History of the Thermometer

Lord Kelvin invented the Kelvin Scale in 1848

A portrait of Lord Kelvin
The World's Work / Public Domain

Lord Kelvin invented the Kelvin Scale in 1848 used on thermometers. The Kelvin Scale measures the ultimate extremes of hot and cold. Kelvin developed the idea of absolute temperature, what is called the "Second Law of Thermodynamics", and developed the dynamical theory of heat.

In the 19th century, scientists were researching what was the lowest temperature possible. The Kelvin scale uses the same units as the Celcius scale, but it starts at ABSOLUTE ZERO, the temperature at which everything including air freezes solid.

Absolute zero is O K, which is - 273°C degrees Celsius.

Lord Kelvin - Biography

Sir William Thomson, Baron Kelvin of Largs, Lord Kelvin of Scotland (1824 - 1907) studied at Cambridge University, was a champion rower, and later became a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow. Among his other achievements was the 1852 discovery of the "Joule-Thomson Effect" of gasses and his work on the first transatlantic telegraph cable (for which he was knighted), and his inventing of the mirror galvanometer used in cable signaling, the siphon recorder, the mechanical tide predictor, an improved ship's compass.

Extracts from: Philosophical Magazine October 1848 Cambridge University Press, 1882

...The characteristic property of the scale which I now propose is, that all degrees have the same value; that is, that a unit of heat descending from a body A at the temperature T° of this scale, to a body B at the temperature (T-1)°, would give out the same mechanical effect, whatever be the number T.

This may justly be termed an absolute scale since its characteristic is quite independent of the physical properties of any specific substance.

To compare this scale with that of the air-thermometer, the values (according to the principle of estimation stated above) of degrees of the air-thermometer must be known.

Now an expression, obtained by Carnot from the consideration of his ideal steam-engine, enables us to calculate these values when the latent heat of a given volume and the pressure of saturated vapor at any temperature are experimentally determined. The determination of these elements is the principal object of Regnault's great work, already referred to, but, at present, his researches are not complete. In the first part, which alone has been as yet published, the latent heats of a given weight, and the pressures of saturated vapour at all temperatures between 0° and 230° (Cent. of the air-thermometer), have been ascertained; but it would be necessary in addition to know the densities of saturated vapour at different temperatures, to enable us to determine the latent heat of a given volume at any temperature. M. Regnault announces his intention of instituting researches for this object; but till the results are made known, we have no way of completing the data necessary for the present problem, except by estimating the density of saturated vapour at any temperature (the corresponding pressure being known by Regnault's researches already published) according to the approximate laws of compressibility and expansion (the laws of Mariotte and Gay-Lussac, or Boyle and Dalton).

Within the limits of natural temperature in ordinary climates, the density of saturated vapour is actually found by Regnault (Études Hydrométriques in the Annales de Chimie) to verify very closely these laws; and we have reasons to believe from experiments which have been made by Gay-Lussac and others, that as high as the temperature 100° there can be no considerable deviation; but our estimate of the density of saturated vapour, founded on these laws, may be very erroneous at such high temperatures at 230°. Hence a completely satisfactory calculation of the proposed scale cannot be made till after the additional experimental data shall have been obtained; but with the data which we actually possess, we may make an approximate comparison of the new scale with that of the air-thermometer, which at least between 0° and 100° will be tolerably satisfactory.

The labour of performing the necessary calculations for effecting a comparison of the proposed scale with that of the air-thermometer, between the limits of 0° and 230° of the latter, has been kindly undertaken by Mr. William Steele, lately of Glasgow College, now of St. Peter's College, Cambridge. His results in tabulated forms were laid before the Society, with a diagram, in which the comparison between the two scales is represented graphically. In the first table, the amounts of mechanical effect due to the descent of a unit of heat through the successive degrees of the air-thermometer are exhibited. The unit of heat adopted is the quantity necessary to elevate the temperature of a kilogramme of water from 0° to 1° of the air-thermometer; and the unit of mechanical effect is a metre-kilogramme; that is, a kilogramme raised a metre high.

In the second table, the temperatures according to the proposed scale, which correspond to the different degrees of the air-thermometer from 0° to 230°, are exhibited. The arbitrary points which coincide on the two scales are 0° and 100°.

If we add together the first hundred numbers given in the first table, we find 135.7 for the amount of work due to a unit of heat descending from a body A at 100° to B at 0°. Now 79 such units of heat would, according to Dr. Black (his result being very slightly corrected by Regnault), melt a kilogramme of ice. Hence if the heat necessary to melt a pound of ice be now taken as unity, and if a metre-pound be taken as the unit of mechanical effect, the amount of work to be obtained by the descent of a unit of heat from 100° to 0° is 79x135.7, or 10,700 nearly. This is the same as 35,100 foot-pounds, which is a little more than the work of a one-horse-power engine (33,000 foot pounds) in a minute; and consequently, if we had a steam-engine working with perfect economy at one-horse-power, the boiler being at the temperature 100°, and the condenser kept at 0° by a constant supply of ice, rather less than a pound of ice would be melted in a minute.