Collection of Papers relating to William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907)

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 237 Coll-389
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      32 letters, 10 postcards, 1 printed item.
  • Location
      Gen. 1426/120; Gen. 1731 Kelvin; Gen. 2169/80-111; Dc.2.59; Dc.2.76/16, ff.6-18; Dk.2.14, p.30

Scope and Content

The collection includes: letters and notes to Peter Guthrie Tait, 1859-1901, and the order of service for the funeral service of Lord Kelvin at Westminster Abbey, 23 December 1907; a testimonial by Kelvin in favour of P. G. Tait for the Chair of Natural Philosophy, 1859, and notes to Tait, 1865, 1872; letter to D. R. Hay, 1856; letters and a post-card to Tait about magnetism, temperature etc, 1869-1891; letter to Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson, 1889; letter to Sir Archibald Geikie about the Presidency of the Royal Society, London, 1890; copy of a letter to E. Mascart, 1891; letter to Sir W, Muir; and a letter to S. C. Chandler, 1897.

Administrative / Biographical History

William Thomson was born in Belfast on 26 June 1824. He was the son of James Thomson, Professor of Mathematics at Glasgow University. He was educated at Glasgow University and Peterhouse College, Cambridge. In 1846 he became Professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University, establishing his academic reputation in the field of thermodynamics. He put forward an absolute scale of temperature - known as the Kelvin scale - and formulated the laws of equivalence and of transformation. He also put forward the doctrine of available energy. Thomson was a practical scientist too, and worked on the development of electric telegraphy. In 1853 he put forward the theory of electric oscillations and then performed a number of experiments towards the creation of insulated electric telegraph cables. In 1856 he was a Director of the Atlantic Telegraph Company, and in the same year that he invented the mirror galvanometer - 1865-1866 - he supervised the laying of the transatlantic cable from Ireland to Newfoundland. He was also involved in the French Atlantic cable in 1869, the Brazilian River Plate cable in 1873, West Indian cables in 1875, and the Mackay-Bennett Atlantic cable in 1879. Thomson also invented an improved mariner's compass, a navigational sounding machine, a tide predictor, and many electrical measuring and telegraphic instruments. He was knighted in 1866 for his work on telegraphy and was created Baron Kelvin of Largs in 1892. In 1902 Kelvin became a Member of the Order of Merit and a Privy Councillor. William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, died on 17 December 1907. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Geikie letter, from letters purchased 1968, Accession no. E68.24. Thompson letter, purchased January 1970, Accession no. E70.4. Letter purchased July 1970, Accession no. E70.31. Tait letters, acquired May 1983, Accession no. E83.32.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Who was who. A companion to Who's who ... 1897-1916. London: A. and C. Black, 1920. (2) Keay, John. and Keay, Julia (eds.). Collins encyclopaedia of Scotland. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The local Indexes show other references to Lord Kelvin related material (check the Indexes for more details): letters to James Geikie and Sir Archibald Geikie, at Gen. 525; and, letter to Sir C. J. Pearson, Gen.756, no.136.

In the Indexes too there are many items that mention Lord Kelvin: letter of Sir C. W. Thomson to Lady Thomson, at Gen. 1733/94; items at Gen. 2169/64, 69-70, 97, 183-225; items at Gen. 1730-1732; letters from P. G. Tait at Dc.2.76/16, ff.21-27; letters of M. Forbes to Sir A. Geikie, and Alexander Buchan to Geikie at Gen. 1426/118-119; and, letters of Lorimer and Milne to Geikie at Gen. 1425/289, 333.

In addition, the UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: correspondence and papers, Glasgow University Library, Special Collections Department, NRA 10032 Thomson, see Guide to Dept of Special Collections, 1989, and also lecture notes, 1849-1850, see Accessions to repositories 1969; business papers relating to patent compass, 1876-1918, Glasgow University Archive Services, Ref. UGD33 NRA 13691 Kelvin & Hughes, and also correspondence with David Reid, 1904-1905, see Accessions to repositories 1979; testamentary papers, 1905-1909, Glasgow City Archives, Ref. TD862 NRA 13033 Moncrieff, see NRAS 0415, and also letters relating to Atlantic telegraph cable, circa 1850-1859, Ref. TD1 NRA 20864 Smith, and correspondence with Walter Crum and the Crum family, 1855-1893, Ref. TD 1073 NRA 41114 Crum; letters (10) to David Thomson, 1841-1859, Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives, NRA 28720 Thomson; letters (55) to James David Forbes, 1846-1865, St. Andrews University Library, NRA 13132 Forbes; correspondence with his instrument-makers, 1888-1906, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. Acc. 11793, see Annual return 1999, and also letters and notes to scientific instrument makers, 1888-1906, see Accessions to repositories 1989, and letters to Bottomley and Barlow families, Ref. Acc 11263, see Annual Return 1995; correspondence and papers, Cambridge University Library, Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Ref. Add 7342, 7656 NRA 20700 Stokes, and also letters to his sister, Elizabeth King, 1836-1906, see Accessions to repositories 1990, and correspondence with James Clerk Maxwell (12 items), 1868-1879, Ref. Add 7655; scientific correspondence with Sir Joseph John Thomson, 1884-1906, Cambridge University, Trinity College Library, Ref. MSS H6 NRA 23828 Thomson; letters (12) to Sir John Conroy, 1884, Oxford University, Balliol College Library, NRA 22851 Conroy; correspondence with Frederick J. J. Smith, 1883-1911, Oxford University, Museum of the History of Science, NRA 9532 Oxford scientific; correspondence relating to laboratory supplies, 1846-1879, Private, Ref. NRAS 3061 NRA 35474 Thomson; letters and reports, 1905-1907, National Maritime Museum, Manuscripts Section, Ref. DRY, see Guide vol. 2; letters to Sebastian de Ferranti, 1882-1884, Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, Ref. A13 NRA 13215 Ferranti; letters (11) to Oliver Heaviside, 1888-1904, Institution of Electrical Engineers Archives Department, Ref. SC Mss 5 NRA 38781 Heaviside, and letters (21) to Sir William Henry Preece, 1870-1903, Ref. SC Mss 22/511-42 NRA 38907 Preece; letters (40) to Sir Oliver Lodge, 1884-1907, London University, University College London (UCL) Manuscripts Room, Ref. MS ADD 89 NRA 20647 Lodge; letters (19) to Silvanus Thompson, 1849-1907, London University, Imperial College Archives, Ref. B/THOMSON NRA 11421 Thompson; letters (37) to Royal Institution, Royal Institution of Great Britain; NRA 9522 Royal Institution; letters (12) to Sir Arthur Schuster, 1882-1904, Royal Society; correspondence with Balfour Stewart, 1860-1867, Public Record Office, Ref. BJ1 NRA 27990 Kew Observ.