Historical figures

Stories on some of the key people in the IEC's history.


Lord Kelvin



Colonel Crompton

"The king of electricity"


Giovanni Giorgi

Contribution to the SI


Charles Le Maistre


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Lord Kelvin

by Silvanus P. Thompson

1824 - 1845

On the 17th of December 1907, aged 83 years, died the Right Honourable Sir William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs.

Adequately to set forth the life and work of a man who so early won and who for so long maintained a foremost place in the ranks of science were a task that is frankly impossible. The greatness of a man of such commanding abilities and such profound influence cannot rightly be gauged by his contemporaries, however intimately they may have known him.

But if we may not attempt the impossible, we may at least essay the task of setting down in simple fashion some account of his life and achievements.

William Thomson, born on 26 June 1824 in Belfast, is the second son and fourth child of James and Margaret Thomson. James Thomson (or Thompson, as he spelt his name up to the age of 24), who was at that time Professor of Mathematics in the Royal Academical Institution of Belfast, was the son of a small farmer at Ballynahinch, in County Down, Ireland, where his ancestors had settled about the year 1641 when they migrated from the lowlands of Scotland.

In 1830, when William was six years old, his mother died. His father would never send his boys to school but taught them himself. In 1832, when William was eight years old, Professor Thomson was offered the Chair of Mathematics at Glasgow, and he with his family of six children accordingly removed from Belfast. After his removal to Glasgow, he still kept the education of his sons in his own hands, and so it happened that in 1834 William Thomson, when in his eleventh year, matriculated as a student in the University without ever having been at school. He early made his mark by his progress in Mathematics and Physical Science, and in 1840 produced an essay "On the Figure of the Earth," which won him the University Medal. He also read Greek plays with Lushington, Latin with William Ramsay, Logic and Moral Philosophy. To the end of his life, he was in the habit of bringing out quotations from the classic authors.

His fifth year as a student at Glasgow, 1839 40, was notable for the impulse toward Physics which he received from the lectures of Professor J. P. Nichol and from those of David Thomson (a relation of Faraday), who temporarily took the classes in Natural Philosophy during the illness of Professor Meikleham. In this year William Thomson had systematically studied the "Mécanique Analytique" of Lagrange and the "Mécanique Celeste" of Laplace, both mathematical works of a high order, and had made the acquaintance – a notable event in his career – of that remarkable book, Fourier's "Théorie analytique de la Chaleur."

On May 1st he borrowed it from the College Library. In a fortnight he had read it completely through. The effect of reading Fourier dominated his whole career thenceforward. He took the book with him for further study during a three months' visit to Germany. During his last year (1840 41) at Glasgow, he communicated to the Cambridge Mathematical Journal, under the signature "P. Q. R." an original paper, "On Fourier's Expansions of Functions in Trigonometrical Series," which was a defence of Fourier's deductions against some strictures of Professor Kelland.


He left Glasgow University after six years of study, without even taking his degree, and on April 6th, 1841, entered as a student at St. Peter's College, Cambridge, where he speedily made his mark. As an undergraduate of seventeen, he was handling methods of difficult integration readily and with mastery, as his paper, entitled "The Uniform Motion of Heat in Homogeneous Solid Bodies, and its Connection with the Mathematical Theory of Electricity," clearly showed.

Of Thomson's Cambridge career so much has been written that it need only be very briefly touched on here.

He went up for his Tripos in 1845 and came out Second Wrangler. He rowed in the University races of 1844, and won the Colquhoun silver sculls; he helped to found the Cambridge University Musical Society, and himself played the French horn in the orchestra.

On leaving Cambridge Thomson went to Paris and worked in the laboratory of Regnault at the Collège de France. He was here four months, and it was here he made the acquaintance of Biot, Liouville, Pouillet, Sturm and Foucault, of whom he spoke in terms of admiration. Returning to Cambridge he was made College Lecturer in Mathematics and elected to a Fellowship worth about £200 a year. Thomson was now twenty-one years old but had already established for himself a growing reputation for his mastery of mathematical physics. He had published about a dozen original papers and had gained experience in three Universities.


1846 - 1873

In 1846 the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Glasgow became vacant by the death of Professor Meikleham, and Thomson, at the age of twenty-two, was chosen to fill it. His father, Professor James Thomson – he died in 1849 – still held the Chair of Mathematics, Professor Thomas Thomson held that of Chemistry, while Professor Allen Thomson occupied the Chair of Anatomy. William Thomson was the youngest of the five Professor Thomsons then holding office in Glasgow. He chose for the subject of his inaugural dissertation: "De Motu Caloris per Terra Corpus."

This Professorship he continued to hold till he resigned it in 1899, after continuous service of 53 years.

In the lecture theatre, his manifest enthusiasm won for him the love and respect of all students, even those who were hopelessly unable to follow his frequent flights into the more abstruse realms of mathematical physics. Over the earnest students of natural philosophy, he exercised an influence little short of inspiration, an influence which extended gradually far beyond the bounds of his own University.

The next few years were times of strenuous work, fruitful in results. By the end of 1850, when he was 26 years of age, he had published no fewer than 50 original papers, mostly highly mathematical in character, and several of them in French. Amongst these researches, there is a remarkable group which originated from his attendance in 1847 at the meeting of the British Association.

But a more important event of that meeting was the commencement of his friendship with Joule, a Manchester brewer, and Honorary Secretary of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society, who had for several years been pursuing his researches on the relations between heat, electricity, and mechanical work. Joule's paper, which he presented on this occasion. On the mechanical equivalent of Heat, would not have been discussed at all but for the intelligent remarks and observations of a certain young man, William Thomson, who had two years previously passed the University of Cambridge with the highest honour.

Thomson, though, at first scarcely grasping the significance of the subject, threw himself heart and soul into the new and strange doctrines that heat and work were mutually convertible, and for the next six or eight years, partly in co-operation with Joule, partly independently, he set his unique powers of mind to unravel those mutual relations.

Thomson's mind was essentially metrical. He must measure, he must weigh, in order that he might go on to calculate.

"I often say," he once remarked, "that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in four thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be ..."


Even before his first meeting with Joule, in June 1847, he communicated to the Cambridge Philosophical Society a paper "On an Absolute Thermometric Scale founded on Carnot's Theory of the Motive Power of Heat, and Calculated from Regnault's Observations." In this paper, he set himself to answer the question: Is there any principle on which an absolute thermometric scale can be founded? He arrived at the answer that such a scale is obtained in terms of Carnot's theory, each degree is determined by the performance of equal quantities of work in letting one unit of heat be transformed in being let down through that difference of temperature. This indicates as the absolute zero of temperature the point which would be marked as –273° on the air-thermometer scale. In 1849 he elaborated this matter in a further paper on "Carnot's Theory," and tabulated the values of "Carnot's function" from 1°C to 231°C. Joule, writing to Thomson in December 1848, suggested that probably the values of "Carnot's function" would turn out to be the reciprocal of the absolute temperatures as measured on a perfect gas thermometer, a conclusion independently enunciated by Clausius in February 1850. Independently of Joule, Mayer and Helmholtz had been considering the same problems from a more general standpoint. Helmholtz's famous publication of 1847, "Die Erhaltung der Kraft" – " On the Conservation of Force" (meaning what we now term Energy) was chiefly concerned with the proposition, based on the denial of the possibility), of perpetual motion, that in all the transformations of energy the sum total of the energies in the universe remains constant.


In the years 1851 to 1854, Thomson formulated with scientific precision, in a long communication to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the two great laws of thermodynamics – (1) the law of equivalence discovered by Joule, and (2) the law of transformation which he generously attributed to Carnot and Clausius. Thomson never was grudging of the fame of independent discoverers. "Questions of personal priority," he wrote, "however interesting they may be to the persons concerned, sink into insignificance in the prospect of any gain of deeper insight into the secrets of nature."

Thomson never made any use of the conception of entropy introduced by Clausius. In 1855 he introduced the wider conception of "available energy" which is the foundation of the later developments of thermodynamics.

In 1852, at the age of 28, William Thomson married Margaret Crum, and resigned his Cambridge Fellowship. The happiness of his life was, however, shadowed by his wife's precarious health, necessitating residence abroad at various times. In the summer of 1855, they stayed at Kreutznach, from which place Thomson wrote to Helmholtz inviting him to come to England in September to attend the British Association meeting at Glasgow. He assured Helmholtz that his presence would be one of the most interesting events of the gathering, so that he hoped to see him on this ground, but also looked forward with the greatest pleasure to the opportunity of making his acquaintance, as he had desired this ever since the "Conservation of Force" had come into his hands. Accordingly, on 29 July, Helmholtz left Königsberg for Kreutznach to make the acquaintance of Thomson before his journey to England. On 6 August he wrote to Frau Helmholtz that Thomson had made a deep impression on him. "I expected to find the man, who is one of the first mathematical physicists of Europe, somewhat older than myself and was not a little astonished when a very juvenile and exceedingly fair youth, who looked quite girlish, came forward. He had taken a room for me close by and made me fetch my things from the hotel and put up there. He is at Kreutznach for his wife's health. She appeared for a short time in the evening, and is a charming and intellectual lady, but is in very bad health. He far exceeds all the great men of science with whom I have made personal acquaintance, in intelligence, and lucidity, and mobility of thought, so that I felt quite wooden beside him sometimes."

Faraday and Riess had observed that in certain cases the gases produced by the discharge of sparks through water consisted of mixed oxygen and hydrogen, and Helmholtz had conjectured that in such cases the spark was oscillatory. Thomson determined to test mathematically what was the motion of electricity at any instant after making contact in a circuit under given conditions. He founded his solution on the equation of energy, ingeniously building up the differential equation and then finding the integral. The result was very remarkable. He discovered that a critical relation occurred if the capacity in the circuit was equal to four times the coefficient of self-induction divided by the square of the resistance. If the capacity was less than this the discharge was oscillatory, passing through a series of alternate maxima and minima before dying out. If the capacity was greater than this the discharge was non-oscillatory, the charge dying out without reversing.

This beautiful bit of mathematical analysis, which passed almost unnoticed at the time, laid the foundation of the theory of electric oscillations subsequently studied by Oberbeck, Schiller, Hertz, and Lodge, and forms the basis of wireless telegraphy. Fedderssen in 1859 succeeded in photographing these oscillatory sparks and sent photographs to Thomson, who with great delight gave an account of them to the Glasgow Philosophical Society.

At the Edinburgh Meeting of the British Association in 1854 Thomson read a paper "On the Mechanical Antecedents of Motion, Heat, and Light." Starting with some now familiar, but then-novel, generalities about energy, potential and kinetic, and about the idea of stores of energy, the author touched on the source of the sun's heat and the energy of the solar system, and then reverted to his favourite argument from Fourier, according to which, if traced backwards, there must have been a beginning to which there was no antecedent.

The Proceedings of the Royal Society of Great Britain for 1854 contain the investigation of cables under the title, "On the Theory of the Electric Telegraph." Faraday had predicted that there would be retardation of signals in cables owing to the coating of gutta-percha acting like the glass of a Leyden jar. Forming the required differential equation, and applying Fourier's integration of it, Thomson drew the conclusion that the time required for the current, at the distant end, to reach a stated fraction of its steady value would be proportional both to the resistance and to the capacity; and as both of these are proportional to the length of the cable, the retardation would be proportional to the square of the length. This is the famous law of squares about which so much dispute arose. This was followed by further research, "On Peristaltic Induction of Electric Currents," communicated to the British Association in 1855, and afterwards in more complete mathematical form to the Royal Society.


The story of the Atlantic cable, of the failure of 1857, of the brief success of 1858, has so often been told that it need not be emphasised here. Thomson, after the failure of the first attempt, was called upon to assist more actively.

Of the part he played in preparation for the cables of 1865 and 1866, suffice it to say that throughout the preparations, the preliminary trials, the interrupted voyage of 1865, when 1,000 miles were lost, the successful voyage of 1866, when the new cable was laid and the lost one recovered from the ocean and completed, Thomson was the ruling spirit whose advice was eagerly sought and followed.

On his return, he was knighted. He had in the meantime made further improvements in conjunction with Cromwell Varley. In 1867 he patented the siphon recorder, and in conjunction with Fleeming Jenkin, the curb-transmitter. He was consulted on practically every submarine cable project from that time forth. He established a partnership with Varley and Jenkin, as consulting engineers, which proved a highly profitable professional connection.

When, in 1861, Sir Charles Bright and Mr Latimer Clark proposed the names of ohm, volt, and farad for the practical units based on the centimetre-gramme-second absolute system, Sir William Thomson gave a cordial support; and on his initiative was formed the famous Committee of Electrical Standards of the British Association, which year by year has done so much to carry to perfection the standard and the methods of electrical measurement.

He was largely responsible for the international adoption of the system of units by his advocacy of them at the famous Paris congress of 1881, in which Helmholtz, Mascart and Werner von Siemens took such prominent part, and of which Eric Gerard was sectional secretary. He was an uncompromising advocate of the metric system, and lost no opportunity of denouncing the "absurd, ridiculous, time-wasting, brain-destroying British system of weights and measures."

Faraday and Fourier had been the heroes of Thomson's youthful enthusiasm; and, while the older mathematicians shook their heads at Faraday's heretical notion of curved lines of force, Thomson had, in 1849 and 1850, developed a new theory with all the elegance of a mathematical disciple of Poisson and Laplace, discussing solenoidal and lamellar distributions by aid of the hydrodynamic equation of continuity. To Thomson, we owe the terms "permeability" and "susceptibility," so familiar in the consideration of the magnetic properties of iron and steel. He also coined many other terms which have come into use, including " thermo-dynamics" and " kinetic energy."

In the winter of 1860 - 61, Thomson met with a severe accident, which left him with a slight limp for the rest of his life. It was about this period that he engaged with his friend Professor P.G. Tait of Edinburgh in the production of a textbook of Natural Philosophy for the use of their students. Their idea was to cover the whole range of physics, but as the work grew under their hands, it never reached beyond the first of the projected four volumes and covered only Dynamics, including Elasticity and allied topics.

The first part of Thomson and Tait's "Treatise on Natural Philosophy" was published in 1867, the second part only in 1874. But, fragmentary as the treatise was, it set the teaching of dynamics on a new basis and wrought a revolution in the text-books of natural philosophy.

Thomson's contributions to the theory of elasticity are no less important than those he made to other branches of physics. He wrote the articles on Elasticity and Heat for the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1878. In 1867 he communicated to the Royal Society of Edinburgh his famous paper "On Vortex Atoms." Helmholtz had published a mathematical paper on the hydrodynamic equations of vortex motion, proving that closed vortices could not be produced in a liquid perfectly devoid of internal friction. Thomson seized on this idea. If no such vortex could be artificially produced, then if such existed it could not be destroyed. But being in motion and having the inertia of rotation, it would have elastic and other properties. He showed that vortex-rings (like smoke-rings in the air) in a perfect medium are stable and that in many respects they possess the qualities essential to the properties of material atoms – permanence, elasticity, and power to act on one another through the medium at a distance. The different kinds of atoms known to the chemist as elements were to be regarded as vortices of different degrees of complexity. Though he seemed at the end of his life to doubt whether the vortex-atom hypothesis was adequate to explain all the properties of matter, and was not satisfied with the proof of the permanence of vortex motions, the conception remains to aIl time a witness to his extraordinary powers of mind.

In 1870 Lady Thomson, whose health had been failing for several years, died. In the same year, the University of Glasgow was removed from the old College to its present site on Gilmore Hill, overlooking the Kelvin burn.

For many years Thomson's sailing yacht, the Lalla Rookh, was conspicuous, and he was an accomplished navigator. His experiences in cable-laying had taught him much, and in return, he was now to teach science in navigation. First, he reformed the mariners' compass, lightening the moving parts to avoid protracted oscillations, and shortening the needles to facilitate the correction of the quadrantal and other errors arising from the magnetism of the ship's hull. At first, the Admiralty would have none of it. Even the Astronomer Royal condemned it. "So much for the Astronomer Royal's opinion," he ejaculated. But the compass won its way, first with the Mercantile Marine, and then was universally adopted in the Navy. The compass, as well as his galvanometers and siphon recorders, and other instruments were constructed by the optical firm of James White of Glasgow. In this business, Thomson became a partner, and later the principal owner and director. He was an exceedingly able judge of good workmanship and a keen man of business.

Dissatisfied with the clumsy appliances used in sounding, when the ship had to be stopped before the sounding line could be let down, he devised the now well-known apparatus for taking flying soundings by using a line of steel piano wire. He was vastly interested in the question of the tides, not merely as a sailor, but because of the interest attending their mathematical treatment in connection with the problems of the rotation of spheroids, the harmonic analysis of their complicated periods by Fourier's methods, and their relation to hydrodynamic problems generally. He invented a tide-predicting machine, which will predict for any given port the rise and fall of the tides, which it gives in the form of a continuous curve recorded on paper; the entire curves for a whole year being inscribed by the machine automatically in about four hours. Further than this, adopting a beautiful mechanical integrator, the device of his ingenious brother, Professor James Thomson, he invented a harmonic analyser – the first of its kind – capable not only of solving differential equations of any order, but of analysing any given periodic curve, sure as the tidal records, and exhibiting the values of the coefficients of the various terms of the Fourier series.

Wave problems always had a fascination for him, and the work of the mathematicians Poisson and Cauchy, on the propagation of wave-motion were familiar studies. In 1871 Helmholtz went with Sir William Thomson on the yacht Lalla Rookh to the races at Inveraray, and on Borne longer excursions to the Hebrides. Together they studied the theory of waves, "which he loved," says Helmholtz, "to treat as a race between us." Almost the last publications of Lord Kelvin were a series of papers on "Deep Sea Ship Waves," communicated between 1904 and 1907 to the Royal Society of Edinburgh.


1874 - 1907

In 1874, on 17 June, Sir William Thomson married Miss Frances Anna Blandy, of Madeira, whom he had met on cable-laying expeditions. Lady Kelvin, who survives him, became the centre of his home in Glasgow and the inseparable companion of all his later travels.


Throughout the seventies and eighties, Sir William Thomson's scientific activities were continued with untiring zeal. In 1876 he visited America, bringing back with him a pair of Graham Bell's earliest experimental telephones.

Amongst the matters that cannot be omitted in any notice of his life was Lord Kelvin's controversy with the geologists. He had from three independent lines of argument inferred that the age of the earth could not be infinite and that the time demanded by the geologists and biologists for the development of life must be finite. He himself estimated it at about a hundred million years at the most. In vain did the naturalists, headed by Huxley, protest. He stuck to his propositions with unrelaxing tenacity but unwavering courtesy. "Gentler knight there never broke a lance," was Huxley's dictum of his opponent. His position was never really shaken, though the later researches of Perry, and the discovery by Strutt of the degree to which the constituent rocks of the earth contain radioactive matter, the disaggregation of which generates internal heat, may so far modify the estimate as to increase somewhat the figure which he assigned.

In 1871 he was President of the British Association at its meeting in Edinburgh. In his Presidential address, which ranged luminously over the many branches of science within the scope of the Association, he hazarded the suggestion that the germa of life might have been brought to the earth by some meteorite.

With the advent of electric lighting about the year 1880 Thomson's attention was naturally attracted to this branch of the practical applications of science. He never had any prejudice against the utilisation of science for practical ends. "There cannot," he wrote, "be a greater mistake than that of looking superciliously upon practical applications of science. The life and soul of science is its practical application, and just as the great advances in mathematics have been made through the desire of discovering the solution of problems which were of a highly practical kind in mathematical science, so in physical science, many of the greatest advances that have been made from the beginning of the world to the present time have been made in the earnest desire to turn the knowledge of the properties of matter to some purpose useful to mankind."

And so he scorned not to devise his well-known instruments and appliances for commercial use.

Lord Kelvin's patented inventions were very numerous. Without counting in those since 1900, taken mostly in the name of Kelvin and James White, they number 56. Of these 11 relate to telegraphy, 11 relate to compasses and navigation apparatus, 6 relate to dynamo machines or electric lamps, 25 to electric measuring instruments, 1 to the electrolytic production of alkali, and 2 to valves for fluids. He was an independent inventor of the zigzag method of winding alternators, which the public knew under the Dame of Ferranti's machine, which was manufactured under royalties payable to him. He was interested even in devising such details as fuses and the suspension pulleys with differential gearing by which incandescent lamps can be raised or lowered.

In his Presidential address to the Mathematical and Physical Section of the British Association at York in 1881, he spoke of the electrical transmission and storage of energy, and of the possibility of utilising the powers of Niagara. He also read two papers, in one of which he showed mathematically that in a shunt dynamo best economy of working was attained when the resistance of the outer circuit was a geometric mean between the resistances of the armature and of the shunt. In the other, he laid down the famous law of the economy of copper lines for the transmission of power.

Helmholtz, visiting him again in 1884, found him absorbed in regulators and measuring apparatus for electric lighting and electric railways.

At the same time, he was revolving over the speculations which later in the same year he was to pour out in such marvellous abundance in his famous twenty lectures in Baltimore, "On Molecular Dynamics and the Wave Theory of Light." These lectures, delivered to twenty-one hearers, mostly accomplished teachers and professors, were reported verbatim at the time and reprinted by him with many revisions and additions in 1904. Of this extraordinary work, done at the age of sixty, it is difficult to speak. Day after day he led the twenty-one "coefficients" who sat at his feet, through the mazes of the solid-elastic theory and the spring-shell molecule, newly invented in order to give a conception how the molecules of matter are related to the ether through which light-waves are propagated. Part of the extreme interest of the course arose from the circumstance that he had neither written out the lectures beforehand nor had even prepared a consistent programme. Admitted to the very laboratory of his thoughts, his hearers became eyewitnesses of his methods, his amazing intuitive grasp, his headlong leaps, his mathematical agility, his perpetual recurrence to physical interpretations, his vivid use of mechanical analogies and his incessant resort to models, actual or imaginary, by which his meaning could be conveyed. His audience began to see that there was a man who thought things out for himself from first principles, making discoveries even while lecturing, and enjoying the surprises that some of the things he was newly discovering for himself had already been discovered by others. AIl his life he had been endeavouring to discover a rational mechanical explanation for the most recondite phenomena – the mysteries of magnetism, the marvels of electricity, the difficulties of crystallography, the contradictory properties of ether, the anomalies of optics. While Thomson had been seeking to explain electricity and magnetism and light dynamically, or as mechanical properties, if not of matter, at least of ether, Maxwell (the most eminent of his many disciples) had boldly propounded the electromagnetic theory of light, and had drawn all the younger men after him in acceptance of the generalisation that the waves of light were essentially electromagnetic displacements in the ether. Thomson had never accepted Maxwell's theory. It is true that in 1888 he gave a nominal adhesion, and in the preface which, in 1893, he wrote to Hertz's "Electric Waves." he himself uses the phrase "the electromagnetic theory of light, or the undulatory theory of magnetic disturbance." But later he withdrew his adhesion, preferring to think of things in his own way. Thomson's Baltimore lectures, abounding as they do in brilliant and ingenious points, and ranging from the most recondite problems of optics to speculations on crystal rigidity, the tactics of molecules and the size of atoms, leave one with the sense of their is a sort of protest of a man persuaded against his own instincts, and struggling to find new expression of his thoughts so as to retain his old ways of regarding the ultimate dynamics of physical nature. The lectures were revised and extended by him, but were published as a volume only in 1904.

One characteristic of aIl Lord Kelvin's teaching was his peculiar fondness for illustrating obscure notions by models. Possibly he derived this habit from Faraday, but he pushed its use far beyond anything prior. He was never satisfied until he could make a mechanical model illustrate his ideas.

This use of models is true to be found in the work of every follower of Faraday. Maxwell designed physical models as we have seen. FitzGerald conceived a remarkable model of the ether. Andrew Gray has liberally employed them. The work of Sir Oliver Lodge teems with models of all sorts. It has become characteristic of the tone and temper of British physicists, of none more than of Lord Kelvin. Where Poisson or Laplace saw a mathematical formula, Kelvin with true physical imagination discerned a reality which could be roughly simulated in the concrete. And throughout all his mathematics his grip of the physical reality never left him. According to the standard that Kelvin set before him, it is not sufficient to apply pure analysis to obtain a solution that can be computed. Every equation, "every line of the mathematical process must have a physical meaning, every step in the process must be associated with some intuition, the whole argument must be capable of being conducted in concrete physical terms." In other words, Lord Kelvin, being a highly accomplished mathematician, used his mathematical equipment with supreme ability as a tool: he remained its master and did not become its slave.

New Year's Day, 1892, brought the announcement that a peerage of the United Kingdom had been conferred by Queen Victoria upon Sir William Thomson. The title assumed was that of Baron Kelvin of Largs. The name Kelvin was derived from the Kelvin river, which flows past the buildings of the Glasgow University, while the territorial addition "of Largs" referred to his country mansion Netherhall, near the town of Largs, in Ayrshire, which he built in 1875, and where he died.

In June 1896, Glasgow University celebrated with a three days' festival the Jubilee of Lord Kelvin's professorship. It was attended by a large concourse of British and foreign savants, who brought addresses and congratulations from every university and academy of science in the civilised world. He resigned his chair in October 1899, being then in his 77th year. But though he ceased to reside in Glasgow, and retired to his country house at Largs, he continued to take the most active interest in the progress of science and in the operations of his instrument factory in Glasgow.

In his retirement much of his scientific thought centred around a subject which had been in his mind in 1846 and had often recurred: the possibility of formulating all the laws of matter and ether in a single comprehensive theory based on dynamics. This involved the conception of an ether which could not only transmit light by transverse vibrations like an elastic solid, but which must possess such a constitution as to explain the propagation of magnetic and electrostatic forces, and possibly also the existence of gravity. The vortex theory of matter had become untenable, and the problems of the molecular constitution of matter, with its related problems of crystalline structure and of double refraction forced new difficulties into view. The discoveries of Crookes followed by those of Hertz and of Rœntgen started fresh trains of thought, and still, the comprehensive theory seemed as far off as ever. At his jubilee, he characterised as a failure the result of his most strenuous efforts during fifty-five years. But he toiled on, seizing eagerly upon the notion of electrons or electrons, as he called them – to explain the recondite facts of molecular equilibrium and of the pyro-electric properties of crystals, and in the added charters of his Baltimore lectures, he announced that he had found with the aid of electrons – a dynamical explanation of every one of the difficulties of twenty years before. His effort to find a dynamical theory in terms of matter and energy, or (by means of the vortex theory) in terms of matter and ether only, had ended in finding it necessary to bring in electricity as a tertium quid. He regarded the discovery of radium as bearing vitally on the subject, and himself worked experimentally at the investigation of the properties of radio-active bodies. His persistence was unceasing and his activity of mind surprising.

Honours fell thickly on Lord Kelvin in his later life. He was President of the Royal Society from 1890 to 1894. He had been made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, and in 1883 had been awarded the Copper medal. His peerage was conferred in 1892. He was one of the original members of the Order of Merit founded by King Edward VII in 1902, was a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honour, and held the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite. In 1902 he was named a Privy Councillor. In 1904 he was elected Chancellor of the University in which he had filled the Chair of Natural Philosophy for fifty-three years. He was a member of every foreign Academy and held honorary degrees from almost every University. In 1899 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, of which he had been twice President. He was elected for a third time to the Presidency in the year of his death.

In 1906 he was elected First President of the International Electrotechnical Commission, in the success of which he took a deep interest, as clearly shown in his last letter to the Central Office, dated 8 November 1907, when he said: "I am much pleased with what you tell me regarding the general progress of the International Electrotechnical CommIssIon, in its work, which is surely destined to bear good fruit throughout the world."

His profound studies had led him again and again to contemplate a beginning to the order of things, and he more than once publicly professed a profound and entirely unaffected belief in Creative Design.

Kindly-hearted, lovable, modest to a degree almost unbelievable, he carried through life the most intense love of truth and of an insatiable desire for the advancement of natural knowledge. Accurate and minute measurement was for him as honourable a mode of advancing knowledge as the most brilliant or recondite speculation. At both ends of the scale, his pre-eminence in the quest for truth was unchallenged. If he could himself at the end of his long career describe his own efforts as "failure," it was because of the immensely high ideal which he set before him. "I know," he said on the day of his jubilee, "no more of electric and magnetic force, or of the relation between ether, electricity, and ponderable matter, or of chemical affinity than I knew and tried to teach to my students in my first session." Yet which of us has not learned much of these things because of his work?

After taking part in the British Association meeting of 1907 at Leicester, where he entered with surprising activity into the discussions of radioactivity and kindred questions, he went to Aix-les-Bains for change. He had barely reached home at Largs in September when Lady Kelvin was struck down with a paralytic seizure. Lord Kelvin's misery at her helpless condition was intense. He had himself suffered for fifteen years from recurrent attacks of facial neuralgia, and in 1906 underwent a severe operation. Under these afflictions, he had visibly aged, and the illness of Lady Kelvin found him little able physically to sustain the anguish of the stroke. He wondered distractedly about the corridors of his house unable at last to concentrate his mind on work in hand. A chill seized him, and after about a fortnight of prostration, he sank slowly and quietly away on December 17.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, with national honours on 23 December 1907, his grave is next to that of Newton.

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Colonel Crompton: the king of electricity

by Mark Fray

It is the night of February 12, 1895, and a distinguished gentleman with a traditional Victorian handlebar moustache sits working in his laboratory in west London. The night is frosty and clear of the smog that three years previously had suffocated thousands. The moon is close to full. Suddenly, a servant rushes in bearing news of a serious fire in a local power station and the room's electric lights soon dim to a dull red.

For those Londoners lucky enough to have swapped their dirty gas lamps and their noxious fumes for the cleanliness of their innovative electrical cousins, power cuts were just a temporary inconvenience in this magical new illuminated world.

Yet for this man, the fire was not something he could ignore. Colonel Crompton, the pioneering genius behind one of the world's first public lighting schemes, jumped to his feet and ran around the corner to his own generating station, in the hope that he could avert disaster.

Arriving at the scene, he met a colleague and surveyed the inferno. The upper floors were practically destroyed and there was a real danger that fire would spread to the back of the boiler house and a vast tank of oil housed there. If this caught alight, the whole building, and many of the residences in the area, would be destroyed.

He soon realised that the only way to access the oil tank was to take the fire hoses through the front door of his own house and out through the back window. By now all the dynamos had stopped working and the lighting was only kept going by a bank of accumulator cells. When the torrents of water from the hoses reached these, these too failed.

As Crompton and his colleague worked to put out the fire, they constantly received electric shocks as they disconnected the station from the network while the water from the fire hoses formed icicles on their hands. Acid water overflowing from the accumulator cells burned their wrists. Slowly the blaze was brought under control and they managed to keep the oil tank from exploding. For those working at the forefront of electrical engineering at the industry's birth, risks such as these were all in a day's work.


Fascination with mechanical things

Rookes Evelyn Bell Crompton was born at Sion Hill, near Thirsk in Yorkshire, England on 31 May 1845, one of five children. His passion for engineering began early. In his autobiography, Reminiscences, Crompton tells of a trip to London 's Great Exhibition of 1851. "For me, the unforgettable part and focus of the whole exhibition were the Machinery Hall...neither Koh-I-Noor diamond nor Osler's crystal fountain...had any attractions for me to compare with those of the locomotives, with their brilliantly polished piston roads and brasses burnished like gold."

His schooling started at Sharow, near Ripon in Yorkshire, along with 19 other boys, aged between 7 and 15. One of his fellow pupils there was Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

But Crompton's education was interrupted by the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 and he was keen to see action, despite his young age. He was taken on by the Royal Navy as a cadet on HMS Dragon, commanded by his mother's cousin Captain Houston Stewart and headed for the Crimea. While there he witnessed the horrors of trench warfare but developed a taste for life in the military.

Back in England, he resumed his studies, entering Harrow in 1858. While there, he dropped Greek in favour of extra mathematics. "I also made a static electrical machine having a large glass disc with which we had great fun charging Leyden jars and giving shocks to the boys," reminisced Crompton later.

His practical experiments were not confined to term-time. During the summer holidays, his pet project was Blue Bell, a steam-driven road locomotive he built from scratch.

On leaving school, Crompton returned to the military, joining the Rifle Brigade in India. While there, he continued to be fascinated by steam-driven transportation. He had his beloved Blue Bell sent over to him and soon his "road locomotives" were replacing the more traditional bullock-drawn carts.

He took time out from his posting to India to marry the daughter of George Clarke but went back to India for a further four years before returning to Britain – with a dose of malaria picked up in Peshawar.


Success in business

Then began Crompton's commercial career in engineering. He moved to Ipswich, going into partnership with the Chelmsford firm of T.H.P. Dennis & Co, manufacturers of horticultural buildings and related heating plant. Here, he embarked on a project that first brought him into contact with the lighting systems that later defined his life.

Crompton's relatives owned a Derbyshire ironworks, for which he designed a mechanised foundry. To be economic, the plant had to run both day and night. As a solution, he imported generators and arc lamps that were being used to great effect by the Belgian engineer Zenobe Gramme in Paris.

Crompton soon began to make his own lamps that improved on Gramme's designs and those of Serrin and worked with the Swiss firm of Bürgin to develop a new type of dynamo, which soon proved popular.

By 1878, Crompton was able to take over T.H.P. Dennis & Co's Chelmsford premises to form Crompton and Co, which soon became the country's leading distributor and manufacturer of electricity generating and lighting systems.

Crompton's reputation was such that, in 1880, the chemist Joseph Swan sought his opinion when he first developed incandescent lamps for indoor use. Crompton immediately saw the potential and, within a couple of years, his firm was selling Swan's lamps and the generating equipment to go with them. His rapidly developing profile in the industry meant that he was soon asked to join the fledgeling British Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE), an organisation he was later to head as president.

With Swan's lamps and further developments of generators, Crompton and Co became involved in public lighting schemes, particularly railway stations, goods yards and the Alexandra Palace entertainment complex in north London. Here, he carried out a number of experiments on the effect of arc lighting on vegetation and flowers. Crompton afterwards reported that a young engineering student was often there, observing him at work. Crompton later discovered this student was Sebastian Ferranti and that his visits had been the beginnings of his interest in electricity.

The success of his British projects led to a number of commissions in mainland Europe between 1885 and 1889. One such project was the Viennese Opera House, the first large theatre to be lit electrically anywhere. The public was astounded by the novel lighting effects that electricity was able to produce. Crompton spent so much time making "red hot" chains around the arms of the lead actor in the opera Merlin that he was asked to understudy one of the other characters.

Crompton's best remembered public scheme opened in London in 1887. Kensington Court, a new housing estate of a hundred residences, was connected to a subterranean direct current generating network powered by seven steam engines. It was one of the earliest public power supply schemes and became a model for much of what was to follow.

However, the young student who had watched his experiments at Alexandra Palace - Ferranti - was at this time making huge strides in the development of the rival alternating current system. The opening of Ferranti's vast power station at Deptford in south-east London, which used high tension alternating current (AC), sounded the death knell for the use of direct current (DC) in public power supply.


From home appliances to military applications

Yet Crompton was a shrewd businessman and went on to manufacture AC power generators as well. He also helped extend the use of electricity into other areas, and Crompton and Co. invented the first electric toaster and some of the first electric ovens.

Transportation held appeal for Crompton throughout his life and he was a keen cyclist. Naturally enough, he tinkered with the mechanisms of his own bicycle, increasing the wheel diameter, lengthening the pedal cranks and altering the gear ratios. With these modifications, he boasted of being able to "do as much as two hundred miles in the day without being overtired".

The onset of the Boer War saw Crompton return to military service, as a colonel in the Royal Engineers. His own arc lamps started to be used as military searchlights. This was not his only contribution to military technology. During the First World War, he was asked to submit designs for "land ships" that could cross trenches. These became the blueprint for the modern military tank.


Enter standardization

After the Boer War ended, Crompton became involved in standardization. He had long been concerned about the lack of common terminology to describe the electrical phenomena he was seeing and the huge number of different schemes in operation. Virtually every different electricity-generating network ran at a different voltage and interoperability of equipment was a huge problem.

In August 1904, he was asked by J K Gray, then president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, to accompany him to represent Britain at the Great International Exposition in St Louis, America. At the Exposition, Crompton presented a paper on standardization which was so well received that he was officially requested to look into the formation of a permanent International Electro-technical Commission, to deal with electrical standardization from an international standpoint. Crompton admitted afterwards that he foresaw "great difficulties" in the proposed scheme but these were eventually overcome and the IEC began to take shape.

In 1906, Crompton and Charles le Maistre, whom Crompton had asked to act as permanent secretary, drew up a constitution for the fledgeling organisation. The IEC's first plenary meeting was held that same year in London and was attended by representatives of 14 countries.

The First World War interrupted the work of the IEC and when it met again, Crompton reported that: "The meeting eventually took place at Geneva, and was attended by unofficial German representatives," says Crompton in his autobiography. "It was a matter of great satisfaction to me that our peacemaking efforts were successful. No unpleasant incidents occurred at the public meetings, and at one of the dinners which followed, the French delegates consented at my personal request to shake hands with the German representatives."

But his interests in standardization were not restricted to electrical matters. A love of squash, picked up from Harrow, saw him involved in the "measuring and devising means of comparing the bounce of the various balls in circulation", according to the Tennis and Rackets Association.

In 1926, Crompton's role in the development of the electrical industry was recognised when he was awarded the IEE's, Faraday Medal. The pace of change in the industry is highlighted by the fact that just two years later, work started on an electrical National Grid for Britain as a whole.


Partnership and retirement

The electrical industry had certainly moved on and a year later, Crompton and Co were bought out by rival Frank Parkinson in a move that surprised the electrical industry when they formed Crompton-Parkinson. The Crompton name disappeared for a while from British industry when Hawker Siddeley took over in 1967 but continued to live on in companies in Australia and India. Today, Crompton Controls Ltd. in the UK, of which Colonel Crompton was the founder, is back in private hands and is alive, well and prospering in the design and manufacture of electrical control equipment.

Colonel Crompton left his London home for the last time in 1939 to take up residence in Yorkshire. Before leaving, he was visited by John Somerville Highfield, a member of the Dynamicables lunch club for electrical engineers, of which Crompton was a founding member, and asked whether he needed anything there for his comfort. His nurse said there was no electric light and they were afraid of fire from paraffin lamps. "I hear you want an electric light at home," said Highfield. "I will see this is provided NOT off the Grid."

Highfield asked Frank Parkinson, Crompton's former rival, to help and he obliged in a few days with the provision of a small private plant, much to Crompton's pleasure.

Crompton died at his home, less than a year later, aged 95 with his place in the history of the practical development of electricity secure.

An incident from Crompton's time in Vienna is worth relating. One Sunday afternoon, he was walking in the city's Prater fairgrounds and came across a booth labelled Elektricitätskönigin and was "very curious to know what the Queen of Electricity could do".

Visitors to the booth were asked to kiss the hand of a woman. "The moment you touched her hands with your lips, you got a shock," said Crompton afterwards. "Then she asked us to join hands and make a circuit...some of us, notably myself, felt the shock very slightly, others far more so; seeing that I could stand more than the others, and probably more than the woman herself, I firmly grasped her hand and challenged her to exert her utmost power. She switched on extra current, and I held on. I could just bear it, but she could not. Large drops of sweat appeared on her forehead, and she subsided, saying, 'He is the King of Electricity, I am only the Queen."

He was indeed the King of Electricity.

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Giovanni Giorgi


In October 1901, a very successful Italian scientist and engineer Giovanni Giorgi showed at the congress of the Associazione Elettrotecnica Italiana (A.E.I.) in Rome that a coherent system of units could be achieved by adding an electric unit to the three mechanical units (centimetre, gram, second) of the existing CGS system. The event can be considered as the birth of what is now known as the International System of Units, or SI. (Visit the IEC SI Zone for a full explanation of International System of Units.)

The history surrounding the birth of SI is an example of how the world of international standardization can truly deliver a solution that meets past, present and future market needs.

The birth of SI is inseparably linked to the personality of Professor Giovanni Giorgi. This far-sighted Italian anticipated future needs and provided as early as 1901 not only suggestions for a coherent system of units but a full-fledged solution. His case also shows that being ahead of one’s time can draw more criticism than being behind. But fortunately, Giovanni Giorgi had the satisfaction of witnessing how, after many years of seemingly endless debate, his original proposals were accepted without major changes.

This saga is, however, not merely of historical interest. We know that specific styles of art, literature, technology, etc., tend to be superseded by later ones. Here again, Giovanni Giorgi’s legacy is exceptional. Far from being challenged by any better system, the SI (International System of Units) keeps proving its worth.

Readers may know that in Switzerland laws are not imposed by the government and that even parliament does not have the power of final endorsement because this is the privilege of its citizens. In a similar way, the SI was accepted by the appropriate organizations, but a perfectly democratic vote took place and is still taking place in an informal but highly efficient way: this is the everyday use of Giovanni Giorgi’s system by the international engineering community.

All historical information presented in these pages comes from the book: "1901-2001, Celebrating the Centenary of SI - Giovanni Giorgi's Contribution and the Role of SI", published in 2001 by the IEC for the 100th anniversary of the International System of Units.

Examples of units (covering Electricity and magnetismLight) come from ISO's SI Guide.


Giovanni Giorgi's contribution to the SI

In Giorgi’s hands, the ideas of O. Heaviside became essential elements both for developing new logical descriptions of electromagnetic phenomena and for improving the system of units [3].

Already in 1896, Giorgi had criticized the peculiar dimensions of electrical quantities in the three-dimensional system. He agreed with Heaviside that permittivity and permeability expressed the physical properties of the medium. Disregarding their dimension led to strange situations, such as a resistance having the dimension of velocity or its inverse, or self-induction having the dimension of a length.

In Giorgi’s opinion, dimensions should express the true nature of a physical quantity. He saw the need to introduce – together with the base quantities length, mass and time – a fourth base quantity of electrical nature: “It is evident that by assuming the current as a fundamental concept, the definition of any other electromagnetic quantity easily follows.”

Giorgi also had the great merit of showing that the “absolute” system of practical units could be combined with the three mechanical units metre, kilogram and second to constitute a single coherent four-dimensional system of units. Four units – metre, kilogram, second and, for instance, ohm or ampere – could be chosen as base units from which all other practical electrical units could be derived. This proposition resulted in a harmonic synthesis of the practical electrical units with an acceptable set of mechanical units.

In an absolute system of practical units, the units are defined in terms of the mechanical units.

coherent system of units means that the definition of the units avoids “useless coefficients”.

Rationalization includes giving physical dimensions to ε0 and µ0, and elimination of the factor 4π where it does not concern spherical geometry.

Giorgi was also a firm supporter of rationalization. His careful approach required only a minimum of changes in existing unit conventions. He did not modify the definitions of electric charge or magnetic flux, limiting changes to those for permittivity, permeability, electric flux density and magnetic field strength. This led to a highly satisfactory solution, including the rationalization aspect, and won general acceptance for the four-dimensional description of electromagnetism.

Giorgi’s contribution relates therefore essentially to four items:

  • unification of the electrostatic and electromagnetic systems;
  • elimination of the need for conversion factors;
  • elimination of the fractional exponents from dimensional equations;
  • the conclusion that permittivity and permeability are physical quantities with dimensions (with the units F/m and H/m).

Giorgi’s all-embracing proposals to reformulate the theory of electromagnetic phenomena as a four-dimensional theory, to rationalize the equations and to integrate practical and MKS units in a single four-dimensional unit system obtained a favourable response from many scientists, including S.P. Thompson. However, it would still take more than 30 years before these ideas were accepted by the responsible international organizations.


Giovanni Giorgi's life and work

Giovanni Giorgi was born in Lucca, Italy, on 27 November 1871. He graduated in engineering in Rome in 1893. His accidental death occurred on 19 August 1950 at Castiglioncello.

Giorgi’s professional career was brilliant. Some highlights include:

  • 1897-1906 – Manager of various electrical and mechanical equipment companies
  • 1906-1921 – Director of the technical department of the City of Rome
  • From 1910 – Lecturer, and later professor, in various scientific fields (University of Rome; School for Aeronautical Construction, Rome; Royal School of Engineering, Rome; Royal University of Cagliari; University of Palermo)
  • 1935 and 1938 – Italian Delegate in IEC meetings


Prof. Giorgi’s activities and interests reflect his broad cultural and scientific background, covering numerous but not necessarily related subjects:

  • Science and technology, e.g. the application of operational calculus to electromagnetism; contributions to pure and applied mathematics; analytical mechanics; relativity (including correspondence with Einstein).
  • The arts, one of his many contributions to the Enciclopedia Italiana concerning the use of colours in the Middle Ages and in modern art.
  • Engineering, where he was active in various technical fields such as urban and interurban electric traction, and electric power distribution systems.
  • Didactic issues, where he worked on methods of disseminating scientific and technical knowledge to the non-specialized public.
  • Publications is the author of 350 scientific/technical papers and author or co-author of several textbooks on science and engineering, for example, Verso L’Elettrotecnica Moderna, 1949, Libreria Editrice Politecnica, Milano.


Giovanni Giorgi's correspondence with Oliver Heaviside

Giorgi corresponded with British mathematician Oliver Heaviside. In Giorgi’s hands, the ideas of Heaviside became essential elements both for developing new logical descriptions of electromagnetic phenomena and for improving the system of units. 

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Charles Le Maistre

Some material used with permission from JoAnne Yates and Craig N. Murphy, “Charles Le Maistre: Entrepreneur in International Standardization,” Entreprise et Histoires, 51(2008), pp. 10-27.

1874 - 1953

Charles Delacour Le Maistre, C.B.E. and Knight Commander of the Order of Vasa, was born, the seventh son of a poor country parson, on Jersey, off the coast of Normandy, France. He died in Surrey, England, soon after receiving news that France was about to make him Chevalier of the Legion of Honour.


Formative years

Le Maistre was educated privately between 1882 and 1885 at Brighton College, where his father was a tutor. In the 1890s, he spent three years qualifying for entry to the IEE (Institution of Electrical Engineers) at the Central Technical College in South Kensington, England. Afterwards, he worked for six years in the electrical department of the Thames Ironworks Company.


In 1901 he found his vocation when he was appointed Electrical Assistant Secretary of the British Engineering Standards Committee; known since 1931 as the British Standards Institute or BSI. For his work as its boss from 1916 (until 1942), he was made Commander of the British Empire (C.B.E.) in 1920. Yet it was upon a much bigger stage that Le Maistre made his most significant impact.


In 1906, Le Maistre was installed as the first General Secretary of IEC (the International Electrotechnical Commission), a position he held until 1953. For more than forty years, he attended its every meeting, managed its activities, and travelled the world as the ambassador of international standardization. Within a few years, his innovative work became so synonymous with the IEC that he became known as “the deus ex machina (god from the machine) of international standardization”. (1)


Place in history

Le Maistre’s contribution to the IEC was as critical to the creation of the modern world as the work of scientists such as Max Planck, Neils Bohr and Albert Einstein. His contribution was also as significant as that of innovators and entrepreneurs such as Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs. However, sadly, Le Maistre’s part in the electronic revolution is the least known and least celebrated.

Einstein, Planck and Bohr developed relativity, quantum physics and mechanics in the early decades of the 20th century. In essence, they revealed the laws of motion governing electromagnetic radiation and subatomic particles. Their theoretical breakthroughs made possible the engineering of solid-state devices such as semiconductors, transistors and fibre optics, which are some of the essential ingredients of our information age.

What is not so well understood is the role Charles Delacour Le Maistre played in transforming scientific abstractions into materials that industrialists could use to manufacture things en masse.

Le Maistre’s work built on the principles of industrial progress first discovered in the 18th and 19th Century. For instance, it was Henry Maudslay’s new screw-cutting lathe in 1797 that introduced mass production of identical screws. This seemingly simple invention transformed Britain into the world’s commanding machine-driven workshop. But the complexities involved in harnessing electromagnetic radiation for industrial purposes posed problems on a scale never before encountered.


The need for standards recognized early

The electrical industry recognized this challenge from the very beginning. It understood that the exploitation of electrical power depended upon the standardization of the nomenclature, symbols and ratings of electrical apparatus and machinery. Hence its founders sought to develop commonly accepted and voluntarily adopted standards, as opposed to ones imposed by regulation.

Their focus on standards began in 1861 at the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s meeting of telegraph engineers. It was there that it was first proposed to unify the measures of electrical resistance; there were then at least a dozen in use globally. This moved them to form the British Association Committee of Standards of Electrical Resistance. It was led by some still renowned names such as William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), James Clerk Maxwell, James Joule and William Siemens.

At several international congresses between 1861 and 1908 (though the last few were IEC meetings), they coined the designations and definitions for electrical units such as ohm, volt, coulomb, farad, Kelvin, ampere, watt, joule and the unit for self-inductance, otherwise known as the henry.

But their work was rooted in the 19th Century age of Michael Faraday and Newtonian physics, before it was subsumed by new paradigms.


20th Century disruption

In contrast, Le Maistre’s work took place in a different era. His major gift to global innovation was informed by the disruptive influence of relativity (1905), quantum physics (1899/1900) and, no less significantly, the Giorgi system (1901).

Le Maistre also had the advantage of being able to study the lessons from the railway age (1840 – 1913) regarding the importance of standardizing specifications.

One of Le Maistre’s most important achievements was the procedural reconciliation of the difference between international electrical units and mechanical ones.

In 1935, following Le Maistre’s instigation, the IEC adopted the Giorgi system. In essence, Giovanni Giorgi’s (1870 – 1950) methodology overcame the division between physical scientists and material technicians by bonding together the laws governing electromagnetical and mechanical units. Since 1961, this unified system has been better known as the International System of Units (IS). This ever-evolving body defines, among other things, the meter, kilogram, second, ampere, kelvin, mole, and candela as the basic units of length, mass, time, electric current and temperature.


Wider legacy

It was due to LeMaistre’s innovative endeavours on technical committees that our modern efficient energized machine-driven world progressed: from power generation, transmission and distribution to home appliances, office equipment and the World Wide Web. In other words, it was the development of internationally accepted measurements, processes and specifications that built the bridges that connected electromagnetic and quantum science to economic and manufacturing realities.

Le Maistre encouraged, in ways that were then novel, the involvement of multiple stakeholders in the development of new standards for new technologies.

Le Maistre popularized the practice of inviting the best experts from manufacturers and their competitors, retailers, academia and government bodies to become immersed in the decision-making process. It is for this that he deserves recognition as being the person who recognized and organized “the community of interest of producer and consumer” in developing mutually agreed and universally endorsed technical solutions.


Consensus-based approach

Based on his advisors impartial input, Le Maistre established democratic consensuses on the general principles relating to accepted industrial standards and processes. Together they tackled everything from stipulating specifications for electrical apparatus and screw threads to safety-related solutions that were both technically and socially acceptable.

Le Maistre also oversaw the development of the methods and ratings for testing and comparing the efficiency and performance of electrical machines. This nontrivial advance enables us today to assess, for instance, the attributes of digital devices such as smartphones produced by different manufacturers. In his words:

"Standardization, after all, is no more and no less than proper coordination. To effect it may necessitate the sinking of much personal opinion, but if its goal, through wideness of outlook and unity of thought and action, is the benefit of the community as a whole, standardization as a coordinated endeavour is bound increasingly to benefit humanity at large." (2)

He insisted that in the public interest every country’s electrotechnical committee should be represented at the IEC as an equal partner. So he ensured that the IEC’s constitution gave none of its members more rights or votes than any other.

Le Maistre’s robust institutional framework, methodologies and decision-making processes remain relevant today at the IEC. In addition, his ethos and principles are also widely emulated by similar bodies in different fields.


Visionary and still relevant today

In 1926, for instance, under Le Maistre’s leadership, the IEC established the first international organization that pooled the wisdom of the world’s national standards bodies into a permanent voluntary forum. Known as the ISA (the International Federation of the National Standardizing Associations) initially prioritized mechanical engineering-related issues. But in 1947, following Le Maistre’s advocacy, it widened its brief, changing its name to ISO (the International Organization for Standardization).

Hence, he really earned the right to be known as “the father of international standardization”. (3)



  1. C. Sharp, Discussion on Standardization, AIEE Transactions, Vol.35, Part 1, 1916, p. 491, as cited in P. Van Den Bossche, The Electric Vehicle: Raising the Standards, doctoral dissertation, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, April 2003.
  2. R. McWilliam, “The Evolution of British Standards,” doctoral dissertation, University of Reading, September, 2002, p. 252
  3. Friendship among equals: Recollections from ISO’s first fifty years, Geneva, ISO, 1997, p. 16.