Rankine, William John Macquorn, 1820-1872

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1820-07-05
Death 1872-12-24
Britons
English

Biographical notes:

Civil engineer and physicist. Born in Edinburgh and studied at the university there. He then worked as an engineer on various railway projects in Scotland and Ireland, and from 1844 to 1848 was employed by the Caledonian Railway Co. About 1848 he commenced the researches on molecular physics which constitute his claim to fame in the scientific domain. His work on thermodynamics mirrored similar ideas being put forward by his contemporaries, William Thompson (Lord Kelvin) and Clausius. He was appointed to the chair of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at Glasgow University in 1855 where he taught until his death.

From the description of On the causes of the accidental breaking of the journals of originally sound railway axles and on the means of preventing it by observing the law of continuity in their construction, 1843. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 86132317

William John Macquorn Rankine was born in Edinburgh on 5 July 1820, the son of David Rankine, a civil engineer, who later became Secretary of the Caledonian Railway. William Rankine attended Ayr Academy 1828-1829 and the High School of Glasgow in 1830. For health reasons, his father then continued his schooling at home. He attended the University of Edinburgh from 1836-1838 . In his first year he studied Chemistry, Natural History, Botany and Natural Philosophy. He was awarded the Gold Medal for his essay on The Undulatory Theory of Light, and in his second year he gained an extra prize for his essay on Methods of Physical Investigation . He also studied Metaphysics. However, in 1838 family circumstances forced Rankine to curtail his studies and enter a profession. He became an assistant to his father on the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway for a year, and then became a pupil of Sir John Macneil, a leading civil engineer. He remained with Macneil for four years working in Ireland on water and harbour works, river improvements and the construction of the Dublin and Drogheda Railway. He returned to Edinburgh in 1842 and worked with railway companies and consultants for the next six years.

From about 1848 Rankine spent more of his time on research and theoretical physics producing a large amount of original work. However he was still involved in practical civil engineering projects such as the supply of water to Glasgow from Loch Katrine. He also worked in London in the civil engineering practice of Professor Lewis Gordon, who was then also the Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Glasgow . Rankine, who stood in as deputy for Professor Gordon in the 1854-1855 session, was appointed to the chair of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the university in 1855 . His appointment lasted 17 years during which time he published 111 papers and a series of textbooks including: A Manual of Applied Mechanics (1858), A Manual of the Steam Engine and Other Prime Movers (1858), A Manual of Civil Engineering (1862) and A Manual of Machinery and Millwork (1869). These textbooks became the standard texts for university trained engineers until well into the 20th century.

Rankine pioneered the application of scientific principles to Engineering particularly in thermodynamics of heat engines, hydrodynamics of naval architecture and strengths of materials. He also helped establish Engineering as an independent department within the University of Glasgow and successfully argued for the introduction of a Certificate of Proficiency in Engineering Science in 1862, and then the establishment of the BSc in Engineering in 1872 . Shortly after, on 24 December 1872, Professor Rankine died at the age of 52. Rankine was the first President of the Institute of Engineers & Shipbuilders in Scotland , he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, a member of the Institute of Naval Architects, and he received an honorary LLD degree from Trinity College, Dublin. He was active in the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Philosophical Society of Glasgow. He was involved in the Glasgow University Rifle Volunteers between 1859 and 1864, first as a Captain, and from 1860 as a Senior Major. He had a keen interest in music and a volume of his compositions entitled Songs and fables was published after his death.

Sources: Sutherland, Hugh B, Rankine: His Life & Times, (London, 1973); Channel, David F, Rankine, ( Edinburgh, 1986); Williams, Trevor IA Biographical Dictionary of Scientists, (London, 1969).

From the guide to the Papers of William John Macquorn Rankine, 1820-1872, engineer and Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics, University of Glasgow, Scotland, 1855-1956, (Glasgow University Archive Services)

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Subjects:

  • Railroad engineering
  • Railroads--Axles--Technological innovations
  • Axles--Design and construction
  • Physics
  • Railroads--Cars--Vibration
  • Engineering

Occupations:

  • Engineers

Places:

  • Great Britain (as recorded)