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Kelvin: Life, Labours and Legacy

Raymond Flood, Mark McCartney and Andrew Whitaker, editors
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
P. N. Ruane
, on

Published to mark the100th anniversary of Lord Kelvin’s death in 1907, this book uniquely supplements existing literature on the history of science and applied mathematics. This is in two respects. Firstly, there is no other book that provides general biographical outline of Kelvin’s life, whilst simultaneously examining the totality of his work from the standpoint of modern science and applied mathematics. Secondly, it provides a particular perspective from which to view the development of many scientific ideas between the Victorian and Edwardian periods.

Prior to reading the book, the only association I had with the name ‘Kelvin’ related to a temperature scale, and I don’t recall any other reference to that name in any of the courses on applied mathematics and electrical engineering that I took during undergraduate and postgraduate study.

Fortunately, in the process of creating this vivid picture of that once living person, Lord Kelvin of Largs, the authors of this book have clearly outlined his enormous (and long unappreciated) scientific achievements. At the same time, they have portrayed the academic and cultural ethos of the Victorian era, which coincided with Kelvin’s working life. Moreover, the text is further enriched by descriptions of his fruitful interactions with many of his illustrious contemporaries, such as Green, Stokes, Maxwell and Liouville (to name a few).

This book is, in fact, a collection of sixteen essays, each by a different author, and they are grouped into three sections under the headings of Life, Labours and Legacy. In part 1 (Life), there is an introductory biography followed by chapters describing Kelvin’s education and his early work on mathematical physics. There is also a chapter about the engineering achievements of his brother, James Thomson, followed by two others concerning Kelvin’s friendships with Stokes and Fitzgerald (re Lorentz contraction).

Part 2 (Labours) reveals the extent of Kelvin’s work on magnetic field theory, thermodynamics, engineering, geology and particle physics. The final four chapters (Legacy) concern Kelvin and the development of science in Japan; Kelvin, Maxwell, Einstein and the Ether; Kelvin and Statistical Mechanics followed by a resumé called ‘Kelvin — the Legacy’.

To the credit of the three editors, there is compatibility in terms of literary style and the thematic analysis that make up this very readable biography, and the chapters can be read in any order. This makes the book ideal as a ‘reader’ for those interested in the history of physics, applied mathematics and electrical engineering. Also, since most of the chapters explain the basic ideas relating to Kelvin’s work, the book will appeal to a wider range of scientifically literate readers.

In a way, there seem to be two central characters at the heart of this book, because William Thomson, born in Northern Ireland (1824) was transmogrified into Lord Kelvin at the age of 68. The illusion of dual identity is compounded by two factors; the first being that seven of the chapter headings refer to the life and work of William Thomson, while the remaining nine chapter headings allude to the achievements of Lord Kelvin.

Compared to George Green, a self-taught miller from Nottingham, with whom he had a longstanding working relationship, Thomson had the best possible start in life. His father (a professor of mathematics) was instrumental in monitoring his son’s educational and personal development, and he also made use of his web of professional connections in higher education so that young William always seemed to be stepping vocationally upwards.

Coupled with that, Thomson’s high level of personal ability and ambition ensured a reputation of academic precocity. And, following high mathematical achievement at Cambridge, he was made professor of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University at the age of 22. But his latent talent was evident at the earlier age of sixteen when, after reading and assimilating Fourier’s Théorie Analytique de la Chaleur, he wrote a paper refuting the criticism of Fourier analysis that were made by the Professor of Mathematics at Edinburgh (James Kelland).

In modern parlance, Thomson was a whiz-kid, but with none of the superficiality that such a phrase connotes. He seemed quick to build upon the ideas of people such as Faraday, Green and Fourier and was a prolific innovator across a range of disciplines (thermodynamics, telecommunications, particle physics and statistical mechanics etc). Further, his department of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow University is said to have been Britain’s the first university department of physics.

Unfortunately, later in life, and after he became Lord Kelvin, Thomson seemed to become entrenched in ideas that were incompatible with modern thinking. In fact, in one of the chapters, it is said that ‘he became mildly eccentric’ and apart from eschewing the use of vector methods, he could not accept Maxwell’s ideas on electromagnetic theory. Instead, he clung to his belief that mechanical analogies were best suited as models for understanding such phenomena. Consistent with this increasingly stultifying intellectual conservatism was his scepticism regarding Darwin’s theory of evolution.

In short, Kelvin’s later years seem to have been imbued with a sense of detachment from, and disagreement with, the rising ‘scientific hegemony’, and a fairly recent general biography is aptly entitled Degrees Kelvin: A Tale of Genius, Invention and Tragedy (by David Lindley; Joseph Henry Press, 2005).

But if Thomson could review his life from the perspectives provided within the pages of this book, he would be suitably uplifted. He would be reminded of his innovative contributions to the science of telecommunications that sustain the modern world (he worked on the first trans-Atlantic cable). And, apart from anything else, he would see that his work led to the appearance of many familiar technical terms such as kinetic energy, absolute temperature, simple harmonic motion, capacity of a conductor, magnetic permeability, and so on.

In conclusion, this book is highly recommended as a thoroughly researched, yet very readable, account of a nearly forgotten 19th century genius, and each of the sixteen authors has made a unique contribution to the task bringing him back to life.

Speaking of developments in telecommunications, Peter Ruane lives in Chelmsford UK, and only 400yds from the building in which Marconi manufactured not only the world’s first radios, but also the radio equipment supplied to the Titanic.


1. William Thomson: An Introductory Biography, Mark McCartney 
2. Educating William: Belfast, Glasgow and Cambridge, Alex D.D. Craik 
3. On the Early Work of William Thomson: Mathematical Physics and Methodology in the 1840s, I. Grattan-Guinness 
4. James Thomson and the Culture of a Victorian Engineer, Peter Bowler 
5. Fifty-Eight Years of Friendship: Kelvin and Stokes, Alastair Wood 
6. Kelvin and Fitzgerald, Denis Weaire 
7. Concepts and Models of the Magnetic Field, John Roche 
8. "A Dynamical Form of Mechanical Effect": Thomson's Thermodynamics, Iwan Rhys Morus 
9. Kelvin and Engineering, Bernard Crossland 
10. William Thomson's Determinations of the Age of the Earth, Patrick N. Wyse Jackson 
11. Thomson and Tait: The Treatise on Natural Philosophy, Raymond Flood 
12. Kelvin on Atoms and Molecules, Elizabeth Garber 
13. Kelvin and the Development of Science in Meiji Japan, Colin Latimer 
14. Kelvin, Maxwell, Einstein and the Ether - Who was Right about What?, C.W. Francis Everitt 
15. Kelvin and Statistical Mechanics, Oliver Penrose 
16. Kelvin - The Legacy, Andrew Whitaker