. His participation in the telegraph cable project gave him fame and led to a large personal fortune brought about by his cable patents and consulting. Thomson published more than 600 papers. He was elected to the Royal Society in 1851, received its Royal Medal in 1856, received its Copley Medal in 1883 and served as its president from 1890 to 1895. On three separate occasions Thomson served as President of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He died in  1907 .


The arrangement of this material reflects the original order in which it was received.

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Donation : J M Gibb via John Chapman : 23 April 2002.

Other Finding Aids

Item level descriptions are available via the department's online manuscripts catalogue available at the  University of Glasgow Library, Department of Special Collections, searching by the call number Dougan Add 54.

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Archivist's Note

Fonds level description compiled by Andrew Thomson, Hub Project Archivist, 06 October 2004. Biographical history compiled by Danielle West, Archive volunteer, June 2004.

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