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.


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.

"If the given cause c has produced an effect e equal to itself, it has in that very act ceased to be—c has become e. If, after the production of e, c still remained in the whole or in part, there must be still further effects corresponding to this remaining cause: the total effect of c would thus be > e, which would be contrary to the supposition c = e. Accordingly, since c becomes e, and e becomes f, etc., we must regard these various magnitudes as different forms under which one and the same object makes its appearance. This capability of assuming various forms is the second essential property of all causes. Taking both properties together, we may say, causes an INDESTRUCTIBLE quantitatively, and quantitatively CONVERTIBLE objects.

"There occur in nature two causes which apparently never pass one into the other," said Mayer. "The first class consists of such causes as possess the properties of weight and impenetrability. These are kinds of matter. The other class is composed of causes which are wanting in the properties just mentioned— namely, forces, called also imponderables, from the negative property that has been indicated. Forces are therefore INDESTRUCTIBLE, CONVERTIBLE, IMPONDERABLE OBJECTS.

"As an example of causes and effects, take matter: explosive gas, H + O, and water, HO, are related to each other as cause and effect; therefore H + O = HO. But if H + O becomes HO, heat, cal., makes its appearance as well as water; this heat must likewise have a cause, x, and we have therefore H + O + X = HO + cal. It might be asked, however, whether H + O is really = HO, and x = cal., and not perhaps H + O = cal., and x = HO, whence the above equation could equally be deduced; and so in many other cases. The phlogistic chemists recognized the equation between cal. and x, or phlogiston as they called it, and in so doing made a great step in advance; but they involved themselves again in a system of mistakes by putting x in place of O. In this way they obtained H = HO + x.

"Chemistry teaches us that matter, as a cause, has matter for its effect; but we may say with equal justification that to force as a cause corresponds force as effect. Since c = e, and e = c, it is natural to call one term of an equation a force, and the other an effect of force, or phenomenon, and to attach different notions to the expression force and phenomenon. In brief, then, if the cause is matter, the effect is matter; if the cause is a force, the effect is also a force.

"The cause that brings about the raising of a weight is a force. The effect of the raised weight is, therefore, also a force; or, expressed in a more general form, SEPARATION IN SPACE OF PONDERABLE OBJECTS IS A FORCE; and since this force causes the fall of bodies, we call it FALLING FORCE. Falling force and fall, or, still more generally, falling force and motion, are forces related to each other as cause and effect—forces convertible into each other—two different forms of one and the same object. For example, a weight resting on the ground is not a force: it is neither the cause of motion nor of the lifting of another weight. It becomes so, however, in proportion as it is raised above the ground. The cause—that is, the distance between a weight and the earth, and the effect, or the quantity of motion produced, bear to each other, as shown by mechanics, a constant relation.

'Gravity being regarded as the cause of the falling of bodies, a gravitating force is spoken of; and thus the ideas of PROPERTY and of FORCE are confounded with each other. Precisely that which is the essential attribute of every force—that is, the UNION of indestructibility with convertibility—is wanting in every property: between a property and a force, between gravity and motion, it is therefore impossible to establish the equation required for a rightly conceived causal relation. If gravity be called a force, a cause is supposed which produces effects without itself diminishing, and incorrect conceptions of the causal connections of things are thereby fostered. In order that a body may fall, it is just as necessary that it be lifted up as that it should be heavy or possess gravity. The fall of bodies, therefore, ought not to be ascribed to their gravity alone. The problem of mechanics is to develop the equations which subsist between falling force and motion, motion and falling force, and between different motions. Here is a case in point: The magnitude of the falling force v is directly proportional (the earth's radius being assumed—oo) to the magnitude of the mass m, and the height d, to which it is raised—that is, v = md. If the height d = l, to which the mass m is raised, is transformed into the final velocity c = l of this mass, we have also v = mc; but from the known relations existing between d and c, it results that, for other values of d or of c, the measure of the force v is mc squared; accordingly v = md = mcsquared. The law of the conservation of vis viva is thus found to be based on the general law of the indestructibility of causes.

"In many cases we see motion cease without having caused another motion or the lifting of a weight. But a force once in existence cannot be annihilated—it can only change its form. And the question therefore arises, what other forms is force, which we have become acquainted with as falling force and motion, capable of assuming? Experience alone can lead us to a conclusion on this point. That we may experiment to advantage, we must select implements which, besides causing a real cessation of motion, are as little as possible altered by the objects to be examined. For example, if we rub together two metal plates, we see motion disappear, and heat, on the other hand, make its appearance, and there remains to be determined only whether MOTION is the cause of heat. In order to reach a decision on this point, we must discuss the question whether, in the numberless cases in which the expenditure of motion is accompanied by the appearance of heat, the motion has not some other effect than the production of heat, and the heat some other cause than the motion.

"A serious attempt to ascertain the effects of ceasing motion has never been made. Without wishing to exclude a priori the hypothesis which it may be possible to establish, therefore, we observe only that, as a rule, this effect cannot be supposed to be an alteration in the state of aggregation of the moved (that is, rubbing, etc.) bodies. If we assume that a certain quantity of motion v is expended in the conversion of a rubbing substance m into n, we must then have m + v - n, and n = m + v; and when n is reconverted into m, v must appear again in some form or other.

By the friction of two metallic plates continued for a very long time, we can gradually cause the cessation of an immense quantity of movement; but would it ever occur to us to look for even the smallest trace of the force which has disappeared in the metallic dust that we could collect, and to try to regain it thence? We repeat, the motion cannot have been annihilated; and contrary, or positive and negative, motions cannot be regarded as = o any more than contrary motions can come out of nothing, or a weight can raise itself.

"Without the recognition of a causal relation between motion and heat, it is just as difficult to explain the production of heat as it is to give any account of the motion that disappears. The heat cannot be derived from the diminution of the volume of the rubbing substances. It is well known that two pieces of ice may be melted by rubbing them together in vacuo; but let any one try to convert ice into water by pressure, however enormous. The author has found that water undergoes a rise of temperature when shaken violently. The water so heated (from twelve to thirteen degrees centigrade) has a greater bulk after being shaken than it had before. Whence now comes this quantity of heat, which by repeated shaking may be called into existence in the same apparatus as often as we please? The vibratory hypothesis of heat is an approach towards the doctrine of heat being the effect of motion, but it does not favor the admission of this causal relation in its full generality. It rather lays the chief stress on restless oscillations.

"If it be considered as now established that in many cases no other effect of motion can be traced except heat, and that no other cause than motion can be found for the heat that is produced, we prefer the assumption that heat proceeds from motion to the assumption of a cause without effect and of an effect without a cause. Just as the chemist, instead of allowing oxygen and hydrogen to disappear without further investigation, and water to be produced in some inexplicable manner, establishes a connection between oxygen and hydrogen on the one hand, and water on the other.

"We may conceive the natural connection existing between falling force, motion, and heat as follows: We know that heat makes its appearance when the separate particles of a body approach nearer to each other; condensation produces heat. And what applies to the smallest particles of matter, and the smallest intervals between them, must also apply to large masses and to measurable distances. The falling of a weight is a diminution of the bulk of the earth, and must therefore without doubt be related to the quantity of heat thereby developed; this quantity of heat must be proportional to the greatness of the weight and its distance from the ground. From this point of view we are easily led to the equations between falling force, motion, and heat that have already been discussed.

"But just as little as the connection between falling force and motion authorizes the conclusion that the essence of falling force is motion, can such a conclusion be adopted in the case of heat. We are, on the contrary, rather inclined to infer that, before it can become heat, motion must cease to exist as motion, whether simple, or vibratory, as in the case of light and radiant heat, etc.

"If falling force and motion are equivalent to heat, heat must also naturally be equivalent to motion and falling force. Just as heat appears as an EFFECT of the diminution of bulk and of the cessation of motion, so also does heat disappear as a CAUSE when its effects are produced in the shape of motion, expansion, or raising of weight.

"In water-mills the continual diminution in bulk which the earth undergoes, owing to the fall of the water, gives rise to motion, which afterwards disappears again, calling forth unceasingly a great quantity of heat; and, inversely, the steam-engine serves to decompose heat again into motion or the raising of weights. A locomotive with its train may be compared to a distilling apparatus; the heat applied under the boiler passes off as motion, and this is deposited again as heat at the axles of the wheels."

Mayer then closes his paper with the following deduction: "The solution of the equations subsisting between falling force and motion requires that the space fallen through in a given time—e. g., the first second— should be experimentally determined. In like manner, the solution of the equations subsisting between falling force and motion on the one hand and heat on the other requires an answer to the question, How great is the quantity of heat which corresponds to a given quantity of motion or falling force? For instance, we must ascertain how high a given weight requires to be raised above the ground in order that its falling force maybe equivalent to the raising of the temperature of an equal weight of water from 0 degrees to 1 degrees centigrade. The attempt to show that such an equation is the expression of a physical truth may be regarded as the substance of the foregoing remarks.

"By applying the principles that have been set forth to the relations subsisting between the temperature and the volume of gases, we find that the sinking of a mercury column by which a gas is compressed is equivalent to the quantity of heat set free by the compression; and hence it follows, the ratio between the capacity for heat of air under constant pressure and its capacity under constant volume being taken as = 1.421, that the warming of a given weight of water from 
 0 degrees to 1 degrees centigrade corresponds to the fall of an equal weight from the height of about three hundred and sixty-five metres. If we compare with this result the working of our best steam-engines, we see how small a part only of the heat applied under the boiler is really transformed into motion or the raising of weights; and this may serve as justification for the attempts at the profitable production of motion by some other method than the expenditure of the chemical difference between carbon and oxygen—more particularly by the transformation into motion of electricity obtained by chemical means."[1]


Here, then, was this obscure German physician, leading the humdrum life of a village practitioner, yet seeing such visions as no human being in the world had ever seen before.

The great principle he had discovered became the dominating thought of his life, and filled all his leisure hours. He applied it far and wide, amid all the phenomena of the inorganic and organic worlds. It taught him that both vegetables and animals are machines, bound by the same laws that hold sway over inorganic matter, transforming energy, but creating nothing. Then his mind reached out into space and met a universe made up of questions. Each star that blinked down at him as he rode in answer to a night-call seemed an interrogation-point asking, How do I exist? Why have I not long since burned out if your theory of conservation be true? No one had hitherto even tried to answer that question; few had so much as realized that it demanded an answer. But the Heilbronn physician understood the question and found an answer. His meteoric hypothesis, published in 1848, gave for the first time a tenable explanation of the persistent light and heat of our sun and the myriad other suns—an explanation to which we shall recur in another connection.

All this time our isolated philosopher, his brain aflame with the glow of creative thought, was quite unaware that any one else in the world was working along the same lines. And the outside world was equally heedless of the work of the Heilbronn physician. There was no friend to inspire enthusiasm and give courage, no kindred spirit to react on this masterful but lonely mind. And this is the more remarkable because there are few other cases where a master-originator in science has come upon the scene except as the pupil or friend of some other master-originator. Of the men we have noticed in the present connection, Young was the friend and confrere of Davy; Davy, the protege of Rumford; Faraday, the pupil of Davy; Fresnel, the co-worker with Arago; Colding, the confrere of Oersted; Joule, the pupil of Dalton. But Mayer is an isolated phenomenon—one of the lone mountain-peak intellects of the century. That estimate may be exaggerated which has called him the Galileo of the nineteenth century, but surely no lukewarm praise can do him justice.

Yet for a long time his work attracted no attention whatever. In 1847, when another German physician, Hermann von Helmholtz, one of the most massive and towering intellects of any age, had been independently led to comprehension of the doctrine of the conservation of energy and published his treatise on the subject, he had hardly heard of his countryman Mayer. When he did hear of him, however, he hastened to renounce all claim to the doctrine of conservation, though the world at large gives him credit of independent even though subsequent discovery.


Meantime, in England, Joule was going on from one experimental demonstration to another, oblivious of his German competitors and almost as little noticed by his own countrymen. He read his first paper before the chemical section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1843, and no one heeded it in the least. It is well worth our while, however, to consider it at length. It bears the title, "On the Calorific Effects of Magneto-Electricity, and the Mechanical Value of Heat." The full text, as published in the Report of the British Association, is as follows:

"Although it has been long known that fine platinum wire can be ignited by magneto-electricity, it still remained a matter of doubt whether heat was evolved by the COILS in which the magneto-electricity was generated; and it seemed indeed not unreasonable to suppose that COLD was produced there in order to make up for the heat evolved by the other part of the circuit. The author therefore has endeavored to clear up this uncertainty by experiment. His apparatus consisted of a small compound electro-magnet, immersed in water, revolving between the poles of a powerful stationary magnet. The magneto-electricity developed in the coils of the revolving electro-magnet was measured by an accurate galvanometer; and the temperature of the water was taken before and after each experiment by a very delicate thermometer. The influence of the temperature of the surrounding atmospheric air was guarded against by covering the revolving tube with flannel, etc., and by the adoption of a system of interpolation. By an extensive series of experiments with the above apparatus the author succeeded in proving that heat is evolved by the coils of the magneto-electrical machine, as well as by any other part of the circuit, in proportion to the resistance to conduction of the wire and the square of the current; the magneto having, under comparable circumstances, the same calorific power as the voltaic electricity.

"Professor Jacobi, of St. Petersburg, bad shown that the motion of an electro-magnetic machine generates magneto-electricity in opposition to the voltaic current of the battery. The author had observed the same phenomenon on arranging his apparatus as an electro-magnetic machine; but had found that no additional heat was evolved on account of the conflict of forces in the coil of the electro-magnet, and that the heat evolved by the coil remained, as before, proportional to the square of the current. Again, by turning the machine contrary to the direction of the attractive forces, so as to increase the intensity of the voltaic current by the assistance of the magneto-electricity, he found that the evolution of heat was still proportional to the square of the current. The author discovered, therefore, that the heat evolved by the voltaic current is invariably proportional to the square of the current, however the intensity of the current may be varied by magnetic induction. But Dr. Faraday has shown that the chemical effects of the current are simply as its quantity. Therefore he concluded that in the electro- magnetic engine a part of the heat due to the chemical actions of the battery is lost by the circuit, and converted into mechanical power; and that when the electro-magnetic engine is turned CONTRARY to the direction of the attractive forces, a greater quantity of heat is evolved by the circuit than is due to the chemical reactions of the battery, the over-plus quantity being produced by the conversion of the mechanical force exerted in turning the machine. By a dynamometrical apparatus attached to his machine, the author has ascertained that, in all the above cases, a quantity of heat, capable of increasing the temperature of a pound of water by one degree of Fahrenheit's scale, is equal to the mechanical force capable of raising a weight of about eight hundred and thirty pounds to the height of one foot."[2]


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.


The gradual permeation of the field by the great doctrine of conservation simply repeated the history of the introduction of every novel and revolutionary thought. Necessarily the elder generation, to whom all forms of energy were imponderable fluids, must pass away before the new conception could claim the field. Even the word energy, though Young had introduced it in 1807, did not come into general use till some time after the middle of the century. To the generality of philosophers (the word physicist was even less in favor at this time) the various forms of energy were still subtile fluids, and never was idea relinquished with greater unwillingness than this. The experiments of Young and Fresnel had convinced a large number of philosophers that light is a vibration and not a substance; but so great an authority as Biot clung to the old emission idea to the end of his life, in 1862, and held a following.

Meantime, however, the company of brilliant young men who had just served their apprenticeship when the doctrine of conservation came upon the scene had grown into authoritative positions, and were battling actively for the new ideas. Confirmatory evidence that energy is a molecular motion and not an "imponderable" form of matter accumulated day by day. The experiments of two Frenchmen, Hippolyte L. Fizeau and Leon Foucault, served finally to convince the last lingering sceptics that light is an undulation; and by implication brought heat into the same category, since James David Forbes, the Scotch physicist, had shown in 1837 that radiant heat conforms to the same laws of polarization and double refraction that govern light. But, for that matter, the experiments that had established the mechanical equivalent of heat hardly left room for doubt as to the immateriality of this "imponderable." Doubters had indeed, expressed scepticism as to the validity of Joule's experiments, but the further researches, experimental and mathematical, of such workers as Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Rankine, and Tyndall in Great Britain, of Helmholtz and Clausius in Germany, and of Regnault in France, dealing with various manifestations of heat, placed the evidence beyond the reach of criticism.

Out of these studies, just at the middle of the century, to which the experiments of Mayer and Joule had led, grew the new science of thermo-dynamics. Out of them also grew in the mind of one of the investigators a new generalization, only second in importance to the doctrine of conservation itself. Professor William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in his studies in thermodynamics was early impressed with the fact that whereas all the molar motion developed through labor or gravity could be converted into heat, the process is not fully reversible. Heat can, indeed, be converted into molar motion or work, but in the process a certain amount of the heat is radiated into space and lost. The same thing happens whenever any other form of energy is converted into molar motion. Indeed, every transmutation of energy, of whatever character, seems complicated by a tendency to develop heat, part of which is lost. This observation led Professor Thomson to his doctrine of the dissipation of energy, which he formulated before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1852, and published also in the Philosophical Magazine the same year, the title borne being, "On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy."

From the principle here expressed Professor Thomson drew the startling conclusion that, "since any restoration of this mechanical energy without more than an equivalent dissipation is impossible," the universe, as known to us, must be in the condition of a machine gradually running down; and in particular that the world we live on has been within a finite time unfit for human habitation, and must again become so within a finite future. This thought seems such a commonplace to-day that it is difficult to realize how startling it appeared half a century ago. A generation trained, as ours has been, in the doctrines of the conservation and dissipation of energy as the very alphabet of physical science can but ill appreciate the mental attitude of a generation which for the most part had not even thought it problematical whether the sun could continue to give out heat and light forever. But those advance thinkers who had grasped the import of the doctrine of conservation could at once appreciate the force of Thomson's doctrine of dissipation, and realize the complementary character of the two conceptions.

Here and there a thinker like Rankine did, indeed, attempt to fancy conditions under which the energy lost through dissipation might be restored to availability, but no such effort has met with success, and in time Professor Thomson's generalization and his conclusions as to the consequences of the law involved came to be universally accepted.

The introduction of the new views regarding the nature of energy followed, as I have said, the course of every other growth of new ideas. Young and imaginative men could accept the new point of view; older philosophers, their minds channelled by preconceptions, could not get into the new groove. So strikingly true is this in the particular case now before us that it is worth while to note the ages at the time of the revolutionary experiments of the men whose work has been mentioned as entering into the scheme of evolution of the idea that energy is merely a manifestation of matter in motion. Such a list will tell the story better than a volume of commentary.

Observe, then, that Davy made his epochal experiment of melting ice by friction when he was a youth of twenty. Young was no older when he made his first communication to the Royal Society, and was in his twenty-seventh year when he first actively espoused the undulatory theory. Fresnel was twenty-six when he made his first important discoveries in the same field; and Arago, who at once became his champion, was then but two years his senior, though for a decade he had been so famous that one involuntarily thinks of him as belonging to an elder generation.

Forbes was under thirty when he discovered the polarization of heat, which pointed the way to Mohr, then thirty-one, to the mechanical equivalent. Joule was twenty-two in 1840, when his great work was begun; and Mayer, whose discoveries date from the same year, was then twenty-six, which was also the age of Helmholtz when he published his independent discovery of the same law. William Thomson was a youth just past his majority when he came to the aid of Joule before the British Society, and but seven years older when he formulated his own doctrine of the dissipation of energy. And Clausius and Rankine, who are usually mentioned with Thomson as the great developers of thermo-dynamics, were both far advanced with their novel studies before they were thirty. With such a list in mind, we may well agree with the father of inductive science that "the man who is young in years may be old in hours."

Yet we must not forget that the shield has a reverse side. For was not the greatest of observing astronomers, Herschel, past thirty-five before he ever saw a telescope, and past fifty before he discovered the heat rays of the spectrum? And had not Faraday reached middle life before he turned his attention especially to electricity? Clearly, then, to make this phrase complete, Bacon should have added that "the man who is old in years may be young in imagination." Here, however, even more appropriate than in the other case —more's the pity—would have been the application of his qualifying clause: "but that happeneth rarely."


There are only a few great generalizations as yet thought out in any single field of science. Naturally, then, after a great generalization has found definitive expression, there is a period of lull before another forward move. In the case of the doctrines of energy, the lull has lasted half a century. Throughout this period, it is true, a multitude of workers have been delving in the field, and to the casual observer it might seem as if their activity had been boundless, while the practical applications of their ideas—as exemplified, for example, in the telephone, phonograph, electric light, and so on —have been little less than revolutionary. Yet the most competent of living authorities, Lord Kelvin, could assert in 1895 that in fifty years he had learned nothing new regarding the nature of energy.

This, however, must not be interpreted as meaning that the world has stood still during these two generations. It means rather that the rank and file have been moving forward along the road the leaders had already travelled. Only a few men in the world had the range of thought regarding the new doctrine of energy that Lord Kelvin had at the middle of the century. The few leaders then saw clearly enough that if one form of energy is in reality merely an undulation or vibration among the particles of "ponderable" matter or of ether, all other manifestations of energy must be of the same nature. But the rank and file were not even within sight of this truth for a long time after they had partly grasped the meaning of the doctrine of conservation. When, late in the fifties, that marvellous young Scotchman, James Clerk-Maxwell, formulating in other words an idea of Faraday's, expressed his belief that electricity and magnetism are but manifestations of various conditions of stress and motion in the ethereal medium (electricity a displacement of strain, magnetism a whirl in the ether), the idea met with no immediate popularity. And even less cordial was the reception given the same thinker's theory, put forward in 1863, that the ethereal undulations producing the phenomenon we call light differ in no respect except in their wave-length from the pulsations of electro-magnetism.

At about the same time Helmholtz formulated a somewhat similar electro-magnetic theory of light; but even the weight of this combined authority could not give the doctrine vogue until very recently, when the experiments of Heinrich Hertz, the pupil of Helmholtz, have shown that a condition of electrical strain may be developed into a wave system by recurrent interruptions of the electric state in the generator, and that such waves travel through the ether with the rapidity of light. Since then the electro-magnetic theory of light has been enthusiastically referred to as the greatest generalization of the century; but the sober thinker must see that it is really only what Hertz himself called it—one pier beneath the great arch of conservation. It is an interesting detail of the architecture, but the part cannot equal the size of the whole.

More than that, this particular pier is as yet by no means a very firm one. It has, indeed, been demonstrated that waves of electro-magnetism pass through space with the speed of light, but as yet no one has developed electric waves even remotely approximating the shortness of the visual rays. The most that can positively be asserted, therefore, is that all the known forms of radiant energy-heat, light, electro-magnetism— travel through space at the same rate of speed, and consist of traverse vibrations—"lateral quivers," as Fresnel said of light—known to differ in length, and not positively known to differ otherwise. It has, indeed, been suggested that the newest form of radiant energy, the famous X-ray of Professor Roentgen's discovery, is a longitudinal vibration, but this is a mere surmise. Be that as it may, there is no one now to question that all forms of radiant energy, whatever their exact affinities, consist essentially of undulatory motions of one uniform medium.

A full century of experiment, calculation, and controversy has thus sufficed to correlate the "imponderable fluids" of our forebears, and reduce them all to manifestations of motion among particles of matter. At first glimpse that seems an enormous change of view. And yet, when closely considered, that change in thought is not so radical as the change in phrase might seem to imply. For the nineteenth-century physicist, in displacing the "imponderable fluids" of many kinds—one each for light, heat, electricity, magnetism—has been obliged to substitute for them one all-pervading fluid, whose various quivers, waves, ripples, whirls or strains produce the manifestations which in popular parlance are termed forms of force. This all-pervading fluid the physicist terms the ether, and he thinks of it as having no weight. In effect, then, the physicist has dispossessed the many imponderables in favor of a single imponderable—though the word imponderable has been banished from his vocabulary. In this view the ether—which, considered as a recognized scientific verity, is essentially a nineteenth- century discovery—is about the most interesting thing in the universe. Something more as to its properties, real or assumed, we shall have occasion to examine as we turn to the obverse side of physics, which demands our attention in the next chapter.