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Print pioneer profiles: Lord Kelvin

If you’ve been following the PMG blog, by now you’ll be well versed in the early history of print. We’ve told you about Gutenberg’s path to greatness and Caxton’s business-savvy approach to 15th century print. Now we’re taking a giant leap forward to the 19th century, when another print pioneer emerged: William Thomson, later known as Lord Kelvin. One of Britain and Ireland’s most famous physicists, Kelvin accomplished a great many things in his life, but it’s a little known fact that he invented the inkjet printer. Of course, the story is a little more complicated than that. Read on to learn more about Kelvin’s contributions to print technology.


Kelvin’s beginnings

Kelvin was born in Belfast in 1824 as William Thomson, and his family moved to Glasgow in 1833. Kelvin’s father worked as a professor of mathematics at Glasgow University, and young William Thomson started studying there at the age of 10 – the typical starting age at the time. By his mid-teens, Thomson showed great promise in mathematics and the sciences and published his first scientific article at the age of 17 under a pseudonym. He went on to study (and excel) at Cambridge University, and even encouraged Michael Faraday to carry out research that eventually brought about the discovery of the Faraday effect. Kelvin quickly built up a reputation as a highly creative, maverick scientist who was more than happy to scrutinise and question established scientific theory.


Telegraphs and patents

Thomson then became an engineer, advising on the construction of the transatlantic telegraph cable. It was during this process that Thomson patented what is widely regarded as the precursors to inkjet printing, or perhaps even the very first inkjet printer in existence – the siphon recorder. Of course, Thomson didn’t view his invention as a printer – it was merely designed as a tool to record receipts of telegraph messages.


The first inkjet printer?

The siphon recorder operated by using electrostatic forces to apply ink to paper – in effect, the same mechanics used in modern inkjet printers. However, Kelvin’s invention required the ink to be applied in a steady stream, as opposed to the staccato bursts employed by computer-aided inkjet printers. The siphon recorder ‘printed’ wobbly lines of ink, which then had to be translated into letters and words. The siphon recorder wasn’t the most reliable piece of kit, and it’s fair to say that today’s drop-on-demand inkjet printers are more useful to the consumer than Kelvin’s invention, but the siphon recorder was revolutionary technology in the mid-19th century. Kelvin used his unmatched knowledge of electrostatics to create a useful technology that helped to transform long-distance communications. Little did he know that the siphon recorder would lead to one of the most important print technologies of the future.

So, next time you use an inkjet printer at home or at work, think back to the wobbly lines created by Kelvin’s siphon recorder. Today’s print technology was certainly inspired by Kelvin’s invention. If you’d like to make the most of today’s cutting-edge print tech, print management is a great option for your company. Speak to us to find out how it all works.

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