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Rankine, William John Macquorn, 1820-1872, engineer

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

William John Macquorn Rankine, civil engineer, was born in Edinburgh on 5 July 1820. He was educated at Ayr academy in 1828-1829, and at the high school of Glasgow in 1830. From 1836 to 1838 he was a student in the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a gold medal for 'An Essay on the Undulatory Theory of Light,' and a prize for 'An Essay on Methods in Physical Investigation' set by his natural philosopher teacher James David Forbes. After assisting his father, who was manager of the Edinburgh and Dalkeith Railway, he, in 1838, became a pupil of John Benjamin Macneill, surveyor of the north of Ireland under the Railway Commission. For four years Rankine was employed on surveys and schemes for river improvements, water-works and harbour works, and on the Dublin and Drogheda Railway. While thus engaged he contrived a method of 'setting out curves' by chaining and angles at the circumference, since known as 'Rankine's method' although actually invented independently by other engineers at the same time. From 1844 to 1848, he was employed under Locke and Errington on various railway projects promoted by the Caledonian Railway Company, of which his father was Secretary then Treasurer. About 1848, he returned to the series of researches on the mechanical action of heat which he had begun in 1842 and which occupied him at intervals during the rest of his life, and which constitute his chief claim to distinction in the domain of pure science.

From January 1855 to April 1855, he lectured in Glasgow University as Deputy for Professor Lewis Gordon, on whose resignation he was appointed to the Chair of civil engineering and mechanics, 7 November 1855. In 1856, the preparation of his course of lectures led him to the invention of some remarkable methods connected with 'Transformation of Structures.' Rankine's contribution to the development of a systematic programme of training for engineers was enormous. At this point in the University's history, engineering was part of the Faculty of Arts, but was not recognised as a subject qualifying for graduation in Arts. Rankine campaigned vigorously to change this, resulting in the introduction of a Certificate of Proficiency in Engineering Science, in 1863. He continued to promote the study of science in the University, and after much deliberation a B.Sc. degree, was introduced shortly after his death in 1872. Rankine emphasised the mutual dependence and harmony between sound theory and good practice, and he was responsible for establishing the University's famous sandwich courses in co-operation with leading industrialists in Scotland. As well as scientific papers, he wrote engineering textbooks and manuals which became standard works of reference for students around the world. Rankine was also influential in moving the Department from High Street to Gilmorehill.

In 1857, he resigned the associateship of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and shortly afterwards, on the establishment of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland, he was elected the first president.

In October 1859, he received a commission as captain in the new Glasgow University Corps of the Rifle Volunteers, and in 1860, when senior major, commanded the second battalion at the review held by the Queen in the Queen's Park, Edinburgh. In 1865, he was appointed Consulting Engineer to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, and also became a regular contributor to the 'Engineer.' He communicated valuable information to the proceedings of the 'Committee on Designs for Ships of War' in 1871, created after the loss of the Captain, including calculating the stability of unmasted ships of low freeboard and the stability of ships under canvas. In May 1872, the value of his professorship was increased by a donation from Mrs. John Elder; but his health was already failing, and he died at 8 Albion Crescent, Dowanhill, near the new University buildings on 24 December 1872.


William John Macquorn Rankine was the son of David Rankine, a railway manager, and Barbara, daughter of Archibald Grahame, banker, of Glasgow.

The application of the doctrine, that 'heat and work are convertible,' to the discovery of new relations among the properties of bodies was made about the same time by three scientific men, William Thomson (afterwards Lord Kelvin), Rankine, and Clausius. Lord Kelvin cleared the way by his account of Carnot's work on the 'Motive Power of Heat,' and following James Joule pointed out the error of Carnot's assumption that heat is a substance and therefore indestructible. Rankine in 1850, and Clausius in the same year, showed in very different ways the nature of the further modifications which Carnot's theory required. Lord Kelvin in 1851 put the foundations of the theory in the form they have since retained.

Other Significant Information

Notable publications:

On the Means of improving the Water Supply of Glasgow, ( 1852)

A Manual of Applied Mechanics, ( 1858)

A Manual of the Steam Engine and other Prime Movers, ( 1859)

A Manual of Civil Engineering, ( 1862)

Shipbuilding, Theoretical and Practical, ( 1866)

A Manual of Machinery and Millwork, ( 1869)

Besides writing in various newspapers, he contributed more than two hundred papers to scientific and engineering journals, many of them exhaustive essays on mathematical or physical questions, and genuine contributions to the science of thermodynamics, elasticity and hydrodynamics in its relation to naval architecture.

Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1849: Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1853: Fellow of the Royal Society of London

1854: Awarded the Keith Prize of the Royal Society of Edinburgh

1855-1872: Professor of civil engineering and mechanics, University of Glasgow

1857: LL.D. from Trinity College Dublin

1857: First President and founding member of the Institution of Engineers in Scotland

1865: Consulting Engineer to the Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland


List of sources for the biographical information:

Neilson, J.B., Fortuna Domus, first ed, (Glasgow, University of Glasgow, 1952)

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (Oxford University Press, 2005)

Rules or Conventions

Authority record created according to theNational Council on ArchivesRules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names (NCA Rules)1997 and International Council on Archives: Ad Hoc Committee on Descriptive StandardsInternational Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR)CPF1995

Author and Date of Biographical History

Personal name authority record compiled for the GASHE project by John O'Brien, Glasgow University Archive Services, 31 July 2002.

Amended by Ben Marsden, Lecturer in Cultural History at the University of Aberdeen 3 March 2006 .