Happy Birthday, William Thompson, Lord Kelvin! Born at a time of great scientific discovery, Lord Kelvin was born right when science sought to quantify temperature with the establishment of the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales. Almost immediately after the establishment of both scales, science outgrew the two scales. Application of Robert Boyle’s Gas Laws (published 1662) led to the studies of Guillaume Amontons who predicted the existence of an ‘absolute’ temperature in 1702. It wasn’t until 1848 that William Thompson, the 1st Baron Kelvin put forth a scale to denote it. Kelvin is interesting as a scientific designation because as an eponym it refers not to William Thompson by name but rather to his Barony. Lord Kelvin was a scientist, engineer, politician and in general a distinguished polymath awarded a knightship and elevated to the House of Lords for his contributions to science and engineering.
The Kelvin thermodynamic temperature scale is based on the temperature at which all movement and activity cease-the lowest possible thermal energy state of matter, currently defined as 1/273.16 of the thermodynamic temperature of the triple point of water, which is 0.01 degrees Celsius or 32.02 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition to his work with thermodynamics and the absolute zero temperature scale, Lord Kelvin was a busy and dedicated professor, scientist and engineer. He took part in the expedition to lay the Trans-Atlantic cable and when the cable snapped he wrote a paper on the stresses on the cable with suggestions for the next attempt. He then accompanied several additional cable laying expeditions and assisted in the engineering challenges as well as calculations on data rate and the cable’s technical capabilities. He contributed greatly to the refinement of the marine compass.
Photo of William Thompson, 1st Baron Kelvin from the Smithsonian Collection, image in the public domain.