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James Thomson (1822-1892)

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James Thomson (1822-1892) Professor of Civil Engineering in Queen's College, Belfast, Emeritus Professor of Civil engineering and Mechanics in the University of Glasgow.

1822 Born in Belfast, son of James Thomson

After completing an MS, he took apprenticeship with Sir William Fairbairn.

He worked in Belfast and invented the vortex water wheel and a centrifugal pump.

In particular, he designed and constructed great pumps for the drainage of sugar plantations in Demerara.

1877 Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

1892. Died on 8th May.


1892 Obituary [1]

WE regret to have to record the death on the 8th inst. of Dr. James Thomson, Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics in the University of Glasgow. His death, after an illness of three or four days, was the result of a chill, but he had not been in good health for some time.

Professor Thomson was born in Belfast in 1822. His father, also James Thomson, was for many years lecturer on, and afterwards professor of, mathematics in the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, but subsequently became professor of mathematics in Glasgow University. He was a highly successful teacher and original investigator in mathematics, and was the author of many important school books. There are not a few persons living who remember well the spirited mathematical classes of those days, and also in particular the brilliant progress of the professor's two sons, James Thomson and William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who passed through every class with credit and through many with unrivalled distinction. The two young men early showed that high inventive genius which has distinguished them through life, and James Thomson chose for his career that of a civil engineer, serving his apprenticeship - after he had taken the degree of M.A. - in the works of the late Sir William Fairbairn.

Thomson, after the term of his apprenticeship was concluded, commenced business in Belfast as a civil and mechanical and hydraulic engineer. His inventions of a vortex water wheel and a centrifugal pump became widely known, and he was entrusted with work of much importance both at home and abroad; and, in particular, designed and constructed great pumps for the drainage of sugar plantations in Demerara. He was also engineer - Professor Bottomley writing in the Glasgow Herald says - to the Belfast Water Commissioners, and to the Lagan Navigation Works.

In 1857 be became Professor of Civil Engineering in Queen's College, Belfast, an office which he held till the death of the late Professor Macquorne Rankine in 1872. He was then elected to fill the Glasgow chair, and he continued to fulfil the duties of that office till 1889, when he was obliged, owing to failure of his eyesight, to seek retirement. In spite of the sad blow which had thus fallen upon him, Professor Thomson maintained undiminished all his zeal for scientific pursuits and investigations; and in March of this year be completed a substantial paper on "The Grand Currents of Atmospheric Circulation," which was crowned by the Royal Society as the Bakerian Lecture for the year.

Professor Thomson was the author of original papers on various subjects connected with physics. In 1847 he communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh a most important paper on the "Lowering by Pressure of the Freezing Point of Water." He led the way to a development of thermo-dynamics, afterwards taken up by Clausius, Rankine, and others.

A man of singular purity of mind and simplicity of character, Professor Thomson was greatly beloved by all with whom he came in contact. He was conscientious to a degree, and clear-sighted in all that pertained to moral right and wrong. Professor Thomson was elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1877 ; he received the honorary degrees of D.Sc. from the Queen's University in Ireland, and of LL.D. from his own University of Glasgow and from the University of Dublin.

In 1853 he married the only daughter of the late Mr. William John Hancock, J.P., of Lurgan, Co. Armagh, who survives him. He leaves also one son, Mr. James Thomson, civil engineer, and two daughters.

Professor John Perry, F.R.S., was one of James Thomson's pupils, and he says of him that be was one of the kindest of men, with a sense of duty stronger than men generally have; nervously anxious that his pupils should have correct notions of the scientific principles of all engineering methods - a pure-minded man, whose good influence is now felt in all parts of the world. "I have met," he says, "his pupils in all parts of the world. Every one of us could laugh at his well-known foibles; but however great or small we might be, there was not one of us-I have never met one of Thomson's pupils who had not a loving memory of him, as distinguished from a mere liking and from mere respect. We all respected him. What is especially interesting is this-he did not publish much; but everything he published was of sterling importance to the physicist and engineer, and nobody has ever had to correct his results. Taking one branch of engineering, for example, hydraulics. In any treatise on practical hydrodynamics there is a great parade of mathematical calculation; but beyond the simple equations relating to pure fluids, what is there that can really be relied upon by the engineer except the few propositions proved so thoroughly by Professor James Thomson?"

"What a mass of mathematics there is to found upon the gauging of water-but is there anything demonstrative--anything that the engineer can rest upon as a principle in this subject, except James Thomson's proposition concerning the flow from similar and similarly placed orifices, two deductions from which are the rational formulae concerning triangular and rectangular gauge notches. Again, it was actually as early as 1847 that he applied Carnot's cycle and first principles to the study of the pressure and temperature of melting ice, and may be said to have really shown to Clausius, Rankine, and his brother, Lord Kelvin, the method of attack which has led to the development of thermo-dynamics."

Professor Perry relates one incident to illustrate Thomson's sense of duty. He says:-

"In 1870 I was a student at Queen's College, Belfast, about to go up to my engineering degree examination in Dublin. Now I had not particularly cared to obtain a degree, and I had neglected to prepare at the college the requisite show of drawings. But at a time when he much needed a holiday, and I myself was taking a holiday, he took all the trouble of going to my house, and then going to the Lagan Foundry, having heard that during my apprenticeship there I had made many drawings. He spent a long time in examining them, and made such a report to the University authorities as caused them to put aside their rule in my particular case. Now, this is not all. It was found subsequently that my attendances at his classes were not up to the standard, and he utterly refused to give me the certificate which would enable me to go in to the examination. It was in his opinion wrong to do so, and in spite of a battery of persuasive argument brought to bear upon him by Dr. Andrews and others of his colleagues, his refusal was absolute. The difficulty was got over through some newly-discovered technical right of the president of the college to exercise grace. Taking the two incidents together they may be regarded as unprecedented in the history of the sense of duty."

"I have heard an old man relate the history of the introduction of the first tiny Thomson turbine in a country district - the first turbine, probably, erected in the British Islands - a wheel measuring 6in. in diameter taking the place of an 80ft. wheel. How thousands gathered at the opening day to deride and joke; how they went away astonished, as not even the first electric light or telephone could astonish people. But Thomson's own delight and astonishment were subjects of unfailing interest to my informant. I venture to think that the Bakerian lecture of this year on "The Grand Currents of Atmosphere Circulation" will be found to be that sort of substantial addition to our knowledge which will be referred to one hundred years hence by engineers as an authoritative statement on practical hydro-dynamics."



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