Saturday, November 3, 2007

Engineering the Industrial Revolution

The current issue of American Scientist features an article on the 100th anniversary of the death of William Thomson, Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), one of the founders of the science of thermodynamics and inventor of the Kelvin scale of absolute temperature measurement.

"One afternoon in 1842, in the town of Walsall in the heart of England's industrial midlands, two young men stood by a canal, watching a lock fill with water. The rising water lifted a barge crammed with valuable trade goods, one small step up on its climb to some unknown industrial destination. The two men mused upon this ingenious use of power, this impressive demonstration of the simple technology underpinning Victorian Britain's industrial dominance.

"The two men were brothers. One was James Thomson, a shipbuilder's apprentice later to become Professor of Engineering at Glasgow University. The other was James's brother William, destined for an even grander career. William's sojourn as Professor of Natural Philosophy—also at Glasgow—would span half a century and include fundamental contributions to an astonishing range of sciences and technologies, from the transport of fluids to the design of ultrasensitive telecommunications."

The article provides a straightforward primer on Victorian physics, showing how the work of Kelvin and others made the Industrial Revolution possible.

Shown here: Kelvin in a University of Glasgow classroom.


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