There are times in human history when events conspire to present individuals opportunities to take great leaps into the future. When particular alignments of space and possibility allow the realisation of worlds hitherto undreamt. These moments, it is noted, often occur at the very zenith of a civilization – at that last moment of a society’s rise, before its mutability is questioned, but when its powers of advancement and potential are at the high-point of their arc. Seldom are great feats achieved by a society in decline. Individuals with the will are, at those moments, sometimes capable of riding a wave so far and so fast that to look back on their journey is to become imbued with a trembling sense of vertigo at the scale of their achievements. Very literally, one’s own world appears to spiral in upon itself and into nothingness.
Victorian society yielded several such individuals. Such was the wealth of the British elites of the time, such was the supposed superiority of their abilities and potentials, and such was the sense of certainty in the future that great endeavours were undertaken that would never otherwise have been dared. Because Victorian society was nothing if not very great indeed, no value-judgement is thereby intended. No unsupportable claims about Victorian ethics and outlook are made (there is no reasonable argument that can be made for the colonial attitude which arguably achieved its most pointed and cruel aspect in these years). But the arrogance and self-belief inherent in those times – systematically bred into its citizens – led unerringly to a vaulting ambition which made otherwise unthinkable achievements possible.
Hence the conception of the Crystal Palace and Great Exhibition. Hence the revolution in mass transport pioneered by Brunel and furthered by Stevenson. Hence the unparalleled might of the Victorian British Navy, and the corresponding confidence to take on the world. Hence the philanthropic exploits of the Cadbury brothers and William Lever. And hence also the exploits of a man known in his later years as Lord Kelvin, whose comparative contemporary anonymity belies his many, varied and thoroughly remarkable achievements.
Kelvin was born William Thomson in Belfast in 1824. As a nine-year old he and his siblings followed his father to Glasgow, where the latter had taken up the chair of Mathematics. So began Thomson’s lifelong love for and loyalty to the city and region, which would in later years prevent him from moving south to take up any of the many and varied offers from prestigious institutions which came his way.
Thomson studied Mathematics, graduated in 1845, and after a brief spell in Paris, returned to Glasgow in 1946 to take up the post of Professor of Natural Philosophy, which he would hold for the following 53 years.
His work over that period would make him a world-famous scientist and multi-millionaire. This is not the place to describe, or even list, his many achievements. Instead, two areas of his interest will be explicated.
Until 1856, Thomson’s work centred around the most significant debate in physics at the time – the contradictory theories of heat proposed by Sadi Carnot and James Joule. For a number of years, he supported Carnot’s caloric theory, in which heat is postulated as a special fluid that moves between objects. His support of the idea led directly to his conception of an absolute temperature scale, in which the movement of heat could be measured without reference to the bodies between which it moved. Despite the falsehoods that were its inspiration, this scale remains the standard measure of heat in physical calculations, and bears his name in recognition. Absolute zero, the lowest (although theoretical) temperature possible, is 0 K. 0 Kelvin.
By 1851, however, his doubts regarding Carnot’s theory had become irreconcilable. He disputed the necessary consequence of Carnot’s assertion – that escaped heat was lost not simply to that body, but to the whole universe – and consequently moved increasingly towards supporting Joule’s ideas. A correspondence between the two men was struck up, ultimately resulting in the prevalence of Joule’s Mechanical theory of heat (in which heat is understood as energy) over Carnot’s Caloric. Their enquiries (whilst indebted to the experimental work of Carnot) led directly to the formulation of the first and second laws of thermodynamics, which state, roughly, that energy is always conserved – that is, it cannot be made or destroyed (‘you can’t get something for nothing’) – and that the movement of energy will always result in losing a certain amount as heat (‘you can’t even break even’). These laws are the foundation of all of modern physics. But more than that, because they pertain to all matter in all of the universe at all times, it is no exaggeration to say that all scientific inquiry (and the technologies it allows) is predicated upon those realisations.
The first half of the 19th Century saw the invention of the telegraph, and the consequent birth of remote communication. The potential of such technology was quickly recognised, and the significance of a trans-Atlantic telegraph immediately understood. In 1854, Thomson was written to by Cambridge Mathematician George Gabriel Stokes, asking his opinion on the results of experiments conducted by Michael Faraday on the viability of such a cable. Thomson was fascinated by the problem and began disputing the workability of the idea as conceived by the Atlantic Telegraph Company. He contended that the company’s plan – supported by both Faraday and Samuel Morse – was unworkable, owing to inconsistencies in cable production, the technical difficulties associated with laying cable under 2000 miles of ocean, and the weakening of signal and corresponding loss of data that covering such a distance would necessarily entail.
Thomson was taken on by the Company as a scientific advisor, but his ideas were not followed. The consequent failure of the first cable-laying voyage inspired Thomson to design, build and patent a signal booster to allow the more reliable and rapid transmission of signals. Further unsuccessful attempts followed while his ideas remained ignored, and it was not until 1865, when a voyage sailed under his supervision, using his inventions and drawing crucial lessons in laying-technique and cable strength from earlier failed voyages that the cable was completed.
More than any other of his achievements, the laying of the trans-Atlantic cable – for which he was subsequently knighted – best illuminates the remarkable range of Thomson’s abilities. His scientific skills are well known, but he was so much more than a pure scientist. He was an engineer too, attacking problems head on and in the real world – in the mid-Atlantic as willingly as in the laboratory. His perseverance and commitment to a task are equally well illuminated – his perseverance undiminished despite years of rejections and disregard.
His work spans mechanics, magnetism, thermodynamics, and electricity, and without his input, so much of the modern world would have an entirely different shape. The internet, the computer hard-disk and the refrigerator (originally the Kelvinator!) to name but three would not have been possible without Kelvin’s work. His hypothesis about the ultimate heat-death of the universe (stemming directly from the second law of thermodynamics) is still widely believed.
His interests though, reached far beyond science. A keen sportsman, he rowed for Cambridge whilst a student, and as a professor at Glasgow founded the Musical Society and played cornet in the Orchestra. Improbably, for a man so devoted to his work, he was also reputed to be gentle, pious and patient.
It is perhaps tempting to say of people like Kelvin, that someone else would have achieved their work, had they not. The fact remains, however, that nobody after Kelvin had the opportunity.
Artwork by: John Mcloughlin