Lord Kelvin and Jordanhill


Old Ordnance Survey maps of the early 1900’s show Jordanhill (as we know today) made up of arable fields and hedgerows with very few houses.      These included the little row of cottages on Anniesland Road west of Helensburgh Drive (the present Jordanhlll shop), All Saints original church and the Rectory,  Woodend Cottage where Jordanhill Church now stands, a few cottages on Crow Road at Woodend Drive, Skaterigg Farm where the High School now stands and Jordanhill Mansion House which is now the site of the Crawfurd Theatre in the College Campus.


However the maps also show a small building in the middle of these fields.    It is named “Compass Observatory” and its exact site is near my home in Munro Road.   It is not clear precisely when the building was erected  but from available records it was certainly between 1900 and 1908.    



Lord Kelvin, (William Thomson) the famous Scottish physicist and mathematician 1824  -1907, was a man of many parts who turned his creative mind to design and patent many wonderful instruments and processes.    One of his interests was terrestrial magnetism and he started making (and calibrating) very accurate compasses.    We know he was making compasses at the start of the 1900’s in his firm “Kelvin and James White”.   


In order to calibrate his compasses he required a testing centre to be located away from the factory with all its metal parts and electrical currents for the machinery which might influence the compass needle.   He therefore built the Compass Observatory in rural Jordanhill.


For a detailed description of the building, the following paragraphs have been extracted from a booklet produced around 1913 by Lord Kelvin’s later company “Kelvin, Bottomly and Baird”.    The title of the booklet is the title which appears at the head of this web page and its opening pages describe the building in the quaint style of the day.


“There is to be seen at Jordanhill, on the out-skirts of Glasgow, to the north-west, a neat but unpretentious tiled building, standing solitary in the centre of a large space of open ground.   It requires but a casual glance to see that this is neither mansion nor cottage, factory nor farm, and the observer may reasonably enquire for what purpose it can have been built.


Should he approach sufficiently close to the building to peer through the window, he might perhaps see a beautifully finished compass bowl, suspended on gimbal rings, in the foreground, and an operator in the rear, intently gazing at the same through a transit telescope mounted upon a stone column rising through the floor in the centre of the room.


The building is the Magnetic Observatory of Kelvin, Bottomley & Baird, Ltd., where the high-class compasses and compass cards manufactured by that firm are day by day accurately tested and adjusted. The observatory may be said to be absolutely unique of its kind, there being no other on exactly similar lines in the world, as far as it is known, the nearest approach thereto being that erected by the British Admiralty for similar purposes.


In a busy factory, such as that of Kelvin, Bottomley Baird, Ltd., the unavoidable movement of masses of iron would alone render it impossible to produce magnetic instruments of the highest class, with the necessary freedom from error; while the structural ironwork of such a building would locally distort the earth’s magnetic field, so as to render the intensity and the direction of the same a matter of some difficulty to determine accurately. But the most disturbing factor is the city electric tramway system, passing by the very doors, the varying currents necessary for the propulsion of the cars producing magnetic disturbances which are felt at all parts of the building.


The magnetic observatory is situated far from the terminus of the tramways; and no electric lightcables are laid in the neighbourhood; while no single iron detail, whether nail, screw or hook, has been used in its construction. Such precautions may, at first sight, appear super-particular, but, such is the delicacy of the instruments (the magnetometer, for example) that a very noticeable deflection from the true magnetic meridian occurs should anyone approach the gate carrying an umbrella under his arm.


The Building contains three rooms, including the testing room, a workroom and a store. The testing room itself is built with its length in the present direction of the earth’s field, and the north and southwalls contain large hinged windows, which provide ample light for illuminating the scales of the optical instruments and the compass which is being tested.


All the instruments are supported on massive sand- stone pillars, which pass through the floor, without contact with it, and rest on solid foundations in the ground below.”


By the 1920’s Jordanhill Estate had feued off large parts of the fields around Southbrae Drive and Crow Road for new housing.     Housing developers, just like the present land-hungry firms, demanded more land and by the 1930’s the Munro Road houses had been built.   The builders used the site immediately adjacent to the observatory as their storage yard for materials and offices.   The 1935 Ordnance Survey map still shows the Compass Observatory but its usefulness was by that time long gone.


In the 1970’s the present two blocks of modern terrace housing, 58 – 72 Munro Road, were built on the site.




For full details of Lord Kelvin’s life, refer to the book “Energy and Empire, a biographical study of Lord Kelvin” by Crosbie Smith and M Norton Wise.


It is interesting to note that Archibald Smith of Jordanhill was also fascinated by compasses and in 1866 presented a paper to the Royal Institution in London entitled “The Deviation of the Compass in Iron Ships”.     Archibald Smith and William Thomson met on many occasions and knew of each other’s interest in compasses.   


Compass Cottages on Anniesland Road opposite its junction with Helenburgh Drive were built by Smith but have no connection with Lord Kelvin and the Compass Observatory.    For more information on Compass Cottages see web page at



Back to home page