, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 119-124
Date: 28 Jun 2011

Victorian physics meets industrial capitalism

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Toward the end of his long Dictionary of Scientific Biography article on Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), first published in 1976, Jed Buchwald alluded briefly to Thomson’s involvement with industry, particularly his work in devising galvanometers and other electrical measuring instruments. He declared, however, that Thomson’s industrial activities “did not stem from any great desire to further the application of science to technology, although that motive was certainly there among others,” but rather was “a consequence of his interest in instrumentation itself.” No historian writing today—presumably including Buchwald—would think to dismiss so lightly Thomson’s industrial ties or the motivation behind them, in large part because of the masterly work of Crosbie Smith and Norton Wise. In Energy and Empire: A Biographical Study of Lord Kelvin, first published in 1989 and now reissued by Cambridge University Press in two stout paperback volumes, Smith and Wise put Thomson’s commitment t ...

This specially invited essay review is part of the series of reappraisals of significant older books that have been recently reissued. The aim of the series is to explore the impact of those books on subsequent scholarship and their relevance to contemporary issues.