A School Prize Binding Inscribed by William Thomson, Baron Kelvin

August 10, 2015

A School Prize Binding Inscribed by William Thomson, Baron Kelvin

Today's featured book is a wonderful find - a volume given to a student by the famous physicist William Thomson, Baron Kelvin. Though Thomson is best known today for his groundbreaking work on energy and heat, including the development of the temperature scale that bears his name, he also had an important career as a teacher, and this book is inscribed to one of his physics students at the University of Glasgow.

Thomson had a long and significant association with the University of Glasgow. His father, James Thomson, was appointed the University’s chair of mathematics in 1832. Having been taught largely at home by their father, William and his brother James “had almost no formal schooling”, but sat in their father’s junior classes as listeners and matriculated in 1834 “when William was just ten” (ODNB).

After finishing his education at Cambridge, Thomson was appointed chair of natural philosophy at Glasgow in 1846, aged only twenty-two. The position had been neglected for years, but the young professor began an investment programme that saw his laboratory equipped with the newest and best instruments. Thomson became known as an energetic and inspiring teacher who introduced his students to the latest scientific theories. He “established an advanced class in mathematical physics and a laboratory in which they could undertake experimental work. The laboratory students worked mainly on problems derived from Kelvin's own scientific and engineering research in electricity, establishing a ‘school of electrical engineering’” (University of Glasgow biography). Despite his success as a scientist, numerous awards, and offers to teach elsewhere, Thomson remained at the school as a professor and administrator for the rest of his life.

This volume was presented by Thomson to his student John Macleod in 1865 for “ingenio ac labore” (talent and effort) in physics. Thomson has personally inscribed the prize bookplate with the student’s Latinised name, the title of the course, and the final year in the date, and has signed using the abbreviated, Latinised form of his first name, Guglielmo. The custom calf binding is what's known as a "prize binding", a fine binding commissioned by a school or university for books given out as awards to students, either for winning a specific academic competition or for exceptional achievement in a particular subject. They usually include the school's crest in gold on the covers and a bookplate explaining what the award was for. Prize bindings were common during the middle and late nineteenth century, but it's unusual to find one inscribed by such a famous individual.

The text itself is the first edition of Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen, one of the most significant books by the German physicist and doctor Hermann von Helmholtz. Among the first scientific studies of human hearing, it “laid the groundwork for all subsequent research in the field of audition” and “contains Helmholtz’s resonance theory of hearing, the first elaborate theory of the mechanism of the ear” (Norman 1044). The choice of text is a strong reflection of Thomson’s scientific interests - during the 1860s he drew heavily on Helmholtz in many subjects, including adopting his explanation for the sun’s heat and building on his mathematical work on vortex motion.

This attractive volume represents a rich web of associations, linking the scientific and educational careers of one of the giants of 19th-century British science.