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

Book 3, chapter VIII
The conservation of energy
Joule or Mayer?
Two years later Joule wished to read another paper, but the chairman hinted that time was limited, and asked him to confine himself to a brief verbal synopsis of the results of his experiments. Had the chairman but known it, he was curtailing a paper vastly more important than all the other papers of the meeting put together. However, the synopsis was given, and one man was there to hear it who had the genius to appreciate its importance. This was William Thomson, the present Lord Kelvin, now known to all the world as among the greatest of natural philosophers, but then only a novitiate in science. He came to Joule's aid, started rolling the ball of controversy, and subsequently associated himself with the Manchester experimenter in pursuing his investigations.

But meantime the acknowledged leaders of British science viewed the new doctrine askance. Faraday, Brewster, Herschel - those were the great names in physics at that day, and no one of them could quite accept the new views regarding energy. For several years no older physicist, speaking with recognized authority, came forward in support of the doctrine of conservation. This culminating thought of the first half of the nineteenth century came silently into the world, unheralded and unopposed. The fifth decade of the century had seen it elaborated and substantially demonstrated in at least three different countries, yet even the leaders of thought did not so much as know of its existence. In 1853 Whewell, the historian of the inductive sciences, published a second edition of his history, and, as Huxley has pointed out, he did not so much as refer to the revolutionizing thought which even then was a full decade old.

By this time, however, the battle was brewing. The rising generation saw the importance of a law which their elders could not appreciate, and soon it was noised abroad that there were more than one claimant to the honor of discovery. Chiefly through the efforts of Professor Tyndall, the work of Mayer became known to the British public, and a most regrettable controversy ensued between the partisans of Mayer and those of Joule - a bitter controversy, in which Davy's contention that science knows no country was not always regarded, and which left its scars upon the hearts and minds of the great men whose personal interests were involved.

And so to this day the question who is the chief discoverer of the law of the conservation of energy is not susceptible of a categorical answer that would satisfy all philosophers. It is generally held that the first choice lies between Joule and Mayer. Professor Tyndall has expressed the belief that in future each of these men will be equally remembered in connection with this work. But history gives us no warrant for such a hope. Posterity in the long run demands always that its heroes shall stand alone. Who remembers now that Robert Hooke contested with Newton the discovery of the doctrine of universal gravitation? The judgment of posterity is unjust, but it is inexorable. And so we can little doubt that a century from now one name will be mentioned as that of the originator of the great doctrine of the conservation of energy. The man whose name is thus remembered will perhaps be spoken of as the Galileo, the Newton, of the nineteenth century; but whether the name thus dignified by the final verdict of history will be that of Colding, Mohr, Mayer, Helmholtz, or Joule, is not as, yet decided.





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© Serge Jodra, 2006. - Reproduction interdite.