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Margaret Thomson died in 1830 when William was six years old.William and his elder brother James were tutored at home by their father while the younger boys were tutored by their elder sisters.
The Thomson children were introduced to a broader cosmopolitan experience than their father's rural upbringing, spending mid-1839 in London and the boys were tutored in French in Paris. Thomson had heart problems and nearly died when he was 9 years old.
He attended the Royal Belfast Academical Institution, where his father was a professor in the university department, before beginning study at Glasgow University in 1834 at the age of 10, not out of any precociousness; the University provided many of the facilities of an elementary school for able pupils, and this was a typical starting age.
On gaining the fellowship, he spent some time in the laboratory of the celebrated Henri Victor Regnault, at Paris; but in 1846 he was appointed to the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Glasgow.
At twenty-two he found himself wearing the gown of a learned professor in one of the oldest Universities in the country, and lecturing to the class of which he was a first year student but a few years before.
The study of mathematics, physics, and in particular, of electricity, had captivated his imagination.