Mark Haw in American Scientist:
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. William Thomson would ultimately be ennobled by Queen Victoria, becoming Lord Kelvin of Largs.
December 2007 sees the centenary of Kelvin’s death. That early curiosity about energy, shared with brother James as they stood by the Walsall canal, was just the beginning of Kelvin’s part in the most significant transformation of physical science since Newton. In tandem with others, such as French engineer Sadi Carnot, German physicist Rudolf Clausius, and English experimenter James Joule, Kelvin developed the science of thermodynamics: the fundamental understanding of the nature of heat, energy and temperature.