Thompson, Silvanus Phillips 1851 - 1916

English; British

(1851-1916), Physicist

Silvanus Phillips Thompson was born on the 19th June 1851 in York. After sitting for the external B.A. at the University of London in 1869, Thompson taught at Bootham School in York, where his father was senior master. He continued his scientific studies and earned the B.Sc. (1875) and D.Sc. (1878).

In 1876 Thompson was appointed lecturer in physics at the newly established University College, Bristol, and in 1878 he became the first professor of physics there. He quickly established himself as a popular and prolific lecturer and author of textbooks on electricity that made his name famous throughout the industrialized world. In 1885 he was appointed principal of Finsbury Technical College in London, one of two polytechnics sponsored by the City and Guilds of London Institute (the other, Central Technical College, later became part of Imperial College of Science and Technology of the University of London). He held this post until his death thirty-one years later.

In London, Thompson participated vigorously in scientific life and became the intimate of Lodge, FitzGerald, Crookes, and other luminaries. The thousands of graduates of Finsbury College, who came along at time when England had virtually no engineering colleges of university level, represent perhaps his most important contribution. He also took a hand in the development of radiotelegraphy and wrote a privately printed pamphlet in support of Lodge’s claims of priority over Marconi in the invention of a crucial feature, resonant tuning. Another popular work (until his death published anonymously), Calculus Made Easy (1910), is still in print three generations later.

In addition to his many technical contributions (notably in X rays, luminescence, magnetism, electrical machinery and illumination, and optics), Thompson was a notable historian of science and technology. His biographies of Gilbert, Faraday, and Kelvin are considered excellent of their sort, and he also published a highly polemic account of the life and work of Philipp Reis, a German schoolmaster whom Thompson persisted in regarding as the inventor of the telephone.

Thompson received many British and international honors but missed being named principal of the University of London when it was reorganized in 1901, possibly because of his stand on the Boer War: as an active Quaker, he openly castigated the British government for its inhuman treatment of civilians in the concentration camps of South Africa. Thompson became the first President to lead the British Institute of Radiology in 1897. In 1881 he married a fellow Quaker, Jane Smeal Henderson. They had four daughters, the second of whom collaborated with her mother in a biography of Thompson. Thompson died on the 12th June 1916.