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William Thomson

1824-1907. Physicist. Also known as Lord Kelvin or 1st Baron Kelvin. Second son of a mathematician and author of textbooks, he was educated at home and at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and in 1846 was appointed professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow, holding the chair for fifty-three years and becoming the doyen of science. He made numerous discoveries: he was co-founder with J.P. Joule and others of the science of thermodynamics; he was the originator of the absolute (Kelvin) scale of temperature; founder of geophysics; inventor of numerous electrical instruments; pioneer of the first Atlantic cable (1858) and of electrical power transmission. In early life he was inspired by Faraday; his early researches originated in the desire to discover when God had created the world.

Thomson's character was exemplary: he was modest, never claimed priority in discovery, took special delight in praising the work of others, even the most junior, and treated assistants and students with the same deference as fellow professors. His niece, A.G. King, says she loved going to church with him (“there was something in his humble and quiet reverence which seemed to strengthen one's faith and bring one directly into the presence of God”). She tells also of his deep interest in and knowledge of the Bible. From about 1860 he was often involved in courteous controversy with geologists and materialistic evolutionists on topics relevant to the Christian faith.

See S.P. Thomson, Life of Lord Kelvin, (1910); and A.G. King, Kelvin the Man, (1924).