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The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771.

Lord Kelvin’s Lost Alchemical Chamber of Secrets

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In the world of historical investigation and detection, luck, is a universal component that often leads one to otherwise hidden realms. That is precisely what happened to me in 2009 while undertaking a contract as a 3D Visual Consultant at the University of Glasgow, home of Sir William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin.

Portrait of Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) by Hubert von Herkomer.

Portrait of Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) by Hubert von Herkomer.

Born in 1824 in Belfast, Ireland, Sir William was a Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Glasgow between 1846/99 and Chancellor between 1904/07. This scientific superstar was universally recognized in his lifetime as the most powerful figure in the scientific world and he held this reputation for over sixty years. He was the first person to apply mechanical principals to the measurement of electricity and by weighing electric charge and current with his ‘electrometers’ and ‘current balances’ he provided absolute definitions of the ohm, volt and amp. Sir William invented electrical instruments upon which both the telegraphic and the electrical power industries were built and his research into rotating bodies, and his computation of the age of the earth, founded the science of geophysics. Furthermore, his work on rotational dynamics produced the ‘vortex atom’ theory between 1870 and 1890 purporting that an atom was a vortex in the aether, which was immensely popular among British physicists and mathematicians.

Sir William first imagined then systemized the general science of energy and its conservation, thermodynamics. The ‘Absolute Scale’ of temperature, the ‘Kelvin Scale’ - is his. His experiments with the legendary ‘James Prescott Joule’ uncovered the cooling effect of expanding of gases - the under-felt of modern cryogenics. However, parallel to his repeatable experiments he held firm beliefs in panspermia theory, attributing human origins to extraterrestrial sources, and he went so far as to predict that due to the rate of burning combustibles, our planet only has 400 years of oxygen remaining. But don’t worry folks, the cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus accounts for more than half of marine photo synthesis and was not discovered until 1986, so we are Oxygen safe - for now!

Lord Kelvin's Quadrant Electrometer. Scanned from the book "Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism" by Silvanus P. Thompson. 1905 Edition.

Lord Kelvin's Quadrant Electrometer. Scanned from the book "Elementary Lessons in Electricity and Magnetism" by Silvanus P. Thompson. 1905 Edition.

Discovering Lord Kelvin’s Rabbit Hole

One afternoon in 2009, I had been speaking with the head of the university’s audio-visual department, John (pseudonym), about Sir William. John shared with me something that can only be described as an extraordinary historic secret. He led me through the warrens of the university to a theatre which had become the university’s senate room in 1968, and had been renovated again in 2009.

The university’s senate room where Sir William had once lectured.

The university’s senate room where Sir William had once lectured. Credit: University of Glasgow

John urged me to stand at the lectern and as I positioned myself he informed me that by the age of 22, Sir William had stood on the very same spot, lecturing. By his late teens Sir William had become a master of thermodynamics and had developed an extraordinary ability for observing and interpreting natural phenomena with mechanical models. John insisted that before showing me Sir William’s secret, I must consider that Sir William maintained that a major requirement in any scientific undertaking was accuracy of measurement, insisting:

'When you can measure what you are speaking about and express it in numbers, you know something about it, but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in number, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind’.
- Sir William Kelvin

As I mulled over the quote, John guided me over to a tall wooden door, to the side of the theatre. Stepping inside, I found myself in a hidden alchemical chamber, an extraordinary micro-lab with two vertical pipes mounted on wood which disappeared into the ceiling, one containing a blood-red solution and the other holding a deep cobalt-blue mixture.

Kelvin’s hidden diffusion experiment. Credit: Stuart Forsyth, University of Glasgow.

Kelvin’s hidden diffusion experiment. Credit: Stuart Forsyth, University of Glasgow.

As my eyes slowly descended the pipes, I came across a set of lost symbols, the mental projections of Lord Kelvin himself. These ghostly communications, which manifested in the shadows of this hidden place, entranced me, and I stood utterly astounded at what I beheld. Written in charcoal grey ink, on dry-yellowing cardboard insulation, was a formula, a note and a date: Sat: Cu SO4, Water Filled, Oct, 24 1872.

Kelvin’s chemical notes. Credit: Author.

Kelvin’s chemical notes. Credit: Author.

John was admittedly at a loss to what this ancient message from the earliest days of science meant, but he assured me that they related to an experiment which Sir William had undertaken while teaching in this theatre. Subsequently, the pipes had been hidden behind a wall and lost in time. I became distracted from this Kelvinian code with other projects, however, four years later, in the August 19, 2013 edition of Chemical and Engineering News, writer Bethany Halford answered the mystery of these two pipes in a scientific article about uncompleted, ongoing, scientific experiments, explaining:

In 1872, Sir William Thomson, eventually known as Lord Kelvin, set up two vertical 17.5-foot glass tubes in a lecture theater designed for the experimental aspects of his classes at Glasgow. Kelvin partly filled one tube with a copper sulfate solution and then carefully topped it off with water. He partly filled the second tube with water and then topped it off with colored alcohol.

Bethany Halford, Chemical and Engineering News, 2013.

Today, Lee Cronin, Regius Chair of Chemistry at the University of Glasgow is one of the world’s most expansive scientific minds, and his creative science projects include looking for molecular aliens, the origin of life, & digital drugs. Professor Cronin personally keeps an eye on the pipes and their solutions, which remain hidden in the walled-off compartment of Kelvin’s former lecture theater. He claims “ Sir William’s aim was to observe the diffusion of the liquids into one another over time.

Wonderfully, almost incredibly, Sir William’s diffusion experiment has not been disturbed after 141 years and the solutions are still diffusing! Although nobody is currently taking measurements of the solutions, someone could, and thus someone eventually will. What is special about this particular experiment is that it has been conducted over a long period of time, unpolluted by external variables which are found in nature. Chemical observations made in the natural environment will only ever be ‘close approximations’ because outdoor samples are contaminated over time by factors which scientists looking backwards can’t always account for.

The destiny of this untouched organic experiment, which was founded in a world when chemistry was still emanating from alchemy, will be actualized sometime in the future, no doubt when an advanced computer is capable of analyzing the solutions in the tubes, extrapolating real-time, clean, scientific data pertaining to the ‘actual’ mechanics of chemical infusion, which may help in our understanding of quantum realms, where modern chemistry is happening!

Top image: The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1771. (Public Domain)

By Ashley Cowie


Burchfield, J.D. (1990). Lord Kelvin and the Age of the Earth. University of Chicago Press.

Silliman, Robert H. (1963) William Thomson: Smoke Rings and Nineteenth-Century Atomism, Isis 54(4): 461–474.

Green, G. & Lloyd, J.T. (1970). Kelvin's instruments and the Kelvin Museum. Glasgow: University of Glasgow

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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