Lord Kelvin Becomes a Professor – 160 Years On

Jemima Blackburn, ‘William Thomson teaching Projection to William Blackburn’, watercolour, 31 August 1851. See http://bit.ly/2cw6cfP for further details.

Jemima Blackburn, ‘William Thomson teaching Projection to William Blackburn’, watercolour, 31 August 1851. See http://bit.ly/2cw6cfP for further details.

Jemima Blackburn, ‘William Thomson teaching Projection to William Blackburn’, watercolour, 31 August 1851. See http://bit.ly/2cw6cfP for further details.

On this day 160 years ago, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) was elected Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, a position he held for 53 years. To celebrate this occasion, I wanted to showcase some of the documents we have which record this pivotal moment in Kelvin’s life.

William Thomson had studied at the University of Glasgow from the age of 10, after his father became Professor of Mathematics at the University. He left to study at the University of Cambridge in 1841, but when the death of Professor William Meikleham on the 7th of May 1846 left the Natural Philosophy Chair vacant Thomson was still just 22 years old. His teaching experience was also limited, as he had only recently become a college lecturer in mathematics at Peterhouse, Cambridge. On his father’s suggestion Thomson had at least travelled to Paris to gain experience of experimental methods.

Thomson was inexperienced but certainly not unheard of when he announced his candidacy to the Electors of the University in May 1846.  His father, James Thomson, was still Professor of Mathematics at the University; his old lecturer John Pringle Nichols held another vote. However, William Thomson still needed the votes another 6 members of Faculty (the University body which decided on professorships, composed of the most senior academics). James Thomson and Nichols’ support also came with a downside: the pair had consistently led the charge on efforts to reform the University’s rules and teaching, such as campaigning for the abolition of the religious “tests” which meant only Presbyterians could become professors. Their campaigning had earned them the resentment of the University’s conservative-minded faction, meaning that William Thomson could easily become a pawn in this wider battle between “Whig” reformers and “Tory” conservatives.

Whilst William Thomson sent through a string of references testifying to his academic genius, his father and Nichols set about using this opportunity to modernise the department. On the 28th of August, well before the Faculty was due to decide on the appointment, Nichols tabled a series of ambitious resolutions calling for the new professor to enact wide-ranging reforms to the teaching of Natural Philosophy ‘in consequence of the advance of discovery in many important departments of Physical Science’. The resolutions included a call to give ‘a place as important in the curriculum… to the teaching of Physical science as is now enjoyed by the Moral Sciences’ [i.e. Philosophy and allied humanities].

Extract from Faculty Minutes, 28 August 1846 (University of Glasgow Archives, GUA 2670o)

Extract from Faculty Minutes, 28 August 1846 (University of Glasgow Archives, GUA 2670o)

The Thomson family correspondence held by the University’s Special Collections department shows that the whole family was heavily invested in William’s application. Whilst his father assured Electors that further references would be coming shortly (Letter, James Thomson to William Fleming, 20 June 1846, MS Kelvin F22), his brother and aunt discussed the election.

Extract from Letter, Agnes Gall to James Thomson Jnr., 29 June 1846 (University of Glasgow Special Collections, MS Gen 1752/3/1/G/1)

Extract from Letter, Agnes Gall to James Thomson Jnr., 29 June 1846 (University of Glasgow Special Collections, MS Gen 1752/3/1/G/1)

William’s aunt passed on a letter from Professor Maconochie which observed that ‘it is plain from the testimonials that [William] is shortly to be a 2nd Newton’. Maconochie’s conservative instincts were threatening to trump even this high praise, however – he directly asked which political party William belonged to, and scorned William’s father as a ‘pestilent Whig willing to do anything for Jonney Russell.’

Extract from Letter, Thomson to George Boole, 11 September 1846 (University of Glasgow Special Collections, MS Kelvin B16, sheet 2r). Available at http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/Kelvin/boole.html.

Extract from Letter, Thomson to George Boole, 11 September 1846 (University of Glasgow Special Collections, MS Kelvin B16, sheet 2r). Available at http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/Kelvin/boole.html.

On the 11th of September, there was no more politicking to be done. William Thomson sat nervously, distracting himself by writing to his close friend George Boole – although Thomson confessed that he was in such a ‘state of suspense’ that his calculations were probably ‘better for myself than it will be amusing to you’.

Extract from Faculty Minutes, 11 September 1846 (University of Glasgow Archives, GUA 2670o)

Extract from Faculty Minutes, 11 September 1846 (University of Glasgow Archives, GUA 2670o)

In the end, there was no cause for nerves; Thomson’s obvious talent and stellar references made it incredibly difficult for the Tory faction to raise any objections, and so Thomson was unanimously elected on the 11th of September. After reading an essay to Faculty titled ‘De caloris distributione per tessae Corpus’ and assenting to the strictures of the Church of Scotland, he was formally appointed on the 13th of October 1846.
Archives and Special Collections are open to everyone. If you would like to find out more about Kelvin or visit one of our reading rooms to view our collections then please email library-asc@glasgow.ac.uk. Guides to the sources available about Kelvin at both the University of Glasgow Archives and the University of Glasgow Special Collections are available at http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_61657_en.pdf and http://www.gla.ac.uk/services/specialcollections/collectionsa-z/kelvincollection/ respectively.

Sources consulted:
Crosbie Smith, ‘Thomson, William, Baron Kelvin (1824–1907)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2011 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/36507, accessed 9 Sept 2016]

Crosbie Smith & M. Norton Wise, Energy and EmpireA biographical study of Lord Kelvin, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989



Categories: Archives and Special Collections

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