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Thomson was the son of James Thomson, who, at the time of his son’s birth, was professor of engineering at Belfast. In 1832 he became professor of mathematics at Glasgow. He was the author of several noted texts on differential and integral calculus, and he educated William and another son, James, at home. In 1834 both boys matriculated at Glasgow, where the environment was one characteristic of the Scottish universities of the time, which differed greatly from Cambridge. Whereas at Cambridge there was no chair in natural philosophy, nor much interest in the work of the Parisian analysts of the first third of the century, at Glasgow there was a professorship in natural philosophy (held by William Meickleham, who was succeeded by Nichol and then by William Thomson); there was also a chair in chemistry (held by Thomas Thomson).

Meickleham had a great interest in the French approach to physical science and much respect for it. In 1904 Thomson recalled how, “My predecessor in the Natural Philosophy Chair … taught his students reverence for the great French mathematicians Legendre, Lagrange, and Laplace. His immediate successor, Dr. Nichol, added Fresnel and Fourier to this list of scientific nobles.”1

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