The British Association: Section G Mechanical Science


THE astonishing progress which has been made in the construction and application of machinery during the half century which has elapsed since the nativity of the British Association for the Avancement of Science, is a theme which I might with much complacency adopt in this address, but instead of reviewing the past and exulting in our successes, it will be more profitable to look to the future and to dwell on our failures. It is but justice to say that by growing experience, by increasing facilities of manufacture, and by the exercise of much skill and ingenuity, we have succeeded in multiplying and expanding the applications of our chief motor, the steam-engine, to an extent that would have appeared incredible fifty years ago; but the gratulation inspired by this success is clouded by the reflection that the steam-engine, even in its best form, remains to this day a most wasteful apparatus for converting the energy of heat into motive power. Our predecessors of that period had not the advantage of the knowledge which we possess of the true nature of heat, and the conditions and limits affecting its utilisation. In their time heat was almost universally regarded as a fluid which, under the name of caloric, was supposed to lie dormant in the interstices of matter until forced out by chemical or mechanical means. Although Bacon, Newton, Cavendish, and Boyle all maintained that heat was only internal motion, and although Davy and Rumford not only held that view, but proved its accuracy by experiment, yet the old notion of caloric continued to hold its ground, until in more recent times Joule, Meyer, Codling, and others put an end to all doubt on the subject, and established the all-important fact that heat is a mode of motion having, like any other kind of motion, its exact equivalent in terms of work. By their reasonings and experiments it has been definitely proved that the quantity of heat which raises the temperature of a pound of water 1° Fahrenheit, has a mechanical value equal to lifting 772 lbs. one foot high, and that conversely the descent of that weight from that height is capable of exactly reproducing the heat expended.

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ARMSTRONG, W. The British Association: Section G Mechanical Science. Nature 24, 448–452 (1881).

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