Early Attempts to Understand the Nature of Heat
Michael Fowler, University of Virginia, 6/3/08
When Heat Flows, What, Exactly is Flowing?
By the late 1700’s, the experiments of Fahrenheit, Black and others had established a systematic,
quantitative way of measuring temperatures, heat flows and heat capacities—but this didn’t really
throw any new light on just
This was a time when the study of electricity was all
the rage, led in America by Benjamin Franklin, who had suggested in 1747 that electricity was one
(invisible) fluid (it had previously been suggested that there were two fluids, corresponding to the
two kinds of electrical charging observed).
Lavoisier’s Caloric Fluid Theory
Perhaps heat was another of these invisible fluids?
In 1787, Lavoisier, the French founder of
modern chemistry, thought so, and called it the
from the Greek word for heat.
(Lavoisier was the first to attempt to list a table of
, to replace the ancient elements of earth,
air, water and fire. His list of thirty-three elements included hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, charcoal,
etc., but he also
Lavoisier and wife, by David, from Wikimedia Commons.
The existence of such a fluid was really quite plausible—heat
flowed from a hot body to a cold body, and the recent quantitative
calorimetric experiments of Black and others seemed to establish
that heat was a
, as one would expect of a fluid.
One could also understand some of the well-known effects of heat
in terms of a fluid, and establish some of the fluid’s properties.
For example, since it tended to flow from hot bodies into cold
bodies and spread throughout the body, presumably its particles
repelled each other, just like those of the electrical fluid.
However, in contrast to electricity, which had no noticeable effect
on the appearance of a charged object, when heat was added to a
solid things changed considerably.
First the material expanded,
then it changed to a liquid and finally to a gas, if sufficient heat
could be delivered.
Further heating expanded the gas, or
increased its pressure if it was held in a fixed container. To interpret this sequence of events in terms
of a caloric fluid being fed into the material, one could imagine the fluid flowing between the atoms
of the solid and lessening their attraction for each other, until the solid melted into a liquid,
whereupon the caloric continued to accumulate around the atoms until they were pushed apart into a
gas. It was thought that in the gas each atom or molecule was surrounded by a ball of caloric, like a
springy ball of wool, and these balls were packed in a container like oranges in a crate, except that
the caloric balls could expand indefinitely as heat was poured in.