Thermodynamics can be defined as the science behind heat and work. These two terms were known in ancient times. However, energy, which brings heat and works together, was recognized and studied in the 1800s. A famous ancient painting of the machine that was attributed to Hero of Alexandria as the inventor in the first century points to the beginning of thermodynamics (Chandra 77). In the picture, steam is seen rotating a vessel.
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However, the commercial use of heat emerged in the 17th century after different devices were used to draw water from mines via steam pressure. In the early years of the 18th century, Thomas Newcomen came up with an advanced pump that could raise the water using the vacuum created by condensing steam (Muller 126). However, James Watt and Mathew Boulton faulted Newcomen’s device as it used too much energy. Therefore, the two invented an improved device that could accomplish work with steam creation and condensation taking place concurrently (Weinberger 2577). By the start of the 19th century, mechanical power produced by steam was being used extensively in manufacturing and transport industries.
However, as the field of thermodynamics continued to evolve, several challenges were encountered along the way. One of the important hurdles was to understand heat and its nature. The second issue was to differentiate between heat and work and determine their relationship with energy. In the 17th century, the concept of heat started taking shape, with scientists coming up with different explanations. However, the prominent account on energy hinged on the motion of atoms and molecules as part of the matter. In 1620, Francis Bacon argued, “…the very essence of heat, or the substantial self of heat, is motion and nothing else” (Atkins 106).
In the late 18th century, Joseph Black had started his works on calorimetry as a technique of measuring heat quantitatively. Lavoisier adopted the term caloric in 1789 and classified it as an authentic element which meant that it could not be created or destroyed. As such, heat only moved between bodies. However, this presumption was overruled after Benjamin Thomson successfully carried out the famous cannon boring experiments.
In 1843, James Prescott Joule derived accurate values associated with the mechanical equivalent of heat. At the same time, Robert Mayer started hypothesizing the relationship between the heat produced and work done after human beings consumed a certain amount of food. According to Mayer, the mentioned three aspects underscored an indestructible quantity (Cengel and Boles 114). At that time, this quantity was termed as force, but it was later named energy.
Later in the 19th century, Sadi Carnot furthered the concepts of thermodynamics. By 1850, the first and second laws of thermodynamics had been established under the works of Rudolf Clausius and William Kelvin (Sandler and Woodcock 4487). Additionally, Clausius revisited Daniel Bernoulli’s proposition that gases are molecules in motion. Afterward, the kinetic theory of gases was established. At the start of the 20th century, works on thermodynamics were overtaken by quantum physics. However, in 1913 Max Planck stated the third law of thermodynamics as “the entropy of each pure element or substance in a perfect crystalline state is zero at absolute zero” (Atkins 86).
The field of thermodynamics continued to develop slowly throughout the 20th century, and its application in different areas like engineering, chemistry, and architecture, among others, diversified. Currently, the concept of thermodynamics is still evolving, and with technology, the future will be interesting.
Atkins, Peter. The Laws of Thermodynamics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2010.
Cengel, Yunus, and Michael Boles. Thermodynamics: An Engineering Approach. McGraw-Hill Education, 2014.
Chandra, Sanjeev. Energy, Entropy and Engines: An Introduction to Thermodynamics. Wiley, 2016.
Muller, Ingo. A History of Thermodynamics: The Doctrine of Energy and Entropy. Springer, 2007.
Sandler, Stanley, and Leslie Woodcock. “Historical Observations on Laws of Thermodynamics.” Journal of Chemical & Engineering Data, vol. 55, no. 10, 2010, pp. 4485-4490.
Weinberger, Peter. “The Discovery of Thermodynamics.” Philosophical Magazine, vol. 93, no. 20, 2013, pp. 2576-2612.