He was born on the 3rd June, 1860, but unfortunately there is little recorded of his early life. He served his apprenticeship at the works of Messrs. R. and W. Hawthorn, Newcastle-on-Tyne. Following that he went to Edinburgh University, where he received the degree of Doctor of Science. Having gained a Whitworth Scholarship and other distinctions, he studied under Professor Martens in Berlin. When he returned to England he became a Demonstrator in Applied Mechanics at Cambridge University. In 1891 he was appointed as a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at McGill University, Montreal.
During the first decade of the century, he was largely occupied with the primary arrangements in connection with the equipment of the proposed laboratory for the study of internal combustion engineering at the School of Technology. He paid a visit to the continent in search of ideas. In the report which he made on his return, he advocated that Manchester should be made the centre of research work in connection with internal combustion engines.
The Abstract of a further report by Professor Nicolson, published in Nature, 26 November 1903, Vol. 69, p.79, entitled "Engineering Equipment of the Manchester School of Technology", responds to criticisms that his ambitious programme of installing the latest equipment to the Department's laboratories was "unnecessarily complicated and beyond the capacity of the students"; and that it was wrong to put in so much plant at once, rather than waiting "until the growth of students showed a necessity for it". Nicolson's robust reply was that "it was in the hope of attracting that very class of student the critic is so sure we are unlikely to secure that so extensive and elaborate a plant was installed". It was a matter of regret among his colleagues that he did not live to see the fruits of his labour in this connection.
In a paper entitled "Experiments with a Lathe Tool Dynamometer", Proc. I.Mech.E., June 1904, Vol. 67, pp. 883-935, he reports anomalies in the Tool-Steel Trials made by the Manchester Committee in 1902-03 (Report published in the Trans. of the Manchester Association of Engineers, 1903). In the paper he records his appreciation of the work carried out by Mr. Dempster Smith (then Demonstrator in Mechanical Engineering) for work done in the design of the dynamometers manufactured in the school workshops. He had an exceptional understanding of machine tool design; and articulated views which, though perhaps well-based theoretically, were sometimes at variance with workshop conditions and requirements of the time. In collaboration with Mr. Dempster Smith, he advanced these views in a remarkable series of articles on "Machine Tool Design," which appeared in the columns of THE ENGINEER in 1905, 1906 and in 1907.
In 1908 he collaborated with Mr. Dempster Smith, who was then a Lecturer in Machine Design at the University of Manchester, to publish a well–known textbook on "Lathe Design for High- and Low-Speed Steels", Longmans, Green & Co., London.
Professor John Thomas Nicolson died at Manchester, in the prime of his career, on the 27th May 1913.
Flow of marble
In Monreal Nicolson published a paper with a Geologist, F. D. Dawson, Proc. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. A. 1901, Vol. 195 pp.368-401 (Communicated by H.L.Callendar FRS) on "An Experimental investigation into the Flow of Marble".
Turbine blades and jet engines
He received the Watt Medal of IMechE and a Telford premium of the ICE, for his joint paper with Professor H.L.Callendar "On The Law Of Condensation Of Steam: Deduced From Measurements Of Temperature-Cycles Of The Walls And Steam In The Cylinder Of A Steam-Engine", Proc. I.C.E. 1898, Vol. 131, pp. 147-206.
Latterly he took a special interest in internal-combustion engines. In 1908 an engine fitted with valve gear of an anti-clogging, dust free design was tested by Professor Nicolson, and its impressive performance was reported by Mr James Atkinson, of Manchester, in Proc. I.Mech.E April 1908, Vol. 74, pp. 383-415 in a paper entitled "The Governing and Regularity of Gas Engines".
Nicolson at Manchester
In 1899 Dr Nicolson went to Manchester, where he lived at Nant-y-Glyn, in Marple. He was given control of the Engineering Department of the Municipal Technical School (now University of Manchester). In 1905 he was appointed as the first Professor of Mechanical Engineering in the Faculty of Technology at the Manchester University. He worked at the Manchester University for 14 years until his death in 1913.
In 1898 John Thomas Nicolson received the the Watt Medal from the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) awarded to outstanding mechanical engineers.