Sir William Thomson: Explaining a Scientific and Innovative Character at Glasgow University
Graaf, W.G. van der
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Sir William Thomson (1824-1907) was a successful scientist and innovator of industry. He wrote over 650 scientific papers and registered over 70 patents. This paper will investigate in what way his two-sided professional character was representative of his academic environment, specifically Glasgow University. His election as the new professor of Natural Philosophy, his establishment of the first physical laboratory and his work on the trans-Atlantic Telegraph will be closely examined. They will offer insight into Thomson’s capability to move between science and industry, and the supporting role of Glasgow University. It will become clear that Glasgow University had aligned itself with the industrial city through reforms in the early nineteenth century. Its aim, though, was to serve the industrial class by teaching them useful knowledge, not by explicitly offering innovation. It will become clear that Thomson pioneered a new experimental methodology at his laboratory that was based on precision measurement and mathematical theory. Thomson understood early on that the physical laboratory was the prime vehicle for scientific and industrial progress; his successful innovations will essentially turn out to be extensions of his laboratory methods. Thomson was, thus, ahead of his academic environment, though the University’s alignment with industry is what truly allowed him to flourish.