"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]


But contemporary judgment, while it listened respectfully to Rumford, was little minded to accept his verdict. The cherished beliefs of a generation are not to be put down with a single blow. Where many minds have a similar drift, however, the first blow may precipitate a general conflict; and so it was here. Young Humphry Davy had duplicated Rumford's experiments, and reached similar conclusions; and soon others fell into line. Then, in 1800, Dr. Thomas Young— "Phenomenon Young" they called him at Cambridge, because he was reputed to know everything—took up the cudgels for the vibratory theory of light, and it began to be clear that the two "imponderables," heat and light, must stand or fall together; but no one as yet made a claim against the fluidity of electricity.

Before we take up the details of the assault made by Young upon the old doctrine of the materiality of light, we must pause to consider the personality of Young himself. For it chanced that this Quaker physician was one of those prodigies who come but few times in a century, and the full list of whom in the records of history could be told on one's thumbs and fingers. His biographers tell us things about him that read like the most patent fairy-tales. As a mere infant in arms he had been able to read fluently. Before his fourth birthday came he had read the Bible twice through, as well as Watts's Hymns—poor child!—and when seven or eight he had shown a propensity to absorb languages much as other children absorb nursery tattle and Mother Goose rhymes. When he was fourteen, a young lady visiting the household of his tutor patronized the pretty boy by asking to see a specimen of his penmanship. The pretty boy complied readily enough, and mildly rebuked his interrogator by rapidly writing some sentences for her in fourteen languages, including such as, Arabian, Persian, and Ethiopic.