Records of Kelvin & Hughes Ltd, scientific instrument makers, Glasgow, Scotland, and London, England

Scope and Content

  • Production records, 1876-1918;
  • Financial records (James White), 1881-1900;
  • Inventories and valuations (Kelvin, Bottomley & Baird Ltd), 1919-1928;
  • Financial records (Kelvin & Hughes (Marine) Ltd), 1949-1959;
  • Financial records (Kelvin & Hughes Ltd), 1949-1961;
  • Employees Friendly Society register, 1902-1956;
  • Historical notes, 1989.

Administrative / Biographical History

In  1947  , the scientific instrument manufacturing firms of  Henry Hughes & Son Ltd , London, England, and  Kelvin Bottomley & Baird Ltd , Glasgow, Scotland, came together to form  Kelvin & Hughes Ltd .

The origins of the company lie in the highly successful, if strictly informal, relationship between  William Thomson (  1824-1907  ), Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University from 1846-1899 and James White, a Glasgow optical maker. James White (  1824-1884  ) founded the firm of  James White , optical instrument maker in Glasgow in  1850  and was involved in supplying and mending apparatus for Thomson's university laboratory and working with him on experimental constructions. By  1854  , White was already producing electrical instruments - electrometers and electrical balances - from Thomson's designs. In  1857  , White entered into a short-lived partnership,  White & Barr , with John Barr which lasted until  1860  when it was dissolved and White reverted to his previous company name of James White. White was actually declared bankrupt in  August 1861  , and then discharged four months later.

In  1870  , White was largely responsible for equipping Thomson's laboratory in the new University premises at Gilmorehill. From  1876  , he was producing accurate compasses for metal ships to Thomson's design, and this became an important part of his business in the last years of his life. He was also involved in the production of sophisticated sounding machinery that Thomson had designed to address problems encountered in laying cables at sea, helping to make possible the first transatlantic cable connection. At the same time, he continued to make a whole range of more conventional instruments such as telescopes, microscopes and surveying equipment. White's association with Thomson continued until he died, but without any legal deeds of co-partnery - White bearing, at least in a public sense, the financial risks of their working partnership.

After his death, his business continued under the same name, being administered by Matthew Edwards (until  1891  when he left to set up his own company) and David Reid. Thomson, who became Sir William Thomson and then Baron Kelvin of Largs in  1892  , continued to maintain his interest in the business after White's death. In  1884  he raised most of the capital needed to construct and equip new workshops in Cambridge Street, Glasgow. At the Cambridge Street premises, the company continued to make the compass Thomson had designed during the  1870s  and to supply it in some quantity, especially to the Admiralty. At the same time, the firm became increasingly involved in the design, production and sale of electrical apparatus.

In  1899  , Lord Kelvin resigned from his University chair and became, in  1900  , a director in the newly formed limited liability company,  Kelvin & James White Ltd  which acquired the business of James White. At the same time, Kelvin's nephew, James Thomson Bottomley (  1845-1926  ), joined the firm. In c1904, a London branch office was opened which by c1915 had become known as  Kelvin, White & Hutton Ltd .

Kelvin & James White Ltd underwent a further change of name in  1913  , becoming  Kelvin Bottomley & Baird Ltd .

Henry Hughes & Sons was founded in  1838  in London as a maker of chronographic and scientific instruments. The firm was incorporated as  Henry Hughes & Sons Ltd in  1903  and in 1923, the company produced its first recording echo sounder. In  1935  , a controlling interest in the company was acquired by  S Smith & Son Ltd resulting in the development of marine and aircraft instruments. Following the London office's destruction in the Blitz of 1941, a collaboration was entered into with Kelvin, Bottomley & Baird Ltd, resulting in the establishing of  Marine Instruments Ltd . Following the formal amalgamation of Kelvin, Bottomley & Baird Ltd and Henry Hughes & Sons Ltd in  1947  to form Kelvin & Hughes Ltd, Marine Instruments Ltd acted as regional agents in the UK for Kelvin & Hughes Ltd who were essentially now a part of Smith's Industries Ltd founded in 1944 as the successors of S Smith & Son Ltd, .

Kelvin & Hughes Ltd developed various marine radar and echo sounders, supplying the Ministry of Transport, and later Defence. The firm was liquidated in  1966  but the name was continued as Kelvin Hughes, a division of Smiths Group plc. In 2002, Kelvin Hughes continues to produce and develop marine instruments for commercial and military use.


This material is arranged into six series as described in the scope and content note

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Gift : Smith's Industries Ltd, London : pre 1970

Other Finding Aids

Digital file level list available in searchroom.

Manual file level list available at the National Registers of Archives in Edinburgh (NRA(S)1707) and London (NRA13691)

A searchable item level catalogue is available via the Navigational Aids for the History of Science, Technology and the Envoronment (NAHSTE) web site at

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Physical Characteristics and/or Technical Requirements

No physical characteristics that affect the use of this material.

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the University 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

Acquired directly from owners, Smith's Industries Ltd pre 1970


None expected.

Related Material

GB 247 MS Kelvin: Papers of William Thomson, including staff ledger 1897-1902, friendly society register, specification 1903, drawing office ledger 1905-1911, workshop and product photographs 1880s-1920s (Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department)

GB 012 Add 7342, 7656 Correspondence and papers of Lord Kelvin (Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives)

"Records relating to Kelvin & Hughes Ltd, 1912-2010 (Acc222)" have been deposited at Redbridge Local Studies and Archives Local History Room, Redbridge Central Library, Clements Road, Ilford, IG1 1EA.

For contact details of all repositories with a GB code, see the  Archon repository search page

Material in other repositories: no material related by provenance

Location of Originals

This material is original


Clarke, Morrison, Chow and Simpson (eds.),Brass and Glass: Scientific Instrument Making Workshops in Scotland , ( Edinburgh , National Museums of Scotland  , 1989  )

Additional Information

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

Scotland is the location of all place names in the administrative/biographical history element, unless otherwise stated.

Compiled by Alison Jasper, Archives Assistant, March 1998.

Updated by Jenny Cooknell, Assistant Archivist , 3 November 1999.

Updated by Lesley Richmond, Acting Director, 3 March 2000.

Updated by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, 28 March 2002

Administrative history re-written by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, 16 October 2002.

Amended by Sam Maddra, Assistant Archivist (cataloguing), 21 January 2014.