Character Sketch: August. Lord Kelvin, P.R.S.
Regular Feature, Biography
Scientific Practitioners, Popularization, Photography, Race, Genius, Heroism, Mathematics, Heat, Electricity, Engineering, Patents, Telegraphy, Invention, Instruments, Electromagnetism, Oceanography, Instrument-makers, Navigation, Magnetism, Providence, Expertise, Error, Measurement, Natural Philosophy, Discovery, Physics, Dynamics, Statics, Language, Reading, Nomenclature, Textbooks, Authorship, Matter Theory, Geology, Darwinism, Astronomy, Entropy, Politics, Conservatism, Patronage, Status, Universities, Lecturing, Metaphysics
Cyrus W Field , Michael Faraday , Cromwell F Varley , H C Fleeming Jenkin , James P Joule , Philipp Reis , George B Airy , Peter G Tait , Hermann von Helmholtz
Munro 1891 , Galton 1874
Celebrates the 'multifarious and diversified career' of William Thomson (1st Baron Kelvin), detailing his contributions to many fields of science, engineering, and education, and proclaims him 'the Napoleon of Science—or if the older fashion be more to his taste—the Napoleon of natural philosophy' (144). Notes, however, that he is 'something of a "dark horse" to the English public', and remains largely 'unknown to the masses'. In fact, if we look in 'the windows of London photographers' we 'may hope to see a muscular athlete like Sandow, but we shall look in vain for an intellectual giant such as Lord Kelvin'. Part of the reason for this is that 'his residence in Glasgow has withdrawn him from the vortex of metropolitan publicity'. (135) In discussing the 'pretty stiff reading' which students encounter in books like Elements of Natural Philosophy, observes that 'Lord Kelvin, like Thomas Carlyle and some other great writers, seems to have devised a peculiar style of his own to express the workings of his own mind', and, after giving some examples of 'elaborate [...] Kelvinese', points out that he also has 'a propensity—I had almost said a "craze"—for coining' the new words which 'become necessary in the progress of a science', although many of these neologisms fail to be 'apt, brief and euphonious without ambiguity of meaning' (139). Upon his elevation to the peerage in 1892 'electricians were at first inclined to regret the loss of the familiar "Thomson"' in favour of the Kelvin which he took from the name of 'a beautiful and romantic stream' which passes alongside the University of Glasgow. However, as a member of the House of Lords, Kelvin can now indulge his political concerns, suggesting, for instance, that the swift communication of political messages by telegraph has made the notion of having a separate parliament in Ireland an 'utter scientific absurdity' (140). Indeed, Thomson is 'a scion of the Scoto-Irish race of Ulster which has been so prolific in genius' (136), and will 'doubtless vote against Mr. Gladstone's Home Rule Bill on some principle of Conservative dynamics or rather statics' (140). Suggests that a 'wise Providence has imbued the soul' of Thomson with many attributes (138), and concludes that 'this man was created for science ...he is a prophet or a seer with a divine mission to reveal the physical laws' (142).
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