Stories of Great Scientists - Charles Gibson

Lord Kelvin and His Brother James Kelvin

When Sir William Thomson was raised to the peerage, it seemed at first a pity that his name, which had become so very well known in connection with his inventions and discoveries, should disappear, but the world adapted itself very quickly to the new title. It is now Lord Kelvin who invented this, or discovered that, although almost all these things were done while he was either plain Mr., Dr., or Sir William Thomson.

The selection of Lord Kelvin's title was a very happy one, for the River Kelvin circles round the base of the hill upon which the University of Glasgow is built, and his whole life is very closely knit with the University. Then again, his mother had lived in Kelvin Grove, which stood on the banks of the Kelvin, long before the University was taken out west to that neighbourhood. The author has very vivid recollections of the old mansion-house, which when he was a boy had been turned into a museum, the estate having become a public park. This Kelvin Grove or West End Park has been the site of Glasgow's great International Exhibitions, and the mansion-house has been taken down in recent years.

Our hero's father was born in Ireland, but his ancestors originally were Scotch; a good many generations of them, however, had been born and bred in the Emerald Isle. Kelvin's great-great-great-grandfather left Scotland for Ireland and settled down as a farmer, the same farm continuing in the family for about two hundred years. Kelvin's father was born on this farm. When the father was at school he made such headway that he very quickly rose to the position of assistant teacher.

Lord Kelvin used to tell how his father came over to study at Glasgow University before the days of steam-boats or railways. He had to take passage by any kind of sailing boat he found available. On one occasion the voyage took four days, the little vessel having been becalmed and carried three times round the small island of Ailsa Craig by flow and ebb of the tide. Our hero used to tell how on one of these trips his father and some fellow-students landed at Greenock and set off to walk the twenty miles to Glasgow. When on their way to Glasgow they saw across the fields a tall black funnel moving steadily along. On making their way towards this curiosity, they found Henry Bell's first steamboat, the Comet, making her way down the River Clyde.

Lord Kelvin's father proved himself such a capable mathematician that, as soon as his University training was over, he was appointed Professor of Mathematics in the Royal Academical Institution in Belfast. It was while James Thomson held this professorship that his sons James and William (Lord Kelvin) were born, James in 1822, and William in 1824.

While the title of this chapter is "Lord Kelvin and his brother James," it is natural that the story should centre round William, who, although two years younger, was first in fame.

Their mother died when William was only six years of age, and two years later the family left Ireland, their father having been appointed Professor of Mathematics in Glasgow University. In these days the College was situated in what is now the centre of the city.

It has been stated that James and William Thomson never attended any school, but received the whole of their education from their father until they entered the University. This statement has been contradicted by some writers, but two members of the family have assured me that Lord Kelvin and his brother (their father) both told them that neither of them ever attended any school, and except for some lessons in writing, neither of them had any teaching but from their father until they entered the University. Like Darwin's father, the Thomsons' father made companions of his family. He was an exceptionally busy man. He would rise at four o'clock in the morning to work at his books, for he wrote many books on mathematics, but he always had time to give to his children. They eagerly watched for his return home, and what a warm welcome he always got! He would tell them stories till dinner-time, and after dinner the globes were placed on the table and the children all gathered round to hear something about this great round ball on which we live. Little Willie was perched up on the table beside the globes, and sometimes his brother James would get up beside him. Before William was four years of age he was taking an intelligent part in each day's lesson.

A few years later, when they had become motherless, their father was both father and mother to them. He would read to them before they went off to bed; sometimes it would be stories from The Arabian Nights. He would lie on the sofa as he read, with his little ones clustered around him, little Willie usually in his arms. Our hero was a great pet with his father, but his sister, the late Mrs. King, says, "I do not remember that any of us were ever in the slightest degree jealous of William on account of our father's making him a little more a pet than the rest of us. We were proud of him, and indeed we thought the child petted the father even more than the father petted the child, but we saw plainly that the fondling of the little son pleased him. Willie always slept in a small bed in our father's room—that is, after his nursery days—because he had for some years a tendency to sleep-walking, which for a time caused some anxiety."

His sister tells us that one of her earliest recollections was of an artist coming to ask permission to paint a picture of William—"the most beautiful baby"—as an angel. On the way to the studio old Nurse Sally proudly bought little blue shoes and white silk socks to set off her little one, and she was sorely disappointed when she found that the artist did not consider these necessary embellishments to an angel. People must have remarked upon the beautiful baby, for the first recorded speech of our hero is when, at the age of two years, he was found sitting before a looking-glass, "Pitty b'ue eyes Willie Thomson got!" Fortunately, William Thomson did not grow up filled with conceit, as so many people prophesy of children if any complimentary remark is made in their hearing.

When Lord Kelvin's father came to Glasgow, his emoluments from the University were really "less than nothing," for by an agreement the Professor, who had retired, received a certain sum which turned out to be greater than the whole income derived from the Chair. Professor Thomson, however, gave afternoon lectures for ladies, the subjects being Geography and Astronomy, an entirely new departure, but one which turned out very popular. Fashionable ladies crowded to these lectures, which were continued for several years, till the pressure of other engagements compelled him to give them up.

Kelvin and brother


When William was eight years of age, his father allowed him and his brother James to attend his mathematical class as listeners. On one occasion a question was asked to which no student in the large class could give an answer, whereupon William, eight years of age, called out, "Do, papa, let me answer it." On another occasion a difficult problem had been given out to the students, and William, though not yet a student, tried to work it out at home. He had not succeeded before going to bed. Later in the evening, when he was supposed to be sound asleep, his voice was heard through the house shouting "Eureka! Eureka!" His father, going up to see what it was about, found the little barefooted figure standing in his nightgown on the landing, excited and triumphant. The solution had flashed on the child's mind in bed, and was already, by the help of the stair gas, scribbled on a slate he had placed at his bedside.

The old treat of being read to was kept up by the father. Mrs. King writes: "Whilst our father read, Anna and 1 sewed—not fancy work, but flannel petticoats and the like; and our brothers lay on their backs on the floor with their arms extended, to give them a rest and help them to grow up straight."

The two brothers matriculated as students of the University at the same time, William being only ten years of age and his brother James twelve. The two brothers were greatly attached to each other all through life. Many of us have recollections of seeing them together, just as they are seen in the accompanying photographs (pages 282 and 300). For these photographs the author is indebted to his friend Miss Mary Hancock Thomson, daughter of Professor James, Lord Kelvin's brother.

When William habitually took the first place and James the second, although he was older, there never was the faintest taint of boasting on the one side, or jealousy on the other.

When James was only fourteen years of age, and travelling down the Clyde by steamer to their summer quarters, he observed the great loss of force caused by the manner in which the steamer's paddles struck the water and rose, carrying an immense weight of water with them. The ingenious boy set about making a model of a wheel, with paddles so adjusted to dip perpendicularly into the water, strike directly backwards, and rise with out encumbrance. His father took the model to Glasgow and consulted some practical men, when he found that something to serve the same purpose had been invented and patented only a few weeks previously.

When boys, William and James made a hobby of Electricity. They made electrical machines without any assistance, and they worked very happily together, both keen upon their hobby.

Mrs. King gives us an interesting picture of home life, when she and her sister taught the boys to dance quadrilles and lanoers, "a branch of education in which they were very deficient." William professed utter scorn for dancing and had indignantly refused lessons from a master; James had refused them too, though with less show of indignation; but neither of them objected to learn from their sisters, and the lessons ended with merry gallops up and down the long drawing-room. In spite of all his scorn, William enjoyed dancing parties very much; James, who was never so physically strong, did not bother about these parties.

When their father found it necessary to take a younger brother, Robert, to London to have a surgical operation performed, he took the whole family with him. Mrs. King, who was then about twenty-one years of age, writes: "I saw the poor little boy stretched, all bound, on the table before the operation began, and stood or the mat outside the door while it was going on, listening to his moans—it seemed a long time—and I was the first admitted when it was over. There was no chloroform in those days to drown pain. But he was very brave and patient." The little fellow recovered well, and his father took the others to see the sights of London.

When in London William and his sister used to rise very early and take a walk while the others were still in bed. They generally went to St. James's Park, carrying some bread with them to feed the water-fowl, and a few apples with which to refresh themselves while they sat on one of the seats chatting. Then, when the little brother had quite recovered, they set off for a trip on the Continent.

After spending a fortnight in Paris the father took the two girls a trip through Switzerland, leaving the boys in Paris to learn the language. A journey through Switzerland was very different then from now; they had to hire a travelling carriage by the month. Mrs. King's description of their journey is graphic: "Early on a magnificent July morning we rattled out of Paris, with two postilions cracking their whips madly, and urging the four horses to dash along at top of their speed. This was to make a sensation in the street; for when we got fairly beyond the city our pace was regulated with more moderation. But all through our travels, when approaching or leaving a town or post-house, the same lively demonstration was repeated. Even when simply passing through a little village we drove furiously, at the risk of running over the poor little children who rushed out to see the sport."

During the next two winters James took the degrees of B.A. and M.A., but William took no degrees, although he passed the necessary examinations. The reason was that it was thought better he should go to Cambridge without having graduated in another University. In writing to his brother at this time he styled himself "B.A.T.A.I.A.P.," signifying "B.A. to all intents and purposes."

It is of interest to note that the great African explorer and missionary Dr. Livingstone was one of the Thomsons' fellow-students.

The father took them all to Germany the following summer. He intended the boys to make a thorough holiday of the tour, so he insisted that all work should be left behind. But just two days before leaving home William had got Kelland's book on The Theory of Heat, and was shocked to be told in it that the great French mathematician Fourier was mostly wrong. William put Fourier's book into his box, so that he might look into the matter under dispute. When the family were settled down in Frankfort for two months' holiday, William used to slip quietly down to the cellar every day to read a bit of Fourier, but when his father discovered what he was doing, he was not very hard on the boy. One day, when William was sitting studying the book, he suddenly sprang up and excitedly exclaimed, "Papa! Fourier is right, and Kelland is wrong!" His father was very doubtful, but he found that the boy was quite right. William, then sixteen years of age, wrote a paper on the subject to the Cambridge Mathematical Journal. The great English mathematician Professor Kelland, who was thus taken to task by the young student, felt a little hurt at first, but ultimately he became very friendly with young Thomson, and so long as he lived the friendship continued.

While in Germany Professor Thomson allowed William and James to go off on a walking tour through the Black Forest. James had reason to regret this expedition, for something in his shoe hurt one of his feet and caused him to put undue stress on the other leg, but he trudged on, not wishing to give in. Some weeks later it was found that the joint of his knee had been seriously injured. This undermined his strength and left him even less robust than he had been. This was very unfortunate, as arrangements had been made for him to serve an apprenticeship to engineering in Dublin. He essayed to do so but had to return home in a short time.

In the following autumn William entered Cambridge. He was just seventeen years of age, but was well prepared to enter the great University. It is amusing to read some of the inquiries of the great philosopher in his first letter to his sister after settling down in his rooms at Cambridge. He asks if, when making coffee, he should put the coffee in before or after the water is boiling, and also whether he should keep it boiling after the water is put in. "In your first letter inform me of the necessary particulars." He happened to use the word "gyp" in this letter, and in reply to his sister's inquiry as to the meaning of the word he writes that it is a noun substantive and is the name given to a college servant, the word being derived from a Greek word meaning a vulture, from their ravenous disposition.

Thomson did not cut himself off from the world in order to become a student. He very wisely took a real interest in outdoor sports. He became an expert oars man, and when he won the silver sculls he said it was better than winning an examination. He was keen in everything he took up. Sometimes when rowing in a race he would so exert himself that, when he passed the winning post in front of every one, he was in an almost fainting condition. He dieted himself for racing, and he was so enthusiastic that it was said he would have run to the top of a steeple and called "Bo!" if he could have been assured that such a proceeding would be of use. His life formed a great contrast to that of his brother James, who was an invalid at home. It is evident that William's health was robust, for he continued bathing in the river before breakfast, right on to the frosty weather of November. In addition to his outdoor recreations he became a musician, and was the means of forming a musical society among the students, choosing the French horn as his own instrument in the orchestra.

Young Thomson proved himself a remarkably good mathematician. His friends felt sure that he would be Senior Wrangler, but he came out second in this examination. He was in reality second to none. The first man had practised for six months the art of writing out textbook work at a prodigious speed, and quantity counted for much. Doubtless the first man was a very excellent mathematician, but not equal to Thomson. This was soon evident, for in the examination for the Smith Prize Thomson had an easy win, and in this examination there is room for some originality and not merely textbook work. The Senior Wranglership has been abolished in recent years.

Young Thomson's place as a mathematician at this early age is well illustrated by the following remark made by one of the Cambridge Examiners to another: "You and I are just about fit to mend Thomson's pens." Before he left Cambridge he had won a Fellowship of St. Peter's College, which brought in an income of two hundred pounds per annum.

For some years the aged Professor of Natural Philosophy in Glasgow University had become so infirm that he could not continue his classes. Temporary assistance had been obtained so that the old gentleman could still retain his professorship. Young Thomson's father, Professor James Thomson, was very anxious that, when the Chair should become vacant, his son should be able to fill it. His correspondence shows how he had fixed his heart upon this object, and William, too, was anxious to do all in his power to equip himself for such an honour.

When the time did arrive, and young Thomson was duly elected to the Chair of Natural Philosophy, it was a very great pleasure to his father. There was an entire absence of conceit in the young Professor's character, and this was an additional charm. He was only twenty-two years of age. He was very disappointed with his introductory lecture, but the only real fault was that he read it far too fast, and finished long before the appointed hour. By the end of the first session he could not feel disheartened. A letter from his sister to her husband describes his first prize-giving: "The prizes were distributed to-day, and William showed to great advantage. He was received with deafening cheers, beyond anything I ever witnessed on the noisy first of May. The young Professor was cheered and cheered again, and the students seemed never to tire of shouting 'Three cheers more for the young Professor!' And, best of all, the grave old professors on the bench forgot their dignity, and joined in the applause with hands and feet.

"William himself looked so young and so modest that it was really quite touching to see him. He spoke with great self-possession and distinctness . . . when he sat down the applause was renewed till one might have feared that the hall would have been endangered."

In later life it was very pleasant to hear Lord Kelvin refer to "my brother James"; sometimes "my brother James, who invented the word poundal." (This is one of the units of force.) His lordship often acknowledged having learnt from James, while James had unbounded pride in William. A stranger seeing the two old gentlemen talking eagerly together might have thought that they were quarrelling. There is a sentence in a letter from the great German physicist Helmholtz, written from Glasgow to his wife, which describes the point very well: "It is really comic to see how the two brothers talk at each other, and neither listens, and each holds forth about quite different matters."

James was first appointed Professor of Engineering in Belfast, and later at Glasgow University, where he occupied the Chair for sixteen years, when he retired owing to failing eyesight.

When the author was a boy, Professor James Thomson showed him how to make an electric battery. First there was the purchase of eight cheap glass tumblers, then some odd pieces of zinc and copper sheet from the plumber, and these, with some bits of wire, a little saw-dust, and some bluestone, made two excellent batteries of four cells each, sufficient to work two telegraph models. The idea of the learned Professor was excellent, for the method of producing an electric current from materials in everyday use prevented any feeling of mystery so far as the apparatus was concerned; all electric apparatus, no matter how intricate, appeared henceforth in its true light, composed of pieces of ordinary glass, wood, and metal, arranged to produce certain results.

Dr. James Thomson could enter into a boy's fun. On one occasion, when a young friend was collecting beetles, he was asked by Dr. Thomson to go to his house and see a large specimen which he had secured for him. There, under an upturned glass and partly hidden in green leaves, was an immense beetle, whose family was to be determined; but alas! the Professor was playing a trick on his young friend—the wonderful insect so cleverly disguised was made of chocolate.

Professor James Thomson made some valuable discoveries, but we are not concerned with his work; a collection of his scientific papers is at present in the press.

There was one very dark week for the Thomsons in 1892. During an epidemic of influenza Professor James, Mrs. Thomson, and their younger daughter all died within a few days of each other.

It has been quaintly said that William would not have been William without James, and that James would not have been James without William.