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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 72.djvu/267

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263
KELVIN IN THE SIXTIES

no contrivances such as would to-day be found in any polytechnic, no laboratory course, no special hours for the students to attend, no assistants to supervise or explain, no marks given for laboratory work, no workshop and even no fee to be paid. But the six or eight students who worked in that laboratory felt that the entrée was a great privilege. College laboratories for any branch of physics did not, as far as I remember, exist anywhere in London during my student days. Principal Carey Foster started one in 1866 shortly after his appointment as professor of physics at University College, since he realized that making experiments was as great a necessity for students of physics as for students of chemistry. And it was Carey Foster's pioneering efforts to have a students' physical laboratory at University College, and his description of what Thomson had done at Glasgow, which made my mouth water and turned my attention northwards. Of course, the accommodation in Gower Street for physical work in 1866 did not differ much from what had existed at Glasgow since 1846, and certainly even in 1879, thirteen years later, Professor Cornu's students at the Ecole Polytechnique, Paris, never touched a piece of physical apparatus, although the cabinet de physique there contained all the originals of Regnault's classical apparatus, or facsimiles of the apparatus that Regnault had used in his investigations.

Thomson's students experimented in his one room and the adjoining coal cellar, in spite of the atmosphere of coal dust, which settled on everything, produced by a boy coming periodically to shovel up coal for the fires. If for some test a student wanted a resistance coil, or a Wheatstone's bridge, he had to find some wire, wind the coil, and adjust it for himself.

It is difficult to make the electrical student of to-day realize what were the difficulties, but what also were the splendid compensating advantages of the electrical students under Thomson in the sixties. We were like a band of emigrants following our leader in wagons across the prairies and the Rockies on the way into California in 1848. While his far greater genius, perseverance, and endurance would enable him to find nuggets, we perhaps might find specks of scientific gold. We were proud to follow him, we did not expect or even know what the laboratory luxuries of to-day would be, we did not need an Empire State Express train to hurry us in Pullman cars along a line of smooth level rails.

If the instrument given us by Thomson to work with had never been described to us—if its theory or even its use was entirely unknown to us—well, there were no maps for the early emigrants going westward to fall back on, they had to ford the streams for themselves, and did not expect to find bridges already built to enable them to step over every difficulty.