Biography of William Kelvin

Photo of William Kelvin

William Thomson, Lord Kelvin was a nineteenth century scientist famed for his work on electricity.

When and Where was he Born?

26th June 1824, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Christened as William Thomson.

Family Background:

William Lord Kelvin was the son of James Thomson, Professor of Mathematics and engineering in Belfast and at the University of Glasgow. Fourth child of seven.


William and his elder brother James were taught at home by their father. University of Glasgow. Peterhouse, Cambridge.

Timeline of Lord Kelvin:

1833: Thomson’s family moves to Glasgow as his father starts a teaching post at the university.

1840: He spends the summer in Germany and the Netherlands.

1845: Thomson is elected a Fellow of St Peter’s College, Cambridge. He begins the first mathematical development of Faraday’s idea that electric induction takes place through an intervening medium, or “dielectric”, and not by some incomprehensible “action at a distance”. It was in some part in response to this work that Michael Faraday undertook his own research that led to the discovery of the Faraday effect, which holds that light and magnetic/electric phenomena are related.

1846: He is elected to the Chair of Natural Philosophy a Glasgow University.

1847: He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

1851: Thomson begins work on what would become the Second Law of Thermodynamics. He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1852: He marries Margaret Crum of Thornliebank in September.

1857: In August he sails on board the cable-laying ship HMS Agamemnon. He had worked on the technical aspects of cable laying for telegraph communications and also the theory of passing a signal through such submarine cables. The cable breaks after only a few yards.

1865: He sails on the cable laying ship SS Great Eastern but the voyage again is overtaken by technical problems. The cable is lost after over a thousand miles had been laid.

1866: Thomson is knighted on 10th November after being part of a team which completed a successful trans-Atlantic cable laying.

1870: He is now addicted to seafaring and Thomson buys a 126 ton schooner called the “Lalla Rookh” and uses it as a place for entertaining. Death of his first wife on 17th June.

1874: He marries Fanny Blandy from Madeira on 24th June.

1880’s: He works on a navigational compass to help take away magnetic deviations.

1884: Thomson delivers a group of lectures at Johns Hopkins University in the United States of America in which he attempted to model a physical property for the ether, a medium that most scientists of the time believed in and which he hoped would support electromagnetic waves.

1892: He is raised to the Peerage as Baron Kelvin, of Largs.

1893: Kelvin heads an international commission to oversee the design of the Niagara Falls power station.

1896: He is made a Knight Grand Cross of the Victorian Order.

1902: Kelvin becomes one of the first people to receive the Order of Merit.

When and Where did he Die?

17th December 1907, Netherhall, Largs, Ayrshire, Scotland after catching a chill.

Age at Death:


Written Works:

1867: “The Treatise on Natural Philosophy”


1. September 1852 to Margaret Crum of Thornliebank. (Died 17th June 1870).
2. 24 June 1874 to Fanny Blandy from Madeira.

Site of Grave:

Central aisle of the Nave, Westminster Abbey, London next to Isaac Newton.

Westminster Abbey
Westminster Abbey, London
 (copyright Anthony Blagg)

Places of Interest:


Westminster Abbey.

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