JOSEPH BLACK (1728- 99)

1757 – Edinburgh

‘Different quantities of heat are required to bring equal weights of different materials to the same temperature’

This definition relates to the concept of specific heat.

Through meticulous experimentation and measurement of results he discovered the concept of ‘latent heat’, the ability of matter to absorb heat without necessarily changing in temperature.
True in the transformation of ice into water at 0degrees C, the same principle applies in the process of transforming water to steam and indeed, all solids to liquids and all liquids to gases.
Through this work Black made the important distinction between heat and temperature.

JAMES WATT benefited from these discoveries during his development of the condensing steam engine.

‘Fixed Air’

Black’s insistence on the importance of quantitative experiments was a step towards setting the standard for modern chemistry.

Black found that heating or treating carbonate salts with acid resulted in the release of a gas that, he reasoned, must have been ‘fixed’ in the solids. He outlined the cycle of chemical changes from limestone (calcium carbonate) to quicklime (calcium oxide) and ‘fixed air’ (carbon dioxide) when heated; quicklime mixed with water to become slaked lime (calcium hydroxide); which when combined with ‘fixed air’ becomes limestone again (turning the solution cloudy).

Although JAN BAPTISTA VAN HELMONT had identified the existence of separate, distinct gases in air over a century before, Black is still often credited with the discovery of carbon dioxide (fixed air) – despite that van Helmont had clearly been aware of its existence.

Black was able to prove that carbon dioxide is made by respiration, through fermentation and in the burning of charcoal, but that the gas would not allow a candle to burn in it nor sustain animal life.

Black’s student Daniel Rutherford (1749 – 1819) called the gas ‘mephitic air’ after the mephitis of legend, a noxious emanation said to cause pestilence, for animals died in an atmosphere of the new gas. Rutherford’s ‘air’ is not, however, the same as Lavoisier’s mephitic air, which is nitrogen (azote).

Observing the effect that removing carbon dioxide from limestone made the latter more alkaline, Black deduced that carbon dioxide is an acidic gas.

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JAMES WATT (1736-1819)

1765 – Glasgow, Lanarkshire, UK

‘Steam engine’

Watt’s steam engine was the driving force behind the industrial revolution and his development of the rotary engine in 1781 brought mechanisation to several industries such as weaving, spinning and transportation.

Portrait of JAMES WATT who developed the steam engine ©


Although THOMAS NEWCOMEN had developed the steam engine before Watt was even born, Newcomen’s machines had been confined to the world of mining.

In 1764, when Watt was asked to repair a scale model of Newcomen’s engine he noted its huge inefficiency. The heating and cooling of the cylinder with every stroke wasted huge amounts of fuel; and wasted time in bringing the cylinder back up to steam producing temperature, which limited the frequency of strokes. He realised that the key to improved efficiency lay in condensing the steam in a separate container – thereby allowing the cylinder and piston to remain always hot. Watt continued to improve his steam engine and developed a way to make it work with a circular, rotary motion. Another of his improvements was the production of steam under pressure, thus increasing the temperature gap between source and sink and raising the efficiency in a manner later described by SADI CARNOT and elucidated by JAMES JOULE.



RICHARD ARKWRIGHT was the first to realise the engine could be used to spin cotton, and later in weaving. Flour and paper mills were other early adopters, and in 1788 steam power was used to paddle marine transportation. In the same year, Watt developed the ‘centrifugal governor’ to regulate the speed of the engine and to keep it constant.

diagram of the Watt 10hp engine

Watt 10hp engine

Watt was the first to coin the term ‘horsepower’, which he used when comparing how many horses it would require to provide the same pull as one of his machines. In 1882 the British Association named the ‘watt’ unit of power in his honour.

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WILLIAM PROUT (1785-1850)

1815 – UK

‘Atoms are not the smallest thing’

After ANTOINE LAVOISIER had compiled his list of the then known elements, another 32 were added in the years following his death. Fifty kinds of fundamental building blocks for matter seemed excessive. In 1815 Prout, using AVOGADRO’s method of comparing the relative densities and weights of gases, proposed that all atoms appeared to have weights that were exact multiples of the weight of the lightest atom, hydrogen, and that the different atomic weights of elements are whole-number multiples of the atomic weight of hydrogen (Prout’s hypothesis).

Portreait of William Prout (c) The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


He took this as proof that all atoms were actually made from hydrogen atoms and the idea was adopted as atomic theory and used for later investigations of atomic weights and the classification of the elements.

If all atoms are made from atoms of hydrogen, then it could be possible to transform an atom of one element into an atom of another.
If atoms had been assembled from other things, then they themselves could not be the smallest things in creation.

Apart from the method of weighing atoms being controversial, there are exceptions to the rule. Chlorine is 35.5 times as heavy as hydrogen.

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WILLIAM THOMSON (known as LORD KELVIN) (1824-1907)

1848 – Scotland

‘Molecular motion (or heat) approaches zero at temperatures approaching -273.15 degrees C’

Photo portrait of WILLIAM THOMSON (known as LORD KELVIN) ©


This temperature is known as absolute zero. It is the theoretical lowest limit of temperature. Like the speed of light, absolute zero can be approached closely but cannot be reached; as to actually reach it an infinite amount of energy is required.

The temperature scale based on absolute zero is the kelvin scale (kelvin, symbol K without the degree sign). One kelvin degree equals one celsius degree.

The energy of a body at absolute zero is called ‘zero-point energy’. The twentieth century model states that atomic particles can exist only at certain energy levels; the lowest energy level is called the ground state and all higher levels are called excited states. At absolute zero all particles are in the ground state.

Thomson, together with JOULE, discovered the effect whereby most gases fall in temperature on expansion due to work taking place to pull apart the molecules. He independently enunciated and publicised the second law of thermodynamics describing the one-way spontaneous flow of heat – from a hotter body to a colder one. The German RUDOLPH CLAUSIUS also arrived at the same conclusion during the same period.

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CHARLES LYELL (1787-1875)

1850 – UK

‘An Attempt to explain the Former Changes of the Earth’s Surface by Reference to Causes Now in Operation’


At the start of the nineteenth century, most people believed that a few major events had shaped the Earth, one of which was Noah’s great biblical flood. In between these catastrophic events the Earth had remained unchanged.

Charles Lyell replaced catastrophe theory with uniformitarianism, which proposed that the Earth changed gradually as constantly present forces acted upon it. He attributed ages to rock strata, by looking at the fossils they contained. This introduced a way of studying the Earth and led to modern geology. Lyell started a chain of thought that has now generated a complex understanding of the Earth’s history, allowing it to be divided into discrete eons, eras, periods and epochs.

There is evidence that Darwin was influenced by Lyell, although Lyell was deeply troubled by Darwin’s concept of natural selection. Darwin wrote “The greatest merit of the Principles (of Geology) was that it altered the whole tone of one’s mind, and therefore that, when seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it through his eyes.”

Lyell believed that geological, and therefore biological, history was cyclical. While Lyell destroyed one major dogma, his adherence to other ideas prevented geology moving forward.

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Related sites

Geological evolution – Charles Lyell


1864 Scotland

‘Four equations that express mathematically the way electric or magnetic fields behave’

The Scottish physicist examined Faraday’s ideas concerning the link between electricity and magnetism interpreted in terms of fields of force and saw that they were alternative expressions of the same phenomena. Maxwell took the experimental discoveries of Faraday in the field of electromagnetism and provided his unified mathematical explanation, which outlined the relationship between magnetic and electric fields. He then proved this by producing intersecting magnetic and electric waves from a straightforward oscillating electric current.

In 1831 – following the demonstration by HANS CHRISTIAN OERSTED that passing an electric current through a wire produced a magnetic field around the wire, thereby causing a nearby compass needle to be deflected from north – MICHAEL FARADAY had shown that when a wire moves within the field of a magnet, it causes an electric current to flow along the wire.
This is known as electromagnetic induction.

In 1864 Maxwell published his ‘Dynamical Theory of the Electric Field’, which offered a unifying, mathematical explanation for electromagnetism.

In 1873 he published ‘Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism’.

The equations are complex, but in general terms they describe:

  • a general relationship between electric field and electric charge
  • a general relationship between magnetic field and magnetic poles
  • how a changing magnetic field produces electric current
  • how an electric current or a changing electric field produces a magnetic field

The equations predict the existence of electromagnetic waves, which travel at the speed of light and consist of electric and magnetic fields vibrating in harmony in directions at right angles to each other. The equations also show that light is related to electricity and magnetism.

Maxwell worked out that the speed of these waves would be similar to the speed of light and concluded, as Faraday had hinted, that normal visible light was a form of electromagnetic radiation. He argued that infrared and ultraviolet light were also forms of electromagnetic radiation, and predicted the existence of other types of wave – outside the ranges known at that time – which would be similarly explainable.

Verification came with the discovery of radio waves in 1888 by HEINRICH RUDOLPH HERTZ. Further confirmation of Maxwell’s theory followed with the discovery of X-rays in 1895.

photo portrait of JAMES CLERK MAXWELL ©


Maxwell undertook important work in thermodynamics. Building on the idea proposed by JAMES JOULE, that heat is a consequence of the movement of molecules in a gas, Maxwell suggested that the speed of these particles would vary greatly due to their collisions with other molecules.

In 1855 as an undergraduate at Cambridge, Maxwell had shown that the rings of Saturn could not be either liquid or solid. Their stability meant that they were made up of many small particles interacting with one another.

In 1859 Maxwell applied this statistical reasoning to the general analysis of molecules in a gas. He produced a statistical model based on the probable distribution of molecules at any given moment, now known as the Maxwell-Boltzmann kinetic theory of gases.
He asked what sort of motion you would expect the molecules to have as they moved around inside their container, colliding with one another and the walls. A reasonably sized vessel, under normal pressure and temperature, contains billions and billions of molecules. Maxwell said the speed of any single molecule is always changing because it is colliding all the time with other molecules. Thus the meaningful quantities are molecular average speed and the distribution about the average. Considering a vessel containing several different types of gas, Maxwell realized there is a sharp peak in the plot of the number of molecules versus their speeds. That is, most of the molecules have speeds within a small range of some particular value. The average value of the speed varies from one kind of molecule to another, but the average value of the kinetic energy, one half the molecular mass times the square of the speed, (1/2 mv2), is almost exactly the same for all molecules. Temperature is also the same for all gases in a vessel in thermal equilibrium. Assuming that temperature is a measure of the average kinetic energy of the molecules, then absolute zero is absolute rest for all molecules.

The Joule-Thomson effect, in which a gas under high pressure cools its surroundings by escaping through a nozzle into a lower pressure environment, is caused by the expanding gas doing work and losing energy, thereby lowering its temperature and drawing heat from its immediate neighbourhood. By contrast, during expansion into an adjacent vacuüm, no energy is lost and temperature is unchanged.

The explanation that heat in gas is the movement of molecules dispensed with the idea of the CALORIC  fluid theory of heat.

The first law of thermodynamics states that the heat in a container is the sum of all the molecular kinetic energies.
Thermal energy is another way of describing motion energy, a summing of the very small mechanical kinetic energies of a very large number of molecules; energy neither appears nor disappears.
According to BOYLE’s, CHARLES’s and GAY-LUSSAC’s laws, molecules beating against the container walls cause pressure; the higher the temperature, the faster they move and the greater the pressure. This also explains Gay-Lussac’s experiment. Removing the divider separating half a container full of gas from the other, evacuated half allows the molecules to spread over the whole container, but their average speed does not change. The temperature remains the same because temperature is the average molecular kinetic energy, not the concentration of caloric fluid.

In 1871 Maxwell became the first Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory. He died at age 48.

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1875 – USA

‘The inventor of the telephone, Bell devoted much of his life to working with the deaf’

After emigrating to Canada from Scotland in 1870, Bell met Thomas Watson, who would help Bell’s theoretical ideas become physical reality. Bell believed that if the right apparatus could be devised, sound waves from the mouth could be converted into electric current, which could then be sent down a wire relatively simply and converted into sound at the other end using a suitable device. Bell’s telephone was patented in 1876.

Bell used the money brought in from his invention to found his company AT & T and the Bell Laboratories.
Just as THOMAS EDISON improved the viability of Bell’s telephone, so Bell enhanced Edison’s phonograph.

Bell spent some time educating Helen Keller and was instrumental in founding the journal ‘Science‘.

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