William Thomson: Biography & Atomic Theory

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

William Thomson was a British scientist who, among many other contributions to science, proposed one of the first models of the internal structure of the atom. In this lesson, learn more about him and his contributions to atomic theory.

Who was William Thompson?

In Glasgow, Scotland, in the middle of the 19th century, a pioneering scientist was hard at work doing something that had never been done in Britain before. His name was William Thomson, and he was creating the very first physics research laboratory in the country. Over the next fifty years, the work he did in this laboratory would have a tremendous effect on the world.

William Thompson, also known as Lord Kelvin, was a British mathematician, scientist, and engineer
William Thompson (Lord Kelvin)

William Thomson was born on June 26, 1824 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. When he was a child, he moved to Glasgow, Scotland, and it was in Glasgow that he would spend most of his life. His father taught mathematics at the University of Glasgow and taught William and his other children the latest ideas in mathematics when they were very young. His education was so advanced that he was able to enroll as a student at the University of Glasgow when he was only ten years old! While there, he excelled and won many awards. He even published his first scientific paper when he was 16. In 1841, he was accepted to Cambridge University and continued his education there, earning a B.A. degree in 1845. After that, he moved to Paris where he worked in the laboratory of Henri-Victor Regnault for a short time.

Work at University of Glasgow

In 1846, a position became available as the Chair of Natural Science at the University of Glasgow. Thomson's father lobbied for his son to be given the position, and it worked! At the young age of 22, William Thomson was unanimously elected Chair of Natural Science and moved back to Glasgow, where he would spend the rest of his career. In 1892, Thompson was raised to the nobility and given the title of Lord Kelvin. Even though this title was only bestowed toward the end of his life, he is often known as Lord Kelvin today.

Soon after returning to Glasgow, he started the first true physics laboratory in Great Britain. Over the next fifty years, he would make important contributions to many fields of physics and engineering. Among other important work, he was one of the first scientists to introduce the concept of the electromagnetic field and made huge strides in understanding and applying thermodynamics. He suggested the idea of a universal temperature scale that began at absolute zero, and today, the Kelvin scale, named in honor of him, is the standard temperature scale used throughout the physical sciences worldwide.

Atomic Theory

In addition to all his other important work, William Thomson also played a critical role in the development of one of the earliest models of the internal structure of the atom. In 1897, the electron was discovered by JJ Thomson. Electrons were negatively charged and scientists had already shown that atoms were neutral. Both JJ Thomson and William Thomson realized that there must be some positive charge somewhere!

William Thomson proposed an atomic model in which the interior of the atom was uniformly positively charged with negatively charged electrons spread throughout it. This came to be called the plum pudding model and it was also supported by JJ Thompson. The plum pudding model became the standard model of the atom used by physicists for many years.

The plum pudding model of the atom, first proposed by William Thomson about 1900
Plum pudding model of the atom

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