Articles | Volume 4, issue 2
03 Sep 2013
 | 03 Sep 2013

Lord Kelvin's atmospheric electricity measurements

K. L. Aplin and R. G. Harrison

Abstract. Lord Kelvin (William Thomson) made important contributions to the study of atmospheric electricity during a brief but productive period from 1859–1861. By 1859 Kelvin had recognised the need for "incessant recording" of atmospheric electrical parameters, and responded by inventing both the water dropper equaliser for measuring the atmospheric potential gradient (PG), and photographic data logging. The water dropper equaliser was widely adopted internationally and is still in use today. Following theoretical considerations of electric field distortion by local topography, Kelvin developed a portable electrometer, using it to investigate the PG on the Scottish island of Arran. During these environmental measurements, Kelvin may have unwittingly detected atmospheric PG changes during solar activity in August/September 1859 associated with the "Carrington event", which is interesting in the context of his later statements that solar magnetic influence on the Earth was impossible. Kelvin's atmospheric electricity work presents an early representative study in quantitative environmental physics, through the application of mathematical principles to an environmental problem, the design and construction of bespoke instrumentation for real world measurements and recognising the limitations of the original theoretical view revealed by experimental work.