the Legacy of the Laws of Thermodynamics

​In the first chapter of the book by Hons Christian Van Baeyer named Warmth Disperses and Time Passes, a very notable quote sets the stage for the understandings of the laws of thermodynamics.  The quote is by P.W. Bridgman and reads “the laws of thermodynamics smell of their human origin.”  If I were the person that wrote these words in the epigraph, I would view this quote as the truthful statement that the different motivations of humans led to the definition of these laws.  The actions and studies of many humans led to the understanding of these laws of thermodynamics and the details of heat.  Two examples of humans that had their own motivations and led to a greater understanding of the first law of thermodynamics are Count Rumford and Villard de Honnecourt.
            Count Rumford, also known as Benjamin Thompson, was an American tory spy whose work with cannons and metals laid groundwork that would ultimately have importance for the realization that energy is conserved.  Rumford was very passionate about his work on cannons and his studies about the heating of certain objects.  Although gunpowder was very interesting to him, the study of heat was his life’s passion.  Previous understanding of heat is that it was a material and therefore something that had limitations with transfer.  It was called “caloric” and viewed as some form of element.  Although this was supported in his time through the works of Antoine Lavoisier, Rumford was passionate about disproving this view.  One of the groundbreaking studies that Rumford performed involved his work with metals.  He was able to heat water to the point of boiling even though fire was not used.  Rumford used the transfer of heat through metal into the water to create the boiling, and people were fascinated considering fire had always been viewed as crucial for boiling.  This study and Rumford’s work led him to conclude that heat was not at all a material, such as “caloric,” that had a limitation on how much can be transferred, but that is was instead a form of motion.  This idea that heat was motion was not openly received in the scientific community at the time because of the limitations on the understandings of heat transfer and energy.  People viewed it as incorrect in theory.  Fortunately for Rumford, although he did not get immediate credit for the realization that heat is some form of motion, the later discovery that energy is always conserved provided validation to his work.
            The thirteenth century mason named Villard de Honnecourt had an idea for an invention revolving around the idea of perpetual motion that laid groundwork for the important understanding that energy cannot be created out of nothing.  His idea for an invention involved the constant movement of a machine with seven hammers without having to continually put energy into the machine to make it run, which centered around the hope for machines that could operate on perpetual motion.  Although this machine of course led to a failure for Honnecourt, it led to the understanding that perpetual motion was impossible.  This paved the way for another very important part of the first law of thermodynamics, which is the truth that energy cannot be created out of nothing.  Honnecourt’s works and Rumford’s studies led to a greater grasp on the details that surround the first law of thermodynamics, and this law will forever be associated with these humans, which is another way to state that the law will always contain their “smell.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *