Thomson, James

(1786-1849), mathematician

by Crosbie Smith

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Thomson, James (1786-1849), mathematician, was born on 13 November 1786 at Annaghmore, near Ballynahinch, co. Down, the third son of James Thomson, farmer, and his wife, Agnes Nesbitt. The Thomsons had settled in presbyterian Ulster, having migrated in the 1640s from Ayrshire to escape religious persecution from episcopacy. Beyond the rudiments of education from his father James was largely self-taught. He made for himself a sundial and a night-dial (by which to tell the time by one of the stars of Ursa Major) and at the age of eleven or twelve he worked out, with the aid of slate and stone, how to make dials for any latitude. At the same age he witnessed the battle of Ballynahinch when the presbyterian United Irishmen's vision of an independent united republic was vanquished. Seeing the wanton destruction of the town by the king's forces, and the futility of the armed rebellion, moulded the young Thomson, whose lifelong radicalism would lead him to challenge all manner of establishments.

About 1800 Thomson attended the school opened by a secessionist presbyterian minister, Samuel Edgar, to prepare intelligent young men for the ministry. There he studied mathematics and classics, and by the age of twenty-one he:

was teaching eight hours a day at Dr Edgar's, and during the extra hours--often fagged and comparatively listless--I was reading Greek and Latin to prepare me for entering College, which I did not do till nearly two years after. (Smith and Wise, 8)
In 1810 he entered Glasgow University, supporting himself through the six-month winter sessions by teaching at Dr Edgar's during the summer. In 1812 he graduated MA, then took medical and theological courses, intending to become a minister. However, the launch of a radical educational enterprise in Belfast redirected his ambitions. Appointed in 1814 to teach arithmetic, geography, and bookkeeping in the school department, and in 1815 as professor of mathematics in the college department, of the Belfast Academical Institution, Thomson found himself among like-minded liberal and radical presbyterians eager for religious and economic reform.

Within that circle Thomson met Margaret Gardner (c.1790-1830), daughter of William Gardner, a well-to-do merchant from Glasgow; they married in 1817. The Thomsons settled in a town house in College Square East, facing the institution, where their seven children were born. Throughout these Belfast years Thomson published a series of school textbooks: A Treatise on Arithmetic in Theory and Practice (1819); Trigonometry, Plane and Spherical (1820); Introduction to Modern Geography (1827); and The Differential and Integral Calculus (1831). His textbooks avoided everything of a metaphysical or disputed character, and aimed to be useful to the growing mercantile classes. Thomson was free to adopt and teach the methods of the continental analysts which he eagerly procured and studied.

Thomson was awarded the honorary degree of LLD from Glasgow in 1829. Following the death of his wife in 1830, he accepted the offer of the chair of mathematics in Glasgow College. Moving with his young family to Glasgow just after the city's first major cholera epidemic in 1832, he discovered that his predecessor had not only failed to maintain authority over a declining class but also continued to be entitled to the salary attached to the mathematics chair, the new professor receiving only income from student fees. Moreover, the college was dominated by a tory oligarchy, led by the redoubtable principal, Duncan Macfarlan, opposed to all reform of the university to meet the needs of a rapidly industrializing city. Alone at first, but increasingly building a powerful radical and whig network of reform-minded allies among the newer generation of professors, Thomson championed the causes of the disenfranchised regius professors (who were denied equality with college professors) and of the abolition of university tests (by which anyone appointed to a Scottish university chair had to sign allegiance to the presbyterian Westminster confession of faith). Thomson's reform campaigns began fundamentally to change the character of Glasgow University from that of an ancient, inward-looking corporation whose primary function was the training of ministers of the established kirk to that of a knowledge-producing institution whose aims harmonized with the industrial, progressive goals of the second city of the empire. Thomson successfully promoted the election of his second son, William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin (1824-1907), to the moribund chair of natural philosophy in 1846. He did not live to see his first son, James Thomson (1822-1892), occupy the chair of engineering from 1872.

During his Glasgow years Thomson rebuilt the mathematics classes, and educated his children. By 1842 he had 160 students, his best year so far. Textbook publication also prospered. He edited a version of Euclid's Elements of Geometry (1834) while An Elementary Treatise on Algebra Theoretical and Practical (1844) went through three editions in less than two years. Earlier texts went through successive editions, Arithmetic reaching its seventy-second edition by 1880. In 1845 his net profits on all his texts amounted to a substantial £378. The recently established national schools in Ireland accounted in part for the huge demand and conformed to Thomson's conviction that practical, useful knowledge was the means by which to destroy sectarianism of all kinds within his native land. About 1845 he seemed likely to be appointed principal of the new Queen's College in Belfast, but was passed over in favour of an ordained clergyman. Less than four years later the second major cholera epidemic struck Glasgow and he died of the disease, on 12 January 1849.


C. Smith and M. N. Wise, Energy and empire: a biographical study of Lord Kelvin (1989)
E. King, Lord Kelvin's early home (1909)
S. P. Thompson, The life of William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs, 2 vols. (1910)
A. Gray, Lord Kelvin: an account of his scientific life and work (1908)
[J. Thomson], 'Recollections of the battle of Ballynahinch', Belfast Magazine, 1 (1825), 56-64

CUL, Kelvin collection
CUL, corresp. with his son William and others
U. Edin., New Coll. L., letters to Thomas Chalmers

A. G. King and E. King, drawing, 1847, NPG [see illus.]
G. Gilbert, portrait, Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow
E. Thomson, pencil drawing, NPG
portrait, Royal Belfast Academical Institution

Wealth at death  
£13,299 9d.: confirmation, 1849, Scotland

Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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