Lord Kelvin’s Replies to Addresses given on the Celebration of the Jubilee of his Professorship (June 15-17, 1896)

Quoted in Lord Kelvin, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Glasgow 1846-1899 by George F. Fitzgerald, 1899

[Available online in its entirety]

[On Tuesday morning, June 16, 1896, during an impressive function held in Bute Hall; and after the presenting of addresses by the many distinguished men assembled, as well as those not in attendance; and the giving of degrees by Lord Kelvin, as well as one bestowed upon him]

[p. 56]

The University of Glasgow is honoured by the presence to-day of many distinguished visitors from distant countries, from America, from India, from Australia, and from all parts of the United Kingdom. Names of men renowned for their scientific work in foreign lands have been added to our list of honorary graduates. That I have had the honour of conferring these degrees in the name of the University is a subject of keenest regret to all here present, because it is due to the absence of Principal Caird, on account of illness. We hope that the beginning of next session will see him at home in the University with thoroughly recovered health. In his absence the duty of conferring degrees has fallen, according to University law, on me as senior Professor present.

I am also one of the recipients of the degrees, and, in the name of all who have to-day been created Doctors of Laws of the University of Glasgow, I thank the Senate for the honour which we have thus received on the occasion of the Jubilee of my professorship. For myself, I can find no words to express my

[p. 57]

feelings on this occasion. My fifty happy years of life and work as Professor of Natural Philosophy here, among my students and my colleagues of the University, and my many kind friends in the great city of Glasgow, call for gratitude; I cannot think of them without heartfelt gratitude. But now you heap coals of fire on my head. You reward me for having enjoyed for fifty years the privilege of spending my time on the work most congenial to me and in the happiest of surroundings.

You could not do more for me if I had spent my life in hardships and dangers, fighting for my country, or struggling to do good among the masses of our population, or working for the benefit of the people in public duty voluntarily accepted. I have had the honour to receive here to-day a gracious message from His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and addresses from sister universities in all parts of the world; from learned societies, academies, associations, and institutions for the advancement of pure and applied science; from municipal corporations and other public bodies; from submarine telegraph companies, and from their officers, my old comrades in their work; from students, professors, and scientific workers of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and other countries, including my revered and loved St. Peter’s College, Cambridge.

I have had an address also from my twenty Baltimore coefficients of 1884. The term “coefficients” is abused by mathematicians. They use it for one of the to factors of the result. To me the professor and his class of students are coefficients, fellow-workers, each contributing to whatever can possibly be done by their daily meetings together. I dislike

[p. 58]

the term lecture applied here. I prefer the French expression “conference.” I feel that every meeting of a professor with his students should be rather a conference, than a pumping-in of doctrine from the professor perhaps ill understood and not well received by his students. The Scottish Universities have enabled us to carry out this French idea of conference. I think in every one of his classes the professor is accustomed to speak to his students, sometimes in the form of viva voce examination, and oftener, I hope, in the manner of interchange of thoughts, the professor discovering whether or not the student is following his lecture, and the student, by showing what he knows or does not know, helping the professor through his treatment of the subject.

I have had interesting and kindly addresses from my old Japanese students of Glasgow University, now professors in the University of Tokyo, or occupying posts in the Civil Service and Engineering Service of Japan. I wish particularly also to thank my Baltimore coefficients for their address. They have been useful to myself in my own keen endeavour—unsuccessful, I must say, nevertheless keen—to find out something definite and clear about light and ether and crystals.

The addresses which I have received to-day contain liberal and friendly appreciation of all my mathematical and physical papers, beginning in 1840 and ending—not yet I hope. The small proportion of that long series of writings which has led to some definite advancement of science is amply credited for its results. A larger part, for which so much cannot be said, is treated with unfailing and sympathetic kindness as a record of

[p. 59]

persevering endeavour to see below the surface of matter. It has been carried on in the faith that the time is to come when much that is now dark in physical science shall be seen bright and clear, if not by ourselves, by our successors in the work.

I am much gratified by the generous manner in which these addresses have referred to the practical applications of science in my work for submarine telegraphy; my contributions to the advancement of theoretical and practical knowledge of the tides; my improvement in the oldest and next oldest of scientific aids to navigation—the sounding plummet and the mariner’s compass; and my electric measuring instruments for scientific laboratories, for the observation of atmospheric electricity, and for electric engineering.

I now ask the distinguished men who have honoured me by presenting to me these addresses, to accept for themselves personally, and for the societies represented by them, my warmest thanks for the great treasure which I have thus received—good-will, kindness, friendship, sympathy, encouragement for more work—a treasure of which no words can adequately describe the value.

I cordially thank the French Academy of Sciences for their great kindness in sending me by the hands of my loved and highly esteemed colleague, Mascart, the Arago Medal of the Institute of France.

I thanks all present in this great assembly for their kindness which touches me deeply; and I thank the City and University of Glasgow for the crowning honour of my life which they have conferred on me by holding a commemoration of the Jubilee of my professorship.

[On the evening of Tuesday, June 16, at the banquet in St. Andrew’s Hall, after the reading of letters and toast by Sir James Bell, Lord Provost]

[p. 69]

First of all, I desire to express the deep and heart-felt gratitude with which I have heard the most kind and gracious message from Her Majesty the Queen, which has been read to us by the Lord Provost. But I cannot find words for thanks. I can only, on the part of Lady Kelvin and myself, tender an expression of our loving loyalty to the Queen. My Lord Provost, my Lords, and Gentlemen, I thank you with my whole heart for your kindness to me this evening. You have come here to commemorate the Jubilee of my University professorship, and I am deeply sensible of the warm sympathy with which you have received the kind expressions of the Lord Provost regarding myself in his review of my fifty years’ service, and his most friendly appreciation of practical results which have come from my scientific work.

I might perhaps rightly feel pride in knowing that the University and City of Glasgow have joined in conferring on me the great honour of holding this Jubilee, and that so many friends and so many distinguished men,—friends and comrads, day-labourers in science—have come from near and far to assist in its celebrations, and that congratulations and good wishes have poured in on me by letter and telegram from all parts of the world. I do feel profoundly grateful. But when I think how infinitely little is all that I have done I cannot feel pride; I only see the great kindness of my scientific comrades, and of all my friends in crediting me for so much.

One word characterises the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made perseveringly during fifty-five years; that word is FAILURE. I know no more of electric and magnetic force, or of the relation between ether,

[p. 70]

electricity, and ponderable matter, or of chemical affinity, than I knew and tried to teach to my students of natural philosophy fifty years ago in my first session as Professor. Something of sadness must come of failure; but in the pursuit of science, inborn necessity to make the effort brings with it much of the certaminis gaudia, and saves the naturalist from being wholly miserable, perhaps even allows him to be fairly happy in his daily work.

And what splendid compensation for philosophical failures we have had in the admirable discoveries by observation and experiment of the properties of matter, and in the exquisitely beneficent applications of science to the use of mankind with which these fifty years have so abounded! You, my Lord Provost, have remarked that I have had the good fortune to remain for fifty years in one post. I cordially reply that for me they have been happy years. I cannot forget that the happiness of Glasgow University, both for the students and professors, is largely due to the friendly and genial City of Glasgow, in the midst of which it lives. To live among friends is the primary essential of happiness; and that, my memory tells me, we inhabitants of the University have enjoyed since first I came to live in it (1832) sixty-four years ago. And when friendly neighbors confer material benefits such as the citizens of Glasgow have conferred on their University in so largely helping to give it its present beautiful site and buildings, the debt of happiness due to them is notably increased.

I do not forget the charms of the old college in the High Street and Vennel, not very far from the comforts of the Salt-market. Indeed, I remember well when, in 1839, the old Natural Philosophy class-room and apparatus-room (no physical laboratory

[p. 71]

then) was almost an earthly paradise to my youthful mind; and the old College Green, with the ideal memories of Osbaldistone and Rashleigh and their duel, created for it by Sir Walter Scott, was attractive and refreshing to the end. But density of smoke and of crowded population in the adjoining lanes increased, and the pleasantness, healthiness, and convenience of the old college, both for students and professors, diminished year by year. If, my Lord Provost, your predecessors of the Town Council, and the citizens of Glasgow, and well-wishers to the city and its University all over the world, and the government, and the great railway company that has taken the old college, had left us undisturbed on our ancient site, I don’t believe that attractions elsewhere would have taken me away from the old college; but I do say that twenty-five of the fifty years of professorship which I have enjoyed might have been less bright and happy, and I believe also less effective in respect to scientific work, than they have been with the great advantages with which the University of Glasgow has been endowed since it migration from the High Street.

My Lord Provost, I ask you to communicate to your colleagues of the Town Council my warmest thanks for their great kindness to me in joining to celebrate this Jubilee. Your Excellency, my Lords and Gentlemen, I thank you all for the kind manner in which you have received the toast of my health proposed by the Lord Provost, and for you presence this evening to express your good wishes for myself.