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

Book 3, chapter VIII
The conservation of energy
As we have seen, it was in 1831 that Faraday opened up the field of magneto-electricity. Reversing the experiments of his predecessors, who had found that electric currents may generate magnetism, he showed that magnets have power under certain circumstances to generate electricity; he proved, indeed, the interconvertibility of electricity and magnetism. Then he showed that all bodies are more or less subject to the influence of magnetism, and that even light may be affected by magnetism as to its phenomena of polarization. He satisfied himself completely of the true identity of all the various forms of electricity, and of the convertibility of electricity and chemical action. Thus he linked together light, chemical affinity, magnetism, and electricity. And, moreover, he knew full well that no one of these can be produced in indefinite supply from another. "Nowhere," he says, "is there a pure creation or production of power without a corresponding exhaustion of something to supply it."

When Faraday wrote those words in 1840 he was treading on the very heels of a greater generalization than any which he actually formulated; nay, he had it fairly within his reach. He saw a great truth without fully realizing its import; it was left for others, approaching the same truth along another path, to point out its full significance.

The great generalization which Faraday so narrowly missed is the truth which since then has become familiar as the doctrine of the conservation of energy - the law that in transforming energy from one condition to another we can never secure more than an equivalent quantity; that, in short, "to create or annihilate energy is as impossible as to create or annihilate matter; and that all the phenomena of the material universe consist in transformations of energy alone." Some philosophers think this the greatest generalization ever conceived by the mind of man. Be that as it may, it is surely one of the great intellectual landmarks of the nineteenth century. It stands apart, so stupendous and so far-reaching in its implications that the generation which first saw the law developed could little appreciate it; only now, through the vista of half a century, do we begin to see it in its true proportions.

A vast generalization such as this is never a mushroom growth, nor does it usually spring full grown from the mind of any single man. Always a number of minds are very near a truth before any one mind fully grasps it. Pre-eminently true is this of the doctrine of the conservation of energy. Not Faraday alone, but half a dozen different men had an inkling of it before it gained full expression; indeed, every man who advocated the undulatory theory of light and heat was verging towards the goal. The doctrine of Young and Fresnel was as a highway leading surely on to the wide plain of conservation. The phenomena of electro- magnetism furnished another such highway. But there was yet another road which led just as surely and even more readily to the same goal. This was the road furnished by the phenomena of heat, and the men who travelled it were destined to outstrip their fellow-workers; though, as we have seen, wayfarers on other roads were within hailing distance when the leaders passed the mark.

In order to do even approximate justice to the men who entered into the great achievement, we must recall that just at the close of the eighteenth century Count Rumford and Humphry Davy independently showed that labor may be transformed into heat; and correctly interpreted this fact as meaning the transformation of molar into molecular motion. We can hardly doubt that each of these men of genius realized - vaguely, at any rate - that there must be a close correspondence between the amount of the molar and the molecular motions; hence that each of them was in sight of the law of the mechanical equivalent of heat. But neither of them quite grasped or explicitly stated what each must vaguely have seen; and for just a quarter of a century no one else even came abreast their line of thought, let alone passing it.

But then, in 1824, a French philosopher, Sadi Carnot, caught step with the great Englishmen, and took a long leap ahead by explicitly stating his belief that a definite quantity of work could be transformed into a definite quantity of heat, no more, no less. Carnot did not, indeed, reach the clear view of his predecessors as to the nature of heat, for he still thought it a form of "imponderable" fluid; but he reasoned none the less clearly as to its mutual convertibility with mechanical work. But important as his conclusions seem now that we look back upon them with clearer vision, they made no impression whatever upon his contemporaries. Carnot's work in this line was an isolated phenomenon of historical interest, but it did not enter into the scheme of the completed narrative in any such way as did the work of Rumford and Davy.

The man who really took up the broken thread where Rumford and Davy had dropped it, and wove it into a completed texture, came upon the scene in 1840. His home was in Manchester, England; his occupation that of a manufacturer. He was a friend and pupil of the great Dr. Dalton. His name was James Prescott Joule. When posterity has done its final juggling with the names of the nineteenth century, it is not unlikely that the name of this Manchester philosopher will be a household word, like the names of Aristotle, Copernicus, and Newton.

For Joule's work it was, done in the fifth decade of the century, which demonstrated beyond all cavil that there is a precise and absolute equivalence between mechanical work and heat; that whatever the form of manifestation of molar motion, it can generate a definite and measurable amount of heat, and no more. Joule found, for example, that at the sea-level in Manchester a pound weight falling through seven hundred and seventy-two feet could generate enough heat to raise the temperature of a pound of water one degree Fahrenheit. There was nothing haphazard, nothing accidental, about this; it bore the stamp of unalterable law. And Joule himself saw, what others in time were made to see, that this truth is merely a particular case within a more general law. If heat cannot be in any sense created, but only made manifest as a transformation of another kind of motion, then must not the same thing be true of all those other forms of "force" - light, electricity, magnetism - which had been shown to be so closely associated, so mutually convertible, with heat? All analogy seemed to urge the truth of this inference; all experiment tended to confirm it. The law of the mechanical equivalent of heat then became the main corner-stone of the greater law of the conservation of energy.

But while this citation is fresh in mind, we must turn our attention with all haste to a country across the Channel - to Denmark, in short - and learn that even as Joule experimented with the transformation of heat, a philosopher of Copenhagen, Colding by name, had hit upon the same idea, and carried it far towards a demonstration. And then, without pausing, we must shift yet again, this time to Germany, and consider the work of three other men, who independently were on the track of the same truth, and two of whom, it must be admitted, reached it earlier than either Joule or Colding, if neither brought it to quite so clear a demonstration. The names of these three Germans are Mohr, Mayer, and Helmholtz. Their share in establishing the great doctrine of conservation must now claim our attention.

As to Karl Friedrich Mohr, it may be said that his statement of the doctrine preceded that of any of his fellows, yet that otherwise it was perhaps least important. In 1837 this thoughtful German had grasped the main truth, and given it expression in an article published in the Zeitschrift fur Physik, etc. But the article attracted no attention whatever, even from Mohr's own countrymen. Still, Mohr's title to rank as one who independently conceived the great truth, and perhaps conceived it before any other man in the world saw it as clearly, even though he did not demonstrate its validity, is not to be disputed.

It was just five years later, in 1842, that Dr. Julius Robert Mayer, practising physician in the little German town of Heilbronn, published a paper in Liebig's Annalen on "The Forces of Inorganic Nature," in which not merely the mechanical theory of heat, but the entire doctrine of the conservation of energy, is explicitly if briefly stated. Two years earlier Dr. Mayer, while surgeon to a Dutch India vessel cruising in the tropics, had observed that the venous blood of a patient seemed redder than venous blood usually is observed to be in temperate climates. He pondered over this seemingly insignificant fact, and at last reached the conclusion that the cause must be the lesser amount of oxidation required to keep up the body temperature in the tropics. Led by this reflection to consider the body as a machine dependent on outside forces for its capacity to act, he passed on into a novel realm of thought, which brought him at last to independent discovery of the mechanical theory of heat, and to the first full and comprehensive appreciation of the great law of conservation. Blood-letting, the modern physician holds, was a practice of very doubtful benefit, as a rule, to the subject; but once, at least, it led to marvellous results. No straw is go small that

it may not point the receptive mind of genius to new and wonderful truths.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.