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

Book 3, chapter VI
Modern theories of heat and light
Count Rumford and the vibratory theory of heat
But just at the close of the century the confidence in the status of the imponderables was rudely shaken in the minds of philosophers by the revival of the old idea of Fra Paolo and Bacon and Boyle, that heat, at any rate, is not a material fluid, but merely a mode of motion or vibration among the particles of "ponderable" matter. The new champion of the old doctrine as to the nature of heat was a very distinguished philosopher and diplomatist of the time, who, it may be worth recalling, was an American. He was a sadly expatriated American, it is true, as his name, given all the official appendages, will amply testify; but he had been born and reared in a Massachusetts village none the less, and he seems always to have retained a kindly interest in the land of his nativity, even though he lived abroad in the service of other powers during all the later years of his life, and was knighted by England, ennobled by Bavaria, and honored by the most distinguished scientific bodies of Europe. The American, then, who championed the vibratory theory of heat, in opposition to all current opinion, in this closing era of the eighteenth century, was Lieutenant-General Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, F.R.S.

Rumford showed that heat may be produced in indefinite quantities by friction of bodies that do not themselves lose any appreciable matter in the process, and claimed that this proves the immateriality of heat. Later on he added force to the argument by proving, in refutation of the experiments of Bowditch, that no body either gains or loses weight in virtue of being heated or cooled. He thought he had proved that heat is only a form of motion.

His experiment for producing indefinite quantities of heat by friction is recorded by him in his paper entitled, "Inquiry Concerning the Source of Heat Excited by Friction."

"Being engaged, lately, in superintending the boring of cannon in the workshops of the military arsenal at Munich," he says, "I was struck with the very considerable degree of heat which a brass gun acquires in a short time in being bored; and with the still more intense heat (much greater than that of boiling water, as I found by experiment) of the metallic chips separated from it by the borer.

"Taking a cannon (a brass six-pounder), cast solid, and rough, as it came from the foundry, and fixing it horizontally in a machine used for boring, and at the same time finishing the outside of the cannon by turning, I caused its extremity to be cut off; and by turning down the metal in that part, a solid cylinder was formed, 7 3/4 inches in diameter and 9 8/10 inches long; which, when finished, remained joined to the rest of the metal (that which, properly speaking, constituted the cannon) by a small cylindrical neck, only 2 1/5 inches in diameter and 3 8/10 inches long.

"This short cylinder, which was supported in its horizontal position, and turned round its axis by means of the neck by which it remained united to the cannon, was now bored with the horizontal borer used in boring cannon.

"This cylinder being designed for the express purpose of generating heat by friction, by having a blunt borer forced against its solid bottom at the same time that it should be turned round its axis by the force of horses, in order that the heat accumulated in the cylinder might from time to time be measured, a small, round hole 0.37 of an inch only in diameter and 4.2 inches in depth, for the purpose of introducing a small cylindrical mercurial thermometer, was made in it, on one side, in a direction perpendicular to the axis of the cylinder, and ending in the middle of the solid part of the metal which formed the bottom of the bore.

"At the beginning of the experiment, the temperature of the air in the shade, as also in the cylinder, was just sixty degrees Fahrenheit. At the end of thirty minutes, when the cylinder had made 960 revolutions about its axis, the horses being stopped, a cylindrical mercury thermometer, whose bulb was 32/100 of an inch in diameter and 3 1/4 inches in length, was introduced into the hole made to receive it in the side of the cylinder, when the mercury rose almost instantly to one hundred and thirty degrees.

"In order, by one decisive experiment, to determine whether the air of the atmosphere had any part or not in the generation of the heat, I contrived to repeat the experiment under circumstances in which it was evidently impossible for it to produce any effect whatever. By means of a piston exactly fitted to the mouth of the bore of the cylinder, through the middle of which piston the square iron bar, to the end of which the blunt steel borer was fixed, passed in a square hole made perfectly air-tight, the excess of the external air, to the inside of the bore of the cylinder, was effectually prevented. I did not find, however, by this experiment that the exclusion of the air diminished in the smallest degree the quantity of heat excited by the friction.

"There still remained one doubt, which, though it appeared to me to be so slight as hardly to deserve any attention, I was, however, desirous to remove. The piston which choked the mouth of the bore of the cylinder, in order that it might be air-tight, was fitted into it with so much nicety, by means of its collars of leather, and pressed against it with so much force, that, notwithstanding its being oiled, it occasioned a considerable degree of friction when the hollow cylinder was turned round its axis. Was not the heat produced, or at least some part of it, occasioned by this friction of the piston? and, as the external air had free access to the extremity of the bore, where it came into contact with the piston, is it not possible that this air may have had some share in the generation of the heat produced?

"A quadrangular oblong deal box, water-tight, being provided with holes or slits in the middle of each of its ends, just large enough to receive, the one the square iron rod to the end of which the blunt steel borer was fastened, the other the small cylindrical neck which joined the hollow cylinder to the cannon; when this box (which was occasionally closed above by a wooden cover or lid moving on hinges) was put into its place - that is to say, when, by means of the two vertical opening or slits in its two ends, the box was fixed to the machinery in such a manner that its bottom being in the plane of the horizon, its axis coincided with the axis of the hollow metallic cylinder, it is evident, from the description, that the hollow, metallic cylinder would occupy the middle of the box, without touching it on either side; and that, on pouring water into the box and filling it to the brim, the cylinder would be completely covered and surrounded on every side by that fluid. And, further, as the box was held fast by the strong, square iron rod which passed in a square hole in the centre of one of its ends, while the round or cylindrical neck which joined the hollow cylinder to the end of the cannon could turn round freely on its axis in the round hole in the centre of the other end of it, it is evident that the machinery could be put in motion without the least danger of forcing the box out of its place, throwing the water out of it, or deranging any part of the apparatus."

Everything being thus ready, the box was filled with cold water, having been made water-tight by means of leather collars, and the machinery put in motion. "The result of this beautiful experiment," says Rumford, "was very striking, and the pleasure it afforded me amply repaid me for all the trouble I had had in contriving and arranging the complicated machinery used in making it. The cylinder, revolving at the rate of thirty-two times in a minute, had been in motion but a short time when I perceived, by putting my hand into the water and touching the outside of the cylinder, that heat was generated, and it was not long before the water which surrounded the cylinder began to be sensibly warm.

"At the end of one hour I found, by plunging a thermometer into the box, . . . that its temperature had been raised no less than forty-seven degrees Fahrenheit, being now one hundred and seven degrees Fahrenheit. ... One hour and thirty minutes after the machinery had been put in motion the heat of the water in the box was one hundred and forty-two degrees. At the end of two hours ... it was raised to one hundred and seventy-eight degrees; and at two hours and thirty minutes it ACTUALLY BOILED!

"It would be difficult to describe the surprise and astonishment expressed in the countenances of the bystanders on seeing so large a quantity of cold water heated, and actually made to boil, without any fire. Though there was, in fact, nothing that could justly be considered as a surprise in this event, yet I acknowledge fairly that it afforded me a degree of childish pleasure which, were I ambitious of the reputation of a GRAVE PHILOSOPHER, I ought most certainly rather to hide than to discover...."

Having thus dwelt in detail on these experiments, Rumford comes now to the all-important discussion as to the significance of them - the subject that had been the source of so much speculation among the philosophers - the question as to what heat really is, and if there really is any such thing (as many believed) as an igneous fluid, or a something called caloric.

"From whence came this heat which was continually given off in this manner, in the foregoing experiments?" asks Rumford. "Was it furnished by the small particles of metal detached from the larger solid masses on their being rubbed together? This, as we have already seen, could not possibly have been the case.

"Was it furnished by the air? This could not have been the case; for, in three of the experiments, the machinery being kept immersed in water, the access of the air of the atmosphere was completely prevented.

"Was it furnished by the water which surrounded the machinery? That this could not have been the case is evident: first, because this water was continually RECEIVING heat from the machinery, and could not, at the same time, be GIVING TO and RECEIVING HEAT FROM the same body; and, secondly, because there was no chemical decomposition of any part of this water. Had any such decomposition taken place (which, indeed, could not reasonably have been expected), one of its component elastic fluids (most probably hydrogen) must, at the same time, have been set at liberty, and, in making its escape into the atmosphere, would have been detected; but, though I frequently examined the water to see if any air-bubbles rose up through it, and had even made preparations for catching them if they should appear, I could perceive none; nor was there any sign of decomposition of any kind whatever, or other chemical process, going on in the water.

"Is it possible that the heat could have been supplied by means of the iron bar to the end of which the blunt steel borer was fixed? Or by the small neck of gun-metal by which the hollow cylinder was united to the cannon? These suppositions seem more improbable even than either of the before-mentioned; for heat was continually going off, or OUT OF THE MACHINERY, by both these passages during the whole time the experiment lasted.

"And in reasoning on this subject we must not forget to consider that most remarkable circumstance, that the source of the heat generated by friction in these experiments appeared evidently to be INEXHAUSTIBLE.

"It is hardly necessary to add that anything which any INSULATED body, or system of bodies, can continue to furnish WITHOUT LIMITATION cannot possibly be a MATERIAL substance; and it appears to me to be extremely difficult, if not quite impossible, to form any distinct idea of anything capable of being excited and communicated, in the manner the heat was excited and communicated in these experiments, except in MOTION."[1]





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.