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Robert Mayer and the Conservation of Energy

Robert Mayer and the Conservation of Energy

Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 464
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  • Book Info
    Robert Mayer and the Conservation of Energy
    Book Description:

    The principle of the conservation of energy was among the most important developments of nineteenth-century physics, and Robert Mayer, a physician from a small city in Germany, was one of its codiscoverers. As ship's doctor on a voyage to the Dutch East Indies in 1840, Mayer noticed that the venous blood he let from a European seaman was lighter than he expected. This observation set off a train of reflections that led him first to conclude that there must be a quantitative relationship between heat and "motion" and then, over several years, to believe in the indestructibility and uncreatability of "force." Rejecting the commonly invoked influence of Naturphilosophie, Kenneth Caneva provides a rich historical context for the problems and issues that concerned Mayer and for the ways in which he gradually came to understand what became known as the conservation of energy.

    Demonstrating that the development of Mayer's thinking was fostered by a constant search for analogies, Caneva also analyzes the transformation of the life sciences in mid-century Germany and offers a major reevaluation of the status of the "vital force" during that period. The intellectual environment treated here embraces medicine, physiology, physics, chemistry, religion, and spiritualism.

    Kenneth L. Caneva is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro.

    Originally published in 1993.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-7281-7
    Subjects: History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
    (pp. xi-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xxiv)

    Robert Mayer is well known as one of the several codiscoverers of the principle of the conservation of energy, the formulation of which was arguably the most important single development in physics during the nineteenth century, one which recast and unified the entire subject. Equally well known, at least in a general way, are the circumstances leading to his ostensibly sudden discovery: his voyage as ship’s doctor to the Dutch East Indies and his observation there, while letting blood, of the lighter-than-expected color of the venous blood of recently arrived Europeans. Although Mayer’s impact on the development of science was...


    • CHAPTER ONE Mayer the Person
      (pp. 3-17)

      Julius Robert Mayer was born on 25 November 1814 in the city of Heilbronn, a formerReichsstadtsituated on the Neckar River in the southwest German kingdom of Wurttemberg.¹ Heilbronn, a prosperous city and one of the quickest in the state to industrialize during the nineteenth century, saw its population rise from around 7,100 in 1820 to 11,300 in 1840 and 14,300 in 1860; growth in the surrounding district kept pace, and contributed an additional population about equal to that of the central city.² Its in habitants were overwhelmingly Evangelical (i.e., Lutheran), as was Mayer’s family. Mayer’s father owned an...

    • CHAPTER TWO Mayer’s Work
      (pp. 18-46)

      In february 1841 Mayer returned to Heilbronn to resume the practice of medicine, his lifelong profession. His passion, however, was now the further clarification and publication of the ideas on force he had been incubating since June of the previous year. On 16 June 1841 he sent a manuscript, “On the Quantitative and Qualitative Determination of Forces,” to Johann Christian Poggendorff, editor of theAnnalen der Physik und Chemie,Germany’s leading physical sciences journal. Poggendorff never replied to Mayer’s three letters to him, and the manuscript remained unpublished until retrieved from Poggendorff’sΝachlαβby Friedrich Zöllner in 1881. Although confused...


    • CHAPTER THREE Physiology and Medicine
      (pp. 49-159)

      It is impossible to understand Mayer’s thinking on physiological and other issues without knowing what general ideas he was exposed to from the common literature of the period. Guided by the topics identified in the last chapter as characteristic and significant in Mayer’s work, in Part Two (chapters 3–5) I will seek to establish a baseline of common contemporary views in selected areas of physiology and medicine, physics and chemistry, and religion and spiritualism. I will also consider discussions of the nature and scope of science—especially the self-conscious transformation of Germ an physiology and medicine beginning in the...

    • CHAPTER FOUR Physics and Chemistry
      (pp. 160-206)

      Although the immediate context of Mayer’s initial reflections was physiological—in the broad sense of the term as then understood—he carried with him a residue of his childhood fascination with machines and their capacity to do work, he had been well trained in chemistry, he had taken one course in physics at the university, and he early on turned his attention to physics in an attempt to secure a physical foundation for his developing conception of force. Central to Mayer’s thinking, moreover, were an analogy between matter and force and a parallel conception of chemistry as the science of...

    • CHAPTER FIVE Science Circumscribed
      (pp. 207-230)

      Having looked in some detail at the relevant substantive content, language, and philosopical associations of physiology, medicine, physics, and chemistry as they pertained to the issues touched upon by Mayer’s work, we turn now to consider certain other topics that circumscribed those core areas of concern. Of particular importance were philosophical and metaphysical issues concerning the nature and scope of science that influenced Mayer’s conception of scientific knowledge and, as the character of the life sciences changed—profoundly—in the years around 1840, gave his work a significance quite different from what he had originally imagined. At the same time,...


    • CHAPTER SIX A Contextual Reconstruction of the Development of Mayer’s Ideas
      (pp. 233-274)

      In this chapter I will attempt a reconstruction of the development of Mayer’s ideas based on the analysis of the leading ideas and peculiarities of his work given in the second chapter, on the relevant context established in the subsequent three chapters, and on such insights as can be gleaned from Mayer’s retrospective accounts. In tracing the progress of his thinking in the years after his return to Heilbronn in February 1841 one can, in addition, draw upon a wealth of contemporaneous documentation both for Mayer and for those with whom he interacted, such as Griesinger and Jolly (in private)...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN Mayer and Naturphilosophie
      (pp. 275-319)

      As I recounted in the Introduction, this study began as an investigation of the widely accepted belief that Mayer’s formulation of what became known as the principle of the conservation of energy was due in some essential way to the influence of Schelling’sNaturphilosophie,interpreted primarily as asserting a fundamental unity of the forces of nature. The omission of any evidence supportive of such a claim from the foregoing reconstruction of the context and development of Mayer’s ideas implies that I have not found such a contention supported by the available evidence, nor does a satisfactory understanding of Mayer’s work...

    • CHAPTER EIGHT Assessment and Conclusions
      (pp. 320-326)

      My goal in this study has been to make Mayer historically intelligible, that is, to reconstruct his probable context and the likelyspecific issuesaround which his reflections crystallized in such a way as to illuminate both the what and the why of his (conventionally so-termed) discovery of the conservation of energy. It is in the location of Mayer’s thinking within a rich context of contemporary problems and themes that, in my opinion, the book’s strength lies. As it turns out, Mayer’s work fell during a crucial period of accelerated change in the assumptions and identity of the life sciences...

  9. APPENDIX ONE Timeline of Robert Mayer’s Life and Work
    (pp. 329-331)
  10. APPENDIX TWO Courses Mayer Took at the University of Tübingen, 1832–37
    (pp. 332-334)
  11. APPENDIX THREE The German Text of the Longer Passages Quoted from Manuscript
    (pp. 335-340)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 341-394)
    (pp. 395-424)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 425-439)