seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Birth of James Thomson, Engineer & Physicist

james-thomsonJames Thomson, engineer and physicist whose reputation is substantial though overshadowed by that of his younger brother William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), is born in Belfast on February 16, 1822.

Thomson spends much of his youth in Glasgow. His father James is professor of mathematics at the University of Glasgow from 1832 onward. He attends Glasgow University from a young age and graduates in 1839 with high honors in his late teens. After graduation, he serves brief apprenticeships with practical engineers in several domains. He then gives a considerable amount of his time to theoretical and mathematical engineering studies, often in collaboration with his brother, during his twenties in Glasgow. In his late twenties he enters into private practice as a professional engineer with special expertise in water transport. In 1855, he is appointed professor of civil engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. He remains there until 1873, when he accepts the Regius professorship of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Glasgow in which he is successor to the influential William Rankine. He serves in this position until he resigns with failing eyesight in 1889.

In 1875 Thomson is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His proposers are his younger brother William, Peter Guthrie Tait, Alexander Crum Brown and John Hutton Balfour. He is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in June 1877. He serves as President of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland from 1884 to 1886.

Thomson dies of cholera in Glasgow on May 8, 1892. He is buried on the northern slopes of the Glasgow Necropolis overlooking Glasgow Cathedral. One obituary describes Thomson as “a man of singular purity of mind and simplicity of character,” whose “gentle kindness and unfailing courtesy will be long remembered.”

Thomson is known for his work on the improvement of water wheels, water pumps and turbines. He is also known for his innovations in the analysis of regelation, i.e., the effect of pressure on the freezing point of water, and his studies in glaciology including glacial motion, where he extends the work of James David Forbes. He studies the experimental work of his colleague Thomas Andrews concerning the continuity of the liquid and gaseous states of matter, and strengthens understanding of it by applying his strong knowledge of thermodynamics. He derives a simplified form of the Clapeyron equation for the solid-liquid phase boundary. He proposes the term triple point to describe the conditions for which solid, liquid and vapour states are all in equilibrium.

Thomson also makes contributions in the realm of fluid dynamics of rivers. It is claimed that the term torque is introduced into English scientific literature by Thomson in 1884.


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Death of Thomas Andrews, Chemist & Physicist

thomas-andrewsThomas Andrews, chemist and physicist who does important work on phase transitions between gases and liquids, dies in Belfast on November 26, 1885. He is a longtime professor of chemistry at Queen’s University Belfast.

Andrews is born in Belfast on December 19, 1813, where his father is a linen merchant. He attends the Belfast Academy and the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where at the latter of which he studies mathematics under James Thomson. In 1828 he goes to the University of Glasgow to study chemistry under Professor Thomas Thomson, then studies at Trinity College, Dublin, where he gains distinction in classics as well as in science. Finally, at the University of Edinburgh in 1835, he is awarded a doctorate in medicine.

Andrews begins a successful medical practice in his native Belfast in 1835, also giving instruction in chemistry at the Royal Belfast Academical Institution. In 1842, he marries Jane Hardie Walker. They have six children, including the geologist Mary Andrews.

Andrews first becomes known as a scientific investigator with his work on the heat developed in chemical actions, for which the Royal Society awards him a Royal Medal in 1844. Another important investigation, undertaken in collaboration with Peter Guthrie Tait, is devoted to ozone. In 1845 he is appointed vice-president and professor of chemistry of the newly established Queen’s University Belfast. He holds these two offices until his retirement in 1879 at the age of 66.

His reputation mainly rests on his work with liquefaction of gases. In the 1860s he carries out a very complete inquiry into the gas laws — expressing the relations of pressure, temperature, and volume in carbon dioxide. In particular, he establishes the concepts of critical temperature and critical pressure, showing that a substance passes from vapor to liquid state without any breach of continuity.

In Andrews’ experiments on phase transitions, he shows that carbon dioxide may be carried from any of the states we usually call liquid to any of those we usually call gas, without losing homogeneity. The mathematical physicist Josiah Willard Gibbs cites these results in support of the Gibbs free energy equation. They also set off a race among researchers to liquify various other gases. In 1877-78 Louis Paul Cailletet is the first to liquefy oxygen and nitrogen.

Thomas Andrews dies in Belfast on November 26, 1885 and is buried in the city’s Borough Cemetery.