A History of Science
Tome I
Tome II
Tome III Tome IV

Book 3, chapter VI
Modern theories of heat and light
The eighteenth-century philosopher made great strides in his studies of the physical properties of matter and the application of these properties in mechanics, as the steam-engine, the balloon, the optic telegraph, the spinning-jenny, the cotton-gin, the chronometer, the perfected compass, the Leyden jar, the lightning-rod, and a host of minor inventions testify. In a speculative way he had thought out more or less tenable conceptions as to the ultimate nature of matter, as witness the theories of Leibnitz and Boscovich and Davy, to which we may recur. But he had not as yet conceived the notion of a distinction between matter and energy, which is so fundamental to the physics of a later epoch. He did not speak of heat, light, electricity, as forms of energy or "force"; he conceived them as subtile forms of matter - as highly attenuated yet tangible fluids, subject to gravitation and chemical attraction; though he had learned to measure none of them but heat with accuracy, and this one he could test only within narrow limits until late in the century, when Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter, taught him to gauge the highest temperatures with the clay pyrometer.

He spoke of the matter of heat as being the most universally distributed fluid in nature; as entering in some degree into the composition of nearly all other substances; as being sometimes liquid, sometimes condensed or solid, and as having weight that could be detected with the balance. Following Newton, he spoke of light as a "corpuscular emanation" or fluid, composed of shining particles which possibly are transmutable into particles of heat, and which enter into chemical combination with the particles of other forms of matter. Electricity he considered a still more subtile kind of matter-perhaps an attenuated form of light. Magnetism, "vital fluid," and by some even a "gravic fluid," and a fluid of sound were placed in the same scale; and, taken together, all these supposed subtile forms of matter were classed as "imponderables."

This view of the nature of the "imponderables" was in some measure a retrogression, for many seventeenth- century philosophers, notably Hooke and Huygens and Boyle, had held more correct views; but the materialistic conception accorded so well with the eighteenth- century tendencies of thought that only here and there a philosopher like Euler called it in question, until well on towards the close of the century. Current speech referred to the materiality of the "imponderables " unquestioningly. Students of meteorology - a science that was just dawning - explained atmospheric phenomena on the supposition that heat, the heaviest imponderable, predominated in the lower atmosphere, and that light, electricity, and magnetism prevailed in successively higher strata. And Lavoisier, the most philosophical chemist of the century, retained heat and light on a par with oxygen, hydrogen, iron, and the rest, in his list of elementary substances.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.