Papers of William Smith, 1832-1921, Church of Scotland Minister and graduate of the University of Glasgow, Scotland

Scope and Content

  • Notes of lectures delivered in Glasgow University by William Thomson 1849-1850. Probably taken by William Smith. Includes photographs of Thomson.
  • Commonplace book of William Smith including memoirs and anecdotes c1845-1920, on his own and neighbouring parishes, politics, foreign travel, personalities, and his student days at the University of Glasgow

Administrative / Biographical History

William Smith was born in Old Monkland, North Lanarkshire, Scotland, in 1832 . He was educated at Carmyle School, Glasgow, Scotland, before attending the University of Glasgow from 1845 until 1849  during which time he attended the Natural Philosophy class of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907). He does not appear to have graduated from the University. He went on to become Minister for the Church of Scotland in Douglas, South Lanarkshire, Scotland, from 1858 until his death in 1921 .

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1824, the second son of James Thomson (1786-1849) a professor of Mathematics in the Royal Institution there. The family moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in 1832. He matriculated at the university of Glasgow in 1834 and went on to Peterhouse, Cambridge where he helped to found Cambridge University Musical Society.

As a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow (1846-1899), he gathered around him enthusiastic students of mathematical physics and devoted himself to developing the new doctrine propounded by Sadie Carnot in 1824 and by James Prescott Joule in 1847 that work and heat were convertible. Between 1851 and 1854 he formulated the two great laws of thermodynamics - of equivalence and of transformation - in communications to the Royal Society of Edinburgh and subsequently rounded off his work on thermodynamics by enunciating the doctrine of available energy.

He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851 and was its president 1890-1895. He married his second cousin Margaret Crum in 1852 who then died in 1870.

Throughout his life he sought to utilise science for practical ends. In 1853, through mathematical analysis, he developed the theory of electrical oscillations which forms the basis of wireless telegraphy. The following year he carried out experiments on electrical telegraph cables and propounded the 'law of square's'. In 1856 he became the director of the Atlantic Telegraph Co and served as a electrician on the'Agamemnon' which laid the first cable across the Atlantic. The experiment failed due to a colleague's neglect of Thomson's councils although Thomson triumphantly redeemed the failure by superintending the laying of a new cable in 1866. He was knighted in 1866 for his services to telegraphy and became president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1874.

He went on to study atmospheric electricity and improved the system of electrical measurement and the adoption of rational units. An advocator of the metric system, Thomson also suggested the formulation of a commission for electrical standards.

Further study involved the mathematical theory of magnetism, a 'Treatise on Natural Philosophy' with Peter Guthrie Tait, and contributions to the theory of elasticity in paper on'Vortex Atoms' (Edinburgh, 1867). He married again in 1874 to Frances Anna Blandy and built a mansion at Netherhall near Largs, North Ayrshire, Scotland.

He continued to invent, working on reforming the mariner's compass 1873-8, devising apparatus for taking flying soundings in 1872, and inventing a tide-predicting machine. During his presidency of the physical and mathematical section at York in 1881 he showed the possibility of utilising the power of Niagara Falls in generating electricity.

His interest in electricity and electric lighting lead him to become a founder of Kelvin & White Ltd, Glasgow, who manufactured his own inventions.

In 1902 he was appointed to the Privy Council; 2 years later he was created Chancellor of the University of Glasgow. An ardent unionist in politics, he also carried a strong religious faith throughout his life. He died in December 1907 and is buried in Westminster Abbey, London.



The material is split between two references MS Gen 142 and MS Gen 918

Access Information


Acquisition Information

Gift : March 1969 : ACCN 4208 (MS Gen 142 only)

Gift : April 2002 : ACCN 2802 (MS Gen 918 only)

Other Finding Aids

Item level descriptions are available via the department's online manuscripts catalogue available at  searching by the call numbers MS Gen 142 and MS Gen 918

Alternative Form Available

No known copies

Archivist's Note

Compiled by David Powell, Hub Project Archivist, 31 March 2001

No alterations made to date

Conditions Governing Use

Applications for permission to quote should be sent to the Keeper of Special Collections

Reproduction subject to usual conditions: educational use & condition of documents

Appraisal Information

This material has been appraised in line with standard GB 247 procedures

Custodial History



None expected

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