Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

Kelvin and the Atlantic Cables

In the preceding chapter we have seen Professor William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) installed in the Chair of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow. In preparation for his candidature for the Chair he had gone to Paris, at the suggestion of his father, and studied in the laboratory of the noted French scientist Regnault. But in Glasgow there was no experimental laboratory. What apparatus there was in the University was merely for lecture demonstration. Some of this apparatus was a hundred years old, while little of it was less than fifty years old.

Thomson appealed to the University authorities for funds to equip an experimental laboratory, but the only room he could get for the purpose was a disused cellar. The late Professor Ayrton, who was one of Thomson's students in the 'sixties, says, "Thomson's students experimented in his one room and the adjoining coal-cellar, in spite of the atmosphere of coal-dust, which settled on everything, produced by a boy coming periodically to shovel up coal for fires. . . . But oh! the delight of those days! Would we have exchanged them, had the choice been given us, for days passed in the most perfectly designed laboratory of the twentieth century without him? No! for the inspiration of our lives would have been wanting."

This unpretentious undertaking of young Thomson's was the first physical laboratory to be put at the disposal of students in any University.

Throughout the home letters of Thomson up to this point, one cannot help noticing how often the name of his cousin Margaret Crum of Thornliebank is introduced. She was really only a half-cousin, the full cousinship being between the respective parents. The boy-and-girl friendship culminated in a betrothal, and the young couple were married a few months later. Their wedded life was a very happy one, but unfortunately, Mrs. Thomson's health gave rise to anxiety, and for many years she was an invalid. The summer vacation spent abroad failed to establish her strength. She lived through the stirring times of the first attempts to lay the Atlantic cables, and she saw her husband become famous, she herself becoming Lady Thomson when her husband was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1866.

A few years later Lady Thomson became so much worse that she could not go abroad, but she was able to be taken to the coast. For her sake Sir William decided to spend the winter at the coast, and he was willing to resign his Professorship of the Chair to which he was greatly attached, but fortunately, the University authorities granted him a long leave of absence. He was untiring in his constant attention to his invalid wife. But she passed away at the age of forty, after eighteen years of wedded life. She was a most accomplished woman and loved by all who knew her.

In the letters of the late Dr. John Brown, author of Rab and His Friends, Lady Thomson is referred to in words of the very highest praise. In another of Dr. Brown's letters there is an interesting reference to William Thomson, while he was a young professor in the old college. The great English novelist Thackeray, when in Glasgow with Dr. Brown, had dined twice with the Thomsons, and writing to one of the Crums, Dr. Brown said, "I knew Thackeray would go to your heart. . . . He was delighted with your William Thomson; he said he was an angel and better, and must have wings under his flannel waistcoat. I said he had, for I had seen them."

It was during Mrs. Thomson's lifetime that William met with a very serious accident when curling on the ice at Largs. He fell and broke his leg, and the accident turned out very serious, as the hip-joint was injured. After many months of brave suffering he was left lame for life, and always walked thereafter with a decided halt. This accident befell him when he was thirty-six years of age, which was a few years after his first voyage in connection with the laying of the pioneer Atlantic cable.

Professor Silvanus P. Thomson remarks in his Life of Lord Kelvin, that "often as the story of the Atlantic cable has been told, the precise part which Thomson played in the enterprise has never been fully stated. The work which he undertook for it was enormous; the sacrifices he made for it were great. The pecuniary reward was ridiculously small. The actual position which he held was relatively subordinate, and must have been at times galling. Yet he bore himself throughout with the most unswerving courtesy and delicacy of feeling."

Our present interest does not lie in the story of the Atlantic cable; we can only take a glimpse at young Thomson in his pioneer work. It will be understood that he was not the official Electrician; that gentleman did not accompany the expedition, although urged to do so. In this way Thomson did not have the instruments he would have liked, but he had permission to use his own galvanometer, which was very much more sensitive than the clumsier apparatus of the official Electrician.

At the close of the first voyage a very interesting letter appeared in the newspapers, written by one of the staff accompanying Thomson. Referring to Thomson's marine galvanometer, this writer says: "It is closed up in a plain deal box, which is placed on a frame, equally primitive, attached to springs. Yet this little 'Jack-in-the-Box,' as we often call it, does the work of every instrument on the table in its own peculiar way, and a deal more accurately. . . . It is rather an exciting occupation to watch the tell-tale signals as we pay out. Few but the sailors ever sleep soundly. Professor Thomson frequently does not put off his clothes at night.

"To-night we had an alarming crisis. We had signalled the Niagara  'Forty miles submerged,' and she was just beginning her acknowledgment, when suddenly, at 10 p.m., communication ceased. According to orders those on duty sent at once for Dr. Thomson. He came in a fearful state of excitement. The very thought of disaster seemed to overpower him. His hand shook so much that he could scarcely adjust his eyeglass. His face was deadly pale. After consulting his marine galvanometer, he said the conducting wire was broken but still insulated from the water. . . . The scene in and about the electrical room was such as I shall never forget. The two clerks on duty watching, with the common anxiety depicted on their faces, for a propitious signal; Dr. Thomson in a perfect fever of nervous excitement, shaking like an aspen leaf, yet in mind clear and collected, testing and waiting, with half-despairing look for result; Mr. Bright (the brilliant young Engineer-in-Chief) standing like a boy caught in a fault, his lips and cheek smeared with tar, looking to the Professor for advice; . . . the Captain viewing with anxious look the bad symptoms of the testing as pointed out by Dr. Thomson. Behind, in the darker part of the room, stood various officers of the ship. Round the door crowded the sailors of the watch, peering over each other's shoulders at the mysteries, and shouting 'Gangway!' when any one of importance wished to enter. The eyes of all were directed to the instruments, watching for the slightest quiver indicative of life. Such a scene was never witnessed save by the bedside of the dying. Dr. Thomson and the others left the room convinced they were once more doomed to disappointment. The clerks continued sending regular currents. . . . Suddenly one sang out, 'Halloa! the spot has gone up forty degrees.' The clerk at the ordinary instrument bolted right out of the room, scarcely knowing where he went for joy; ran to the poop and cried out, 'Mr. Thomson! the cable's all right; we got a signal from the Niagara.' In less than no time he was down, tested, found the old dismal result, and left immediately. He had not disappeared in the crowd when a signal came which undoubtedly originated in the Niagara. Our joy was so deep and earnest that it did not suffer us to speak for some seconds. But when the first stun and pleasure passed, each one began trying to express his feelings in some way more or less energetic. Dr. Thomson laughed right loud and heartily. Never was more anxiety compressed in such a space."

Charles Tilston Bright, who was Engineer-in-Chief, and was only twenty-six years of age at that time, has said of Professor Thomson: "He was a thorough good comrade, good all round, and would have taken his turn at the wheel of the paying-out brake if others had broken down. He was also a good partner at whist when work was not on; though sometimes, when momentarily immersed in cogibundity of cogitation, by scientific abstraction, he would look up from his cards and ask, 'Who played what?'"

Thomson has said of Bright: "The first Atlantic cable has given me the happiness and privilege of working with the late Sir Charles Tilston Bright. . . . To his vigour, earnestness, and enthusiasm was due the successful laying of the cable. We must always feel deeply indebted to our late colleague as the pioneer in that great work, when other engineers would not look at it, and thought it absolutely impracticable."

The official Electrician, who did not accompany the expedition, proved a poor servant to the Company. Thomson's treatment of him was almost more than human. Some of the friends of this official even tried to depreciate Thomson's work by writing to the Press  that his inventions were "regarded by all practical telegraphers as perfectly childish."

The ultimate grand success of ocean telegraphy is apparent in our everyday life, and no one who reads the complete story of the various pioneer enterprises can fail to be impressed with the fact that success was due to the ingenuity of Lord Kelvin, who made it possible to see and to record the delicate signals transmitted two thousand miles beneath the ocean.

Referring to the illustration at page 282, Miss Mary Hancock Thomson informs me that the two brothers are discussing a paper which her father was writing for the British Association. They used to walk up and down that long walk in front of the house (Netherhall, Largs) discussing scientific problems. Miss Thomson says: "The garden scene is the most characteristic one of the kind I ever managed to take, though I made many attempts. Always if they knew I was photographing them they stood straight up like two soldiers, and looked quite uninteresting and not the least bit characteristic This was a snapshot when they thought I was only arranging my camera."