VIII. THE CONSERVATION OF ENERGY
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.
MAYER'S PAPER OF 1842
The paper in which Mayer first gave expression to his revolutionary ideas bore the title of "The Forces of Inorganic Nature," and was published in 1842. It is one of the gems of scientific literature, and fortunately it is not too long to be quoted in its entirety. Seldom if ever was a great revolutionary doctrine expounded in briefer compass:
"What are we to understand by 'forces'? and how are different forces related to each other? The term force conveys for the most part the idea of something unknown, unsearchable, and hypothetical; while the term matter, on the other hand, implies the possession, by the object in question, of such definite properties as weight and extension. An attempt, therefore, to render the idea of force equally exact with that of matter is one which should be welcomed by all those who desire to have their views of nature clear and unencumbered by hypothesis.
"Forces are causes; and accordingly we may make full application in relation to them of the principle causa aequat effectum. If the cause c has the effect e, then c = e; if, in its turn, e is the cause of a second effect of f, we have e = f, and so on: c = e = f ... = c. In a series of causes and effects, a term or a part of a term can never, as is apparent from the nature of an equation, become equal to nothing. This first property of all causes we call their indestructibility.