Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Thompson, Silvanus Phillips

4171969Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Thompson, Silvanus Phillips1927Arthur Smithells

THOMPSON, SILVANUS PHILLIPS (1851–1916), physicist, was born at York 19 June 1851, the second son of Silvanus Thompson, schoolmaster, of that city, by his wife, Bridget Tatham, of Settle. He was educated at Bootham School, York, and at the Flounders' Institute, Pontefract, graduating B.A. of London University in 1869. He acted as a master at the Bootham School from 1870 to 1875, in which year he graduated B.Sc., London. He studied for one year in London at the Royal School of Mines and spent one semester at Heidelberg University. He was appointed lecturer in physics at the University College, Bristol, in 1876, and became professor in 1878, gaining the degree of D.Sc., London, in the same year. In 1885 he was appointed principal and professor of applied physics and electrical engineering of the City and Guilds Technical College, Finsbury. He held these posts until his death at Hampstead 12 June 1916. He was elected F.R.S. in 1891, and, besides holding other important posts in connexion with various scientific societies, he was president of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899, of the Physical Society in 1901, and of the Optical Society in 1905.

Silvanus Thompson showed at an early age great vigour and breadth of mind, considerable literary and artistic talent, and untiring industry that never abated throughout his life. Although he was interested in scientific theory, and made important contributions to the study of optics and electricity, the coincidence of Thompson's scientific life with the inauguration of the age of electrical engineering gave an irresistible opportunity for the exercise of his special talents. In addition to his knowledge of electrical science and of magnetism, he had unusual experimental and inventive skill and the true instinct of an engineer. His mind was intensely lucid, and his power of simple and arresting exposition was certainly not excelled, if equalled, among his scientific contemporaries. He attained the position of a pioneer in the development of applied electricity. In 1881 he produced a text-book, Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism, which has run through many editions; while his Dynamo-electric Machinery, published in 1884, established itself at once as a standard work for electrical engineers. He also published The Electro-magnet and Electro-magnetic Mechanisms (1891). His public lectures attracted large audiences and aided greatly in promoting technical education, especially in electrical engineering. Thompson was much consulted and greatly relied upon as an expert.

As principal and professor of the City and Guilds Technical College, Thompson had a full share in bringing about the success which the college achieved by the labours of the distinguished men who filled its three chairs, and he contributed in a high degree to securing the corporate spirit and loyalty, as well as the enthusiasm and sound learning of the Finsbury students.

Thompson pursued with zest his literary, antiquarian, and artistic tastes. He wrote lives of Philipp Reis (1883), of Michael Faraday (1898), and of Lord Kelvin (1910), as well as numerous essays. He devoted much time to the study of the sixteenth-century scientist, William Gilbert [q.v.], and to the translation of his work De Magnete. He was a skilful painter, especially of Alpine scenery, and an accomplished linguist. He came of quaker stock and was throughout his life an earnest member of the Society of Friends, in which he was recognized as a minister in 1903. His interest in religion prompted him to write The Quest of Truth (1915) and A Not Impossible Religion (published in 1918). He married in 1881 Jane, daughter of James Henderson, of Pollokshields, by whom he had four daughters.

[J. S. and H. G. Thompson, Silvanus Phillips Thompson. His Life and Letters, 1920; Proceedings of the Royal Society, vol. xciv, A, 1917–1918 (with portrait).]

A. S.