William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (better known simply as Lord Kelvin), OM, GCVO, PC, PRS, FRSE, lived from 26 June 1824 to 17 December 1907. He was a noted physicist and engineer. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
William Thomson was born in Belfast, the son of James Thomson, a teacher of mathematics and engineering at Royal Belfast Academical Institution. His older brother was (also) James Thomson, who became a significant engineer and physicist in his own right. In 1833 the family moved to Glasgow, where his father has been appointed Professor of Mathematics at the University of Glasgow. William Thomson became a student at Glasgow University before, in 1841, going to Peterhouse College in Cambridge. Here he excelled in mathematics and physics, as well as in a number of sports, especially sculling.
In 1845, Thomson did much to support the work of Michael Faraday on electric induction, leading to the discovery of the Faraday effect, which established that light and electromagnetic phenomena were related. The following year, at the age of 22, Thomson became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. While at Glasgow he undertook ground-breaking work in the mathematical analysis of electricity and thermodynamics. Perhaps his most notable specific achievement was the development of what later became known as the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature measurement, based on proposals he first made in 1848. Thomson would later also work with Peter Guthrie Tait on a textbook that sought to unify the physical sciences under the common principle of energy. The result, published in 1867, was Treatise on Natural Philosophy, which defined the science of physics.
In September 1852, Thomson married Margaret Crum, who he had known most of his life. She became seriously ill on their honeymoon and never fully recovered. In 1854, Thomson became interested in the technical problems of undersea cables, specifically how the maximum data rate affected the potential revenue and profitability of a proposed transatlantic cable. In December 1856, he was elected to the board of directors of the Atlantic Telegraph Company. He was actively involved in a series of cable-laying operations over the following years, which included several spectacular failures before eventual success in 1866. Thomson received a knighthood for his part in the operation.
Thomson went on to play a leading role in laying a number of other transoceanic cables. His wife died in 1870. In June 1873, Thomson found himself in Madeira, where he met Fanny Blandy, 13 years his junior. They married the following year after a proposal - and acceptance - that had been transmitted by undersea cable. In later years, Thomson did much to introduce common standards to electricity generation. In 1892 he was given the title of Baron Kelvin of Largs in the County of Ayr. The title comes from the River Kelvin, which passes through the grounds of the University of Glasgow.
Lord Kelvin was hugely influential in defining and shaping the world in which we live today. But he wasn't always right. Among the statements he made that were proved wrong were: "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible" in 1895; "Radio has no future" in 1897; and "There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement," in 1900.