Productivism and the Popularization of the First Law of Thermodynamics

  • Ted Underwood


By the middle of the nineteenth century, science was becoming a profession, and the universe of authenticated science was growing too large for lay readers to survey it easily. Many claims important to professionals were necessarily ignored by the broader reading public. Institutions to bridge this gap took shape (magazines of “popular science,” for instance). But the process of popularization was often slow, even for ideas that might seem inherently sensational. Researchers almost immediately interpreted the second law of thermodynamics, for instance, as a global sentence of death. If sources of usable energy were irreversibly dissipating as heat, the earth would become “within a finite period of time … unfit for the habitation of man.” But although William Thomson clearly explained these chilling implications to a professional audience in 1852, the subject did not attract much public attention until the 1870s.1 This sort of delay was not unusual. The surge of public interest in the first law of thermodynamics—known today as the conservation of energy—was by contrast rapid and intense enough to pose something of a historical puzzle.


Natural Force Ultimate Source Conservation Principle Late Eighteenth Century Productivist Interpretation 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    William Thomson, “On a Universal Tendency in Nature to the Dissipation of Mechanical Energy,” Mathematical and Physical Papers, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1882), 514.Google Scholar
  2. For a contemporary observer’s comment on the delayed reception of the second law, see Henry Adams, The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (New York: Macmillan, 1919), 142—43.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    Hermann von Helmholtz, “On the Conservation of Force; a Physical Memoir,” Scientific Memoirs, Selected from the Transactions of Foreign Academies of Science, and from Foreign Journals: Natural Philosophy, ed. by John Tyndall and William Francis (London: Taylor & Francis, 1853), 122.Google Scholar
  4. William John Macquorn Rankine, “On the General Law of the Transformation of Energy,” Philosophical Magazine series. 4, 5 (1853): 106.Google Scholar
  5. 3.
    Herbert Spencer, First Principles (London: Williams and Norgate, 1862), 258.Google Scholar
  6. Michael Faraday, “On the Conservation of Force,” Experimental Researches in Chemistry and Physics (London: Taylor & Francis, 1859), 447.Google Scholar
  7. 4.
    Edward L. Youmans, “Introduction,” The Correlation and Conservation of Forces (New York: Appleton, 1865), xli.Google Scholar
  8. 5.
    See Geoffrey Cantor, “Faraday’s Search for the Gravelectric Effect,” Physics Education 26 (1991): 289–93.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 7.
    Anne Gilchrist, “The Indestructibility of Force,” Macmillan’s Magazine 6 (1862): 337.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    James Hinton, “Force,” Cornhill Magazine 4 (1861): 414.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    David Gooding, “Metaphysics versus Measurement: the Conversion and Conservation of Force in Faraday’s Physics,” Annals of Science 37 (1980): 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 10.
    M. Norton Wise, with the collaboration of Crosbie Smith, “Work and Waste: Political Economy and Natural Philosophy in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History of Science 27 (1989): 263–301, 391–449 and 28 (1990): 221–61. See especially 27 (1989): 400–410.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. 11.
    Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 100—125.Google Scholar
  14. 12.
    Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor: Energy, Fatigue, and the Origins of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 3.Google Scholar
  15. 13.
    Philip Mirowski, More Heat Than Light: Economics as Social Physics, Physics as Nature’s Economics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 139–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 14.
    Bruce Clarke, Energy Forms: Allegory and Science in the Era of Classical Thermodynamics (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001), 59–81.Google Scholar
  17. 16.
    Herman von Helmholtz, “On the Interaction of Physical Forces,” trans. John Tyndall, The Correlation and Conservation of Forces, ed. Edward L. Youmans (New York: Appleton, 1865), 240.Google Scholar
  18. Justus Liebig, “The Connection and Equivalence of Forces,” The Correlation and Conservation of Forces, ed. Edward L. Youmans (New York: Appleton, 1865), 397.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    James B. Russell, “The Labour of the Sunbeams,” Recreative Science 3 (1862): 60.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    J. Carpenter, “What We Owe to the Sun,” Once a Week 15 (1866): 413. See also “Force and Matter,” All the Year Round, July 21 1866, 35–38;Google Scholar
  21. William Thomson and P. G. Tait, “Energy,” Good Words 3 (1862): 601–07.Google Scholar
  22. 26.
    Thomas Carlyle, The Works of Thomas Carlyle, 30 vols. (New York: Scribner’s, 1896), 1:56.Google Scholar
  23. 27.
    Samuel Smiles, The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer, 2nd ed. (London: Murray, 1857), 484–85.Google Scholar
  24. 28.
    The metaphor of “bottled” light seems to have been central to Stephenson’s fascination with the idea. In a later edition, Smiles recounts how Stephenson examined an especially fat pig in a Belgian butcher-shop and inquired into its feeding. Mr. Fearon, who accompanied him, reports that “George went off into his favorite theory of the sun’s light, which he said had fattened the pig; for the light had gone into the pease, and the pease had gone into the fat, and the fat pig was like a field of coal in this respect, that they were, for the most part, neither more nor less than bottled sunshine.” Samuel Smiles, The Life of George Stephenson and of his Son Robert Stephenson (New York: Harper, 1868), 468.Google Scholar
  25. 29.
    William R. Grove, On the Correlation of Physical Forces (London: London Institution, 1846), 48.Google Scholar
  26. 32.
    William Benjamin Carpenter, “The Phasis of Force,” National Review 4 (1857): 390.Google Scholar
  27. 36.
    J. F. W. Herschel, Outlines of Astronomy (London: Longman, Brown, 1851), 237.Google Scholar
  28. 37.
    J. F. W. Herschel, Outlines of Astronomy (London: Longmans, 1893), 260.Google Scholar
  29. 38.
    Smiles , The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer (1857), 485.Google Scholar
  30. The sentence has been removed from Samuel Smiles, The Life of George Stephenson, and of his Son Robert Stephenson (1868), 468—and also from subsequent editions.Google Scholar
  31. 39.
    John Tyndall, Heat Considered as a Mode of Motion (New York: D. Appleton, 1864), 446.Google Scholar
  32. 41.
    Tyndall’s “Belfast Address,” delivered before the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1874, when Tyndall was president of that body, set forth the claims of scientific naturalism in uncompromising terms that sparked fierce controversy. See John Tyndall, Fragments of Science (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 2:197.Google Scholar
  33. For a description of the furor that followed the address see A. S. Eve and C. H. Creasy, The Life and Work of John Tyndall (London: Macmillan, 1945), 186–88.Google Scholar
  34. 43.
    J. T. Merz, A History of European Thought in the Nineteenth Century, 3 vols. (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1912), 2:57.Google Scholar
  35. 45.
    F. Max Müller, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion (New York: Charles Scribner, 1879), 200.Google Scholar
  36. I owe this citation to Gillian Beer, “‘The Death of the Sun’:Victorian Solar Physics and Solar Myth,” The Sun is God, ed. J. B. Bullen (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 164. Beer suggests that Müller is referring to Tyndall’s Six Lectures on Light (1878). Heat as a Mode of Motion seems an equally likely source for these ideas.Google Scholar
  37. 47.
    Tyndall was a devoted reader of Carlyle, and befriended him in later life. This is only one instance of a surprisingly strong connection between Carlyle and late-Victorian naturalism; Frank Turner has pointed out that a large number of Victorian scientists, or popularizers of science, paid tribute to the influence of Carlyle. (The list includes T. H. Huxley, Francis Galton, John Morley, and Herbert Spencer as well as John Tyndall.) See Frank M. Turner, “Victorian Scientific Naturalism and Thomas Carlyle,” Victorian Studies 18.3 (1975): 329. It would be easy to show that Carlyle’s broader fascination with the transcendental significance of force was important to the popularization of the first law of thermodynamics; I have focused chapter Eight on the influence of Carlyle’s productivism in order to make a more pointedly economic argument.Google Scholar
  38. 48.
    John Tyndall, “Personal Recollections of Thomas Carlyle,” New Fragments (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 386.Google Scholar
  39. 50.
    Bruce Clarke, Energy Forms. Mark Seltzer, Bodies and Machines (New York: Routledge, 1992).Google Scholar
  40. 51.
    Bruce Clarke, “From Thermodynamics to Virtuality,” From Energy to Information: Representation in Science and Technology, Art, and Literature, ed. Bruce Clarke and Linda Dalrymple Henderson (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 17–33.Google Scholar
  41. 52.
    S. Dillon Ripley, “Our Onlie Begetter,” Fire of Life: The Smithsonian Book of the Sun (New York: Smithsonian Exposition Books, 1981), 17.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Ted Underwood 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Ted Underwood

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations