The Genesis of the Laws of Thermodynamics [1941a]

  • Robert S. Cohen
  • John J. Stachel
Part of the Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science book series (BSPS, volume 21)


The history of the establishment of the two great laws of thermodynamics is instructive on more than one score. Considered, as it usually is, from its purely logical aspect, it raises varied and important questions of scientific method, which occur here with particular simplicity and clarity. In fact, the logical structure of thermodynamics exhibits very pure lines: It reduces to two laws of universal significance expressing two independent but closely linked aspects of the most general impossibility of “perpetual motion”. The manner in which these two laws were successively disentangled, in which their independence was recognized, and in which the problem of their compatibility was then raised, offers for analysis a clearly delimited group of facts without complicated ramifications or cumbersome accessory details. Three more or less successive phases may be distinguished: The first. dominated by the great solitary figure of Carnot, includes the statement of the second law (1824) in a still imperfect form and its slow diffusion throughout the scientific public (from 1834 to 1847); the second phase occupies the period from 1839 to 1847 in the course of which several, as yet isolated pioneers, notably R. Mayer and Joule, arrived at the formulation of the first law, or law of conservation of natural forces; the third phase (1848–1851) culminated in the logical synthesis of these two laws, thanks to the efforts of W. Thomson and Clausius. The depth and originality of the researchers who constructed this great theory make the study of their guiding viewpoints and the analysis of the development of their ideas singularly attractive. This analysis, as we know,1 has notably afforded us precious lessons on the respective roles of experimental induction and theoretical or philosophical speculation in discovery, and on the logical structure of natural laws.


Motive Power Natural Force Logical Aspect Steam Engine Industrial Civilization 
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  1. 1.
    Cf. the works of E. Mach: History and Root of the Principle of the Conservation of Energy, transl, by Philip E. B. Jourdain (Open Court Publ. Co., La Salle, III., 1911); The Science of Mechanics, transl, by Thomas J. McCormack (Open Court Publ. Co.. La Salle, III., I960). Principien der Wärmelehre (Leipzig 1896) [translation in preparation for the Vienna Circle Collection, Reidel Publ. Co., Dordrecht, Holland and Boston — Ed.]Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© D. Reidel Publishing Company, Dordrecht, Holland 1979

Authors and Affiliations

  • Robert S. Cohen
  • John J. Stachel

There are no affiliations available

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