The focus of this paper is one of James Prescott Joule’s scientific contributions: the laws of heat production by electric currents in conductors. In 1841, the 22 years old Joule published a paper with the title “On the heat evolved by metallic conductors of electricity, and in the cells of a battery during electrolysis” where he presented an experimental study of that phenomenon and proposed two laws that were allegedly supported by his trials. On closer inspection, both his laboratory work and his inferences can be challenged. The emphasis of this article is an attempt to understand Joule’s experimental undertaking, its highpoints and shortcomings, by a detailed analysis of this specific episode and by studying the precedents of his work and subsequent advancements. It is possible to point out several serious deficiencies of that investigation, and Joule’s contemporaries, such as Edmond Becquerel and Heinrich Lenz, did criticize some of his flaws and undertook new experiments to provide a sound basis for those laws. Besides providing a historical examination of that specific episode, this article uses this case study to tackle some features of the nature of science that may contribute to scientific education.
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See, for instance, how Cropper (1988) reinterprets Joule’s work on electrochemistry using current theoretical hypotheses.
Those papers have been reproduced in the first volume of Joule’s Scientific Papers (Joule 1884, pp. 1–42). Notice, however, that the order of Joule’s publications in this volume does not strictly follow the chronological order. The three papers reproduced between pages 42 and 59 are later than the following article, on the production of heat by voltaic electricity.
The abstract was published in the volume of the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London that has the year 1843 at its title page. However, the issue where the paper was published was printed in March 1841.
A detailed description and discussion of the paper rejected by the Royal Society will be published in a future paper, “Joule’s 1840 manuscript on the production of heat by voltaic electricity” (Martins forthcoming).
A full analysis will be presented in “Joule’s 1840 manuscript on the production of heat by voltaic electricity” (Martins forthcoming).
See “Joule’s 1840 manuscript on the production of heat by voltaic electricity” (Martins forthcoming).
The diameter of metallic wires was usually found by tightly winding the wire around a cylinder, with successive turns touching each other, and then counting the number of turns contained in the length of one inch. A diameter of 1/50 of an inch means 50 turns by inch. In the case of thicker wires, it might happen that one inch did not correspond to an integer number of turns, and it could be necessary to count the turns contained in two or more inches to find out its thickness.
The current in those experiments was variable, of course; Joule only informed the mean value of the current, without any other details.
Analyzing Joule’s unpublished 1840 original, it was possible to ascertain that this ratio was not the result of measurements, but of computation using the values he had ascertained for the conductivities of metals. See “Joule’s 1840 manuscript on the production of heat by voltaic electricity” (Martins forthcoming).
In describing the wires used by Joule, Blake-Coleman (1992, p. 168) assumed that their resistance was the same as that of current copper wires. That is not an acceptable assumption.
According to the database of the WorldCat, the Burndy Library holds an undated leaflet with the title “Direction for the new electric machine” with the indication: “made and sold by Abraham Brook, bookseller”.
The book had a second edition (London: printed for J. Hamilton 1797), and a German translation: BROOK, Abraham. Johann Brook's vermischte Erfahrungen über die Elektrizität, die Luftpumpe und das Barometer. Translated by Carl Gottlob Kühn. Leipzig: Weygandsche Buchhandlung, 1790.
Concerning Children’s life, one may consult the book written by his daughter (Atkins 1853).
The page numbers were wrongly printed, in this issue of the Transactions of the Plymouth Institution. The pages that should appear as 67–68 were numbered 23–24.
The conclusions of Harris’ 1830 investigation were also reported, without the experimental details, in the Journal of the Royal Institution (Harris 1831).
For information about De la Rive, one may consult his éloge by Dumas (1878).
On the concept of “exploratory experiment”, see Steinle (2016, pp. 312–316).
In this paper, Edmond Becquerel claimed that the constant battery had been invented by his father, Antoine-César Becquerel (1788–1878). Indeed in 1829, Antoine-César had described the principle of the “constant” batteries using two different electrolytes separated by a porous wall (Becquerel 1829). However, in the decade of 1840 the most widely used “constant” battery was the one invented by John Frederic Daniell (1790–1845) in 1836. Edmond Becquerel’s paper started a short controversy with Daniell about the priority of this kind of instrument (Owen 2001).
The drawing published by Edmond Becquerel presented a cylindrical calorimeter, but the text of the paper states that it was a cube.
The description states that the diameter of this wire was 0.23 m (Becquerel 1843, p. 45)—of course, a blunder made during the copy of the original manuscript or when printing the paper.
In Botto’s paper, the unit of time is printed as 1”—that is, one second – but it is possible that the times varied from 5 to 20 min, not seconds. Indeed, in one of his experiments, 83 cubic centimeters of water were reported as produced in 15 s. The melting of 83 g of ice requires about 28 kJ of energy; if that amount was indeed transferred to the calorimeter in 15 s, the electric power was about 1.9 kW. If, instead of 15 s, the time was 15 min, the power was about 31 W—a much more likely value.
In the paper we find the thickness of the wire described as 0.33 m (Botto 1846, p. 276), but this was evidently a mistake. Botto used the metric system and he probably obtained 30 turns of the platinum wire per centimetre, that is, a diameter of 0.33 mm. No erratum was found in the volume of the Memorie della Reale Accademia delle Scienze di Torino in which Botto’s article was published, however; and the value 0.33 m was reproduced in the Archives de l’Électricité, without any comment (Botto 1845, p. 354).
The first part of Botto’s paper was presented to the Turin Academy of Sciences in December 1844, and it was published in 1846. Joule’s memoir sent to the Paris Academy of Science contains some experiments he made in 1844–1845, and it was submitted by Joule in February 1846.
There is a mistake in Tait’s account. Lenz and Jacobi collaborated in other researches, but the experiments concerning the heat generated in conductors were performed by Lenz alone.
Google Books Ngram Viewer. Available at <https://books.google.com/ngrams>. Accessed on 21/Jan./2020.
In the following citation, Thomson only described a particular component of what we call the principle of conservation of energy: the transformation between heat and mechanical effects. In the rest of his paper and in other publications, however, he explicitly included other transformations (for instance: “[…] theory of mechanical equivalence among the electric, chemical, magnetic, frictional, and pneumatic developments of energy” Thomson 1854b, p. 347), ascribing its discovery to Joule alone.
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The authors acknowledge the support they received from the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) for the development of this research. The authors are also grateful to the referees of a former version of this paper. Their criticism and suggestions contributed to the improvement of this paper.
This study was supported by Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (Grant No. 302661/2017-4).
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Martins, R.A., Silva, A.P.B. Joule’s Experiments on the Heat Evolved by Metallic Conductors of Electricity. Found Sci (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10699-020-09681-1
- James Prescott Joule
- History of physics
- Nineteenth-century science
- Nature of science
- Science education