Papers of William John Macquorn Rankine, 1820-1872, engineer and Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics, University of Glasgow, Scotland

Scope and Content

  • Photocopies of engineering lecture notes, 1855-1857;
  • Photocopy of a press cutting from The Scotsman,Sat Oct 27 1956.

Administrative / Biographical History

William John Macquorn Rankine was born in Edinburgh on 5 July  1820 , the son of David Rankine, a civil engineer, who later became Secretary of the Caledonian Railway. William Rankine attended Ayr Academy 1828-1829 and the High School of Glasgow in 1830. For health reasons, his father then continued his schooling at home. He attended the  University of Edinburgh from  1836-1838 . In his first year he studied Chemistry, Natural History, Botany and Natural Philosophy. He was awarded the Gold Medal for his essay on The Undulatory Theory of Light, and in his second year he gained an extra prize for his essay on Methods of Physical Investigation. He also studied Metaphysics. However, in 1838  family circumstances forced Rankine to curtail his studies and enter a profession. He became an assistant to his father on the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway for a year, and then became a pupil of Sir John Macneil, a leading civil engineer. He remained with Macneil for four years working in Ireland on water and harbour works, river improvements and the construction of the Dublin and Drogheda Railway. He returned to Edinburgh in 1842 and worked with railway companies and consultants for the next six years.

From about 1848 Rankine spent more of his time on research and theoretical physics producing a large amount of original work. However he was still involved in practical civil engineering projects such as the supply of water to Glasgow from Loch Katrine. He also worked in London in the civil engineering practice of Professor Lewis Gordon, who was then also the Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the  University of Glasgow . Rankine, who stood in as deputy for Professor Gordon in the 1854-1855 session, was appointed to the chair of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the university in  1855 . His appointment lasted 17 years during which time he published 111 papers and a series of textbooks including: A Manual of Applied Mechanics (1858), A Manual of the Steam Engine and Other Prime Movers (1858), A Manual of Civil Engineering (1862) and A Manual of Machinery and Millwork (1869). These textbooks became the standard texts for university trained engineers until well into the 20th century.

Rankine pioneered the application of scientific principles to Engineering particularly in thermodynamics of heat engines, hydrodynamics of naval architecture and strengths of materials. He also helped establish Engineering as an independent department within the University of Glasgow and successfully argued for the introduction of a Certificate of Proficiency in Engineering Science in  1862 , and then the establishment of the BSc in Engineering in  1872 . Shortly after, on 24 December  1872 , Professor Rankine died at the age of 52. Rankine was the first President of the  Institute of Engineers & Shipbuilders in Scotland , he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a member of the Institute of Naval Architects, and he received an honorary LLD degree from Trinity College, Dublin. He was active in the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Glasgow. He was involved in the Glasgow University Rifle Volunteers between 1859 and 1864, first as a Captain, and from 1860 as a Senior Major. He had a keen interest in music and a volume of his compositions entitled Songs and fables was published after his death.

Sources:  Sutherland, Hugh B  , Rankine: His Life & Times, (London, 1973); Channel, David F  , Rankine, ( Edinburgh, 1986); Williams, Trevor IA Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, (London, 1969).


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

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Deposit: P Arthur, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, G12 8QQ : August 1992: ACCN 1210

Other Finding Aids

Digital file level list available in searchroom

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Archivist.

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use and condition of documents.

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 0248 procedures

Custodial History

This collection was received directly from the University


None expected

Related Material

Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives (GB 0012) - Letters to Lord Kelvin 1850-1869 (NRA 20700 Stokes); Queens University, Belfast (GB 0752) - Letters to T Andrews and J Thomson. For contact details of all repositories with a GB code, see the  Archon repository search page .

Location of Originals

The originals for GB 0248 DC 320/1 are located at Queen's University, Belfast (GB 0752) MS1/200; and the originals for GB 0248 DC 320/2 are located at Queen's University, Belfast (GB 0752) MS1/199. For contact details of all repositories with a GB code, see the  Archon repository search page .


No known publications using this material

Additional Information

Description compiled in line with the following international standards: International Council on Archives, ISAD(G) Second Edition, September 1999and National Council on Archives, Rules for the construction of personal, place and corporate names


Fonds level description compiled by Compiled by Hannah Westall, Archives Assistant, 23 May 2000. Lower level descriptions compiled by Alma Topen, 27 March 2014.