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Josiah Willard Gibbs Issues The Principia of Thermodynamics

1874 to 1878
photograph of Josiah Willard Gibbs

Josiah Willard Gibbs

In 1874 and 1878 American theoretical physicist, physical chemist, and mathematician Josiah Willard Gibbs published "On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances," Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences III, 108-248; 343-524. Gibbs’s paper, known as the Principia of chemical thermodynamics and physical chemistry, remains, along with Benjamin Franklin’s pioneering studies of electricity, among the greatest American contributions to physics and chemistry. The long two-part paper integrated chemical, physical, electrical, and electromagnetic phenomena into a coherent system. It introduced concepts such as chemical potential, phase rule, and others which form the basis for modern physical chemistry.

“In this monumental, densely woven, 300-page treatise, the first law of thermodynamics, the second law of thermodynamics, the fundamental thermodynamic relation, are applied to the predication and quantification of thermodynamic reaction tendencies in any thermodynamic system in a visual, three-dimensional graphical language of Lagrangian calculus and phase changes, among others” (Wikipedia article On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, accessed 06-23-2011).

Though Gibbs’s work was published in one of the most obscure of American scientific periodicals, Gibbs attempted to gain wider circulation for his ideas by mailing a larger than usual number of offprints of the papers to scientists he believed would be interested. One of the few scientists who read the first offprint he received and commented about it in print was James Clerk Maxwell, “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances,” Proceedings of the Cambridge Philosophical Society II (1876), 427-30. However, it is unclear that the papers had wide influence in the scientific community until they were translated into German by Wilhelm Ostwald (1892) and into French by Henry Louis Le Chatelier (1899). Through these translations and later editions Gibbs’s work influenced numerous scientists, including Nobel laureates in chemistry, physics, and economics, as expounded by the Wikipedia:

◊ Johan van der Waals of the Netherlands won the 1910 Nobel prize in physics. In his Nobel Lecture, he acknowledged the influence on his work of Gibbs's equations of state.

◊ "Max Planck of Germany won the 1918 Nobel prize in physics for his work in quantum mechanics, particularly his 1900 quantum theory paper. This work is largely based on the thermodynamics of Rudolf Clausius, Gibbs, and Ludwig Boltzmann. Nevertheless, Planck said about Gibbs: "…whose name not only in America but in the whole world will ever be reckoned among the most renowned theoretical physicists of all times."

◊ "At the turn of the 20th century, Gilbert N. Lewis and Merle Randall used and extended Gibbs's work on chemical thermodynamics, published their results in the 1923 textbook Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances, one of the two founding books in chemical thermodynamics. In the 1910s, William Giauque entered the College of Chemistry at Berkeley, where he received a bachelor of science degree in chemistry, with honors, in 1920. At first he wanted to become a chemical engineer, but soon developed an interest in chemical research under Lewis's influence. In 1934, Giauque became a full Professor of Chemistry at Berkeley. In 1949, he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his studies in the properties of matter at temperatures close to absolute zero, studies guided by the third law of thermodynamics.

◊ "Gibbs strongly influenced the education of the economist Irving Fisher, who was awarded the first Yale Ph.D. in economics in 1891. One of Gibbs's protegés was Edwin Bidwell Wilson, who in turn passed his Gibbsian knowledge to the American economist Paul Samuelson. In 1947, Samuelson published Foundations of Economic Analysis, based on his Harvard University doctoral dissertation. Samuelson explicitly acknowledged the influence of the classical thermodynamic methods of Gibbs. Samuelson was the sole recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 1970, the second year of the Prize. In 2003, Samuelson described Gibbs as "Yale's great physicist" (Wikipedia article on Josiah Willard Gibbs, accessed 06-23-2011).

Remarkably Gibbs’s mailing lists for distribution of his offprints are among his papers preserved at Yale. These lists were published by Wheeler, Josiah Willard Gibbs. The History of a Great Mind (1952) 235-48. According to these records Gibbs mailed nearly 100 copies of each of the two parts of his paper, mostly to individuals, and 10 each to institutions. Of these few appear to have survived. Dibner, Heralds of Science  no. 49 (journal issue). Horblit, One Hundred Books Famous in Science  no. 60 (journal issue). Hook & Norman, The Haskell F. Norman Library of Science and Medicine (1991) no. 899 (offprint issue).

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