This month, the University of Glasgow celebrates the bicentenary of one of its most prominent alumni – Lord Kelvin – and to mark the occasion, The Herald, in partnership with the University of Glasgow, today launches a three-part celebration of this remarkable scientist and entrepreneur

William Thomson’s life at the University of Glasgow began aged 10. When he died 73 years later, not only had he earned a global reputation as one of the 19th century’s most accomplished scientists and entrepreneurs, but his work had laid a pathway for innovation that continues to influence modern science today.

A professor of natural philosophy at the University for 53 years, he undertook meticulous research and mathematical analysis into electricity and the formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics.

Among many achievements in other areas of science, he played a key role in revolutionising communications via the first transatlantic telegraph cable. He also was a trailblazer in the field of electrofrequency, work that would pave the way for inventions such as the radio.

He was at the vanguard of the emerging fields of thermodynamics and electromagnetism, both of which are fundamental to many modern scientific fields, such as quantum technologies, ultra-fast connectivity and modern space exploration. 

Elevated to a peerage in 1892, when he took the name Baron Kelvin of Largs from the river near the University, his is an astonishing and incredibly accomplished life and one leading lights and gamechangers in today’s scientific community fully recognise and are keen to celebrate.

“Lord Kelvin certainly had a strong work ethic but also a strong sense of civic responsibility,” says Professor Martin Hendry, the University of Glasgow’s Clerk of Senate and Vice Principal. “I think that still sits well with us nowadays: after all, the University of Glasgow is proud to declare: ‘World Changing Glasgow’.

Professor Hendry, renowned for his own pioneering work as an astrophysicist in the University’s School of Physics & Astronomy, where he also served as Head of School, points out his own first year physics lectures, as a student in the 1980s, were in the same theatre Kelvin himself would have used.

“We’re proud of that sense of tradition, while recognising how much has changed. It’s really important the continuity is there even after 200 years.”

While much has been written about the irrefutable scientific genius of arguably Glasgow’s most famous alumnus, Professor Hendry is keen to bring the same analytical precision for which Kelvin is famous when it comes to measurement of the man himself.

“There’s a misquote about Kelvin that at first glance does sound like the kind of thing he might have said: ‘There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement’. 

“But that first part was not his view. There was a prevailing belief in Victorian times of the empire and society being at its pinnacle and master of all it surveyed. 

“I don’t think Kelvin really bought into that as much as others from his era. He was an establishment figure but he was very much an internationalist. He was quite a humble man so he wasn’t inclined to the view the British Empire was ruler of all it surveyed.

“The second part of the quote about more precise measurement – now that really does sound like Kelvin. His whole essence of thinking was the universe is a complicated place. It has its limits but science is remarkably good at making sense of the world. And the key to making progress is not just to sit and theorise, it’s to measure stuff.”


Professor Hendry believes the body of mathematics, science and engineering Kelvin studied is important not just in and of itself but the manner in which he approached it, bringing both deep theoretical insight and innovative experimental technique.

“He relied on knowing the right people to work with. 

“Nobody could do it all on their own but he absolutely had the right partnerships: theoreticians to work with and bounce ideas off and write papers together. 

“On the experimental side, his realisation that, if you get good at building top-of-the-range, precise scientific equipment, the chances are this will have excellent opportunities for spin-offs or technology transfer.

“The fact he was able to spot when scientific ideas could be also turned into commercially viable, practical and useful products was important too. Perhaps the most well-known example of that is his work on the transatlantic telegraph cable.

“He also wrote a report about the viability of electric lighting in society, which helped move the dial enough to convince the government this was worth investing in. His was one of the first houses to be fully electrically wired for lighting.

“Again, that was about having the fundamental science knowledge to realise the importance of practical applications, but also having the savvy to immediately apply it to his and others’ lives.

“Nowadays we are encouraged as researchers to be aware of and look for opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation. But it’s rare for somebody to be so at the top of their game all the way from the fundamental stuff to knowledge exchange. 

“I was head of physics and astronomy for a number of years and I would not expect colleagues to be doing all of that at the same time . . . yet Kelvin somehow seemed to manage to do that.”

While the world has moved on in 200 years, Professor Hendry notes Kelvin’s radical approach to science education remains a positive influence.

“His spirit is still there in how we teach science; for example, ensuring students have access to the latest equipment. It’s important they be exposed to that kind of experimental experience. 

“It is also a good illustration, not just within the university sector, but more broadly in education, of why students should ask questions and push the limits of their knowledge, just like Kelvin always did.  

“Notwithstanding the fact we have learned a lot more, the spirit of inquiry he brought to the whole business of science is still something we want to imbue in students.

“You’re laying the foundations for people to have the kind of critical thinking skills they’ll need throughout the rest of their life to make sense of the world at large.”


The Hunterian is inventive at bringing the past to life

WHILE Lord Kelvin’s work and thinking remain inspirational to discovery and innovation in modern science, his inventions are similarly alive and accessible to the world. 

As Curator of Scientific and Medical History Collections at The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, Dr Nicky Reeves helps conserve and research hundreds of Kelvin-related artefacts. 

The Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, which has a permanent display dedicated to Kelvin, will be showcasing his life and work through public events and lectures in June

“We’re always simultaneously balancing care and conservation with access,” says Dr Reeves. “There’s no point in holding onto a load of stuff if no one can see it or no one can do anything interesting with it. So we think about use and utility. How can we put the collections to work? How can we use them in teaching, exhibitions and research.”

His hope is the bicentenary celebration will be an opportunity to tell the general public they, too, can fully engage with the collections. “We are not just about putting on exhibitions and providing quality access for professional researchers, historians, people with PhDs or people who have precise technical and amazing knowledge about the history of magnetism. We’re also interested in saying to folk in general, if you’re interested in this, why don’t you come and have a look?

“We are focused on what you get out of materials you wouldn’t get out of pictures or text by making them tangible. So were interested in what happens when you lift something or smell it or touch it – with supervision and wearing gloves, of course!”

There is certainly much for the senses to experience. The Hunterian boasts an incredible collection of scientific instruments designed by, made use of or commissioned by Kelvin. 

“His material lends itself to memorial because he himself was very hands-on. He was interested in the interaction between theory and practice and thus between mathematical modelling and real modelling: using all sorts of really interesting three-dimensional models of how gases and liquids operated. 

“Many items in the collection are the kind of things we take for granted in contemporary science teaching at school, like ball and stick models of molecular bonds and so forth. The idea of how a lattice fits together. It allows us to think about geometry and algebra and physics all at the same time. Lots of his models survive: wooden, spring, glass models. And also what’s so interesting about them for us is they were often teaching models.”

Dr Reeves is keen to highlight the links Nineteenth-Century industrial Glasgow had with shipbuilding, connecting Kelvin’s application of theory to navigation in terms of magnetic compasses and other areas, such as submarine telegraphic cables. 

“We should think about who made these things, where the raw materials came from, where the expertise in metal work came from. There are connections between skilled craftsmen in the docks and foundries who brought the skills, which speaks to knowledge transfer. 

“We want to think about what craft skills were going into them because we see high quality, glasswork, brass, engraving, all of these skills. There are lots of interesting crossovers, such as brass engraving used in clock and watchmaking. An unusually large amount survives and that also accounts partly for the reason why Kelvin is held in such high regard. 

“I would be in agreement with a lot of the contemporary scientists about its usefulness, the really pleasing overlap between hands-on modelling and theorising, and also his economy and clarity of thought and language." 

Dr Reeves notes Kelvin was innovative in extracting capital out of his scientific projects.

“He was a wealthy man and that wasn’t by chance. He was exacting in applying patents and extracting value out of the global circulation of his designs and patented methods. We have a large number of these in the Hunterian. 

“A lot of the devices may be doing a straightforward but fundamental thing — such as measuring electrical currency very precisely — but so much of our world follows from them!” 



June 26, 1824: William Thomson is born in Belfast

1832: His father James is appointed Chair of Mathematics at University of Glasgow prompting his family to move to Glasgow

1834-40: William and brother James matriculate; William passes exams and matriculates at Peterhouse College, Cambridge

1841–1843: Publication of paper on Fourier’s mathematics

1845: Graduates BA, elected Foundation Fellow of St Peter’s College, Cambridge

1846: Elected to Chair of Natural Philosophy at the University 

1847: Uses term “dynamical theory of heat”, giving rise to thermodynamics

1850: Brother James’s paper on “the effect of pressure in lowering the freezing point of water” allows William to link the second law to the absolute scale of temperature

1851: Publication of “Dynamical theory of heat” and first paper on steam flow: giving birth to the Joule–Thomson effect and modern refrigeration

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1852: Publication of “The second law of thermodynamics”

1852: Marries Margaret Crum on September 15

1854: Paper on thermodynamics of the solar system and first on Luminiferous Medium

1854: First patent for improvements to copper conductors with Rankine and Tait

1855: First paper on electric 

1857: Appointment to the board of directors of the Transatlantic 
Telegraph Company

1858: Builds the mirror galvanometer; Links America with Europe by 
telegraph cable 

1859: Seminal paper on electrical frequency, paving the way for radio

1866: Knighted Sir for his work on telegraphy 

1870: Takes up residence at No 11 Professors’ Square, without his wife, who died in June

1874: Marries Francis Anna Blandy

1879–1881: Report to a 
Government Select Committee on electric light 

1882–1883: Papers on refrigeration, gyrocompass as navigation and chirality of molecules

1888: Calculates Antarctic ice sheets and links ice and oceans in climate change

1889-90: Mathematical model of magnetism; Develops dripless tap

1891: Appointment as President of the Royal Society in London

1892: Elevated to a peerage, taking his name from the river near the 

1898: Becomes the first person in the world to send a wireless telegram

1904: Elected Chancellor of the 
University of Glasgow

1907: Lord Kelvin dies and is buried in Westminster Abbey