Unit systemSI base unit
Unit ofTemperature
Named afterWilliam Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin

The kelvin is the base unit of temperature in the International System of Units (SI), having the unit symbol K. It is named after the Belfast-born, Glasgow University engineer and physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824–1907).

The kelvin is now defined by fixing the numerical value of the Boltzmann constant k to 1.380 649×10−23 J⋅K−1. This unit is equal to kg⋅m2⋅s−2⋅K−1, where the kilogram, metre and second are defined in terms of the Planck constant, the speed of light, and the duration of the caesium-133 ground-state hyperfine transition.[1] Thus, this definition depends only on universal constants, and not on any physical artifacts as practiced previously, such as the International Prototype of the Kilogram, whose mass diverged over time from the original value.

One kelvin is equal to a change in the thermodynamic temperature T that results in a change of thermal energy kT by 1.380 649×10−23 J.[2]

The Kelvin scale fulfills Thomson's requirements as an absolute thermodynamic temperature scale. It uses absolute zero as its null point.

Unlike the degree Fahrenheit and degree Celsius, the kelvin is not referred to or written as a degree. The kelvin is the primary unit of temperature measurement in the physical sciences, but is often used in conjunction with the degree Celsius, which has the same magnitude.


Lord Kelvin, the namesake of the unit

In 1848, William Thomson, who was later created Lord Kelvin, wrote in his paper, On an Absolute Thermometric Scale, of the need for a scale whereby "infinite cold" (absolute zero) was the scale's null point, and which used the degree Celsius for its unit increment. Kelvin calculated that absolute zero was equivalent to −273 °C on the air thermometers of the time.[3] This absolute scale is known today as the Kelvin thermodynamic temperature scale. Kelvin's value of "−273" was the negative reciprocal of 0.00366—the accepted expansion coefficient of gas per degree Celsius relative to the ice point, giving a remarkable consistency to the currently accepted value.

In 1954, Resolution 3 of the 10th General Conference on Weights and Measures (CGPM) gave the Kelvin scale its modern definition by designating the triple point of water as its second defining point and assigned its temperature to exactly 273.16 kelvins.[4]

In 1967/1968, Resolution 3 of the 13th CGPM renamed the unit increment of thermodynamic temperature "kelvin", symbol K, replacing "degree Kelvin", symbol °K.[5] Furthermore, feeling it useful to more explicitly define the magnitude of the unit increment, the 13th CGPM also held in Resolution 4 that "The kelvin, unit of thermodynamic temperature, is equal to the fraction 1/273.16 of the thermodynamic temperature of the triple point of water."[6]

In 2005, the Comité International des Poids et Mesures (CIPM), a committee of the CGPM, affirmed that for the purposes of delineating the temperature of the triple point of water, the definition of the Kelvin thermodynamic temperature scale would refer to water having an isotopic composition specified as Vienna Standard Mean Ocean Water.[7]

On 16 November 2018, a new definition was adopted, in terms of a fixed value of the Boltzmann constant. With this change the triple point of water became an empirically determined value of approximately 273.16 kelvin. For legal metrology purposes, the new definition officially came into force on 20 May 2019, the 144th anniversary of the Metre Convention.[8]