Productivism and the Popularization of the First Law of Thermodynamics

  • Ted Underwood

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Burning Fatigue Steam Resis Cataract 

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Notes

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© Ted Underwood 2005

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  • Ted Underwood

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