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The Copley Medalist Of 1871

( Originally Published 1905 )



DR. JULIUS ROBERT MAYER was educated for the medical profession. In the summer of 1840, as he himself informs us, he was at Java, and there observed that the venous blood of some of his patients had a singularly bright red color. The observation riveted his attention; he reasoned upon it, and came to the conclusion that the brightness of the color was due to the fact that a less amount of oxidation sufficed to keep up the temperature of the body in a hot climate than in a cold one. The darkness of the venous blood he regarded as the visible sign of the energy of the oxidation.

It would be trivial to remark that accidents such as this, appealing to minds prepared for them, have often led to great discoveries. Mayer's attention was thereby drawn to the whole question of animal heat. Lavoisier had ascribed this heat to the oxidation of the food. "One great principle," says Mayer, "of the physiological theory of combustion, 'is that under all circumstances the same amount of fuel yields, by its perfect combustion, the same amount of heat; that this law holds good even for vital processes; and that hence the living body, notwithstanding all its enigmas and wonders, is incompetent to generate heat out of nothing."

But beyond the power of generating internal heat, the animal organism can also generate heat outside of itself. A blacksmith, for example, by hammering can heat a nail, and a savage by friction can warm wood to its point of ignition. Now, unless we give up the physiological axiom that the living body cannot create heat out of nothing, "we are driven," says Mayer, "to the conclusion that it is the total heat generated within and without that is to be regarded as the true calorific effect of the matter oxidized in the body."

From this, again, he inferred that the heat generated externally must stand in a fixed relation to the work expended in its production. For, supposing the organic processes to remain the same; if it were possible, by the mere alteration of the apparatus, to generate different amounts of heat by the same amount of work, it would follow that the oxidation of the same amount of material would sometimes yield a less, sometimes a greater, quantity of heat. "Hence," says Mayer, "that a fixed relation subsists between heat and work is a postulate of the physiological theory of combustion."

This is the simple and natural account, given subsequently by Mayer himself, of the course of thought started by his observation in Java. But the conviction once formed, that an unalterable relation subsists between work and heat, it was inevitable that Mayer should seek to ex-press it numerically. It was also inevitable that a mind like his, having raised itself to clearness on this important point, should push forward to consider the relationship of natural forces generally. At the beginning of 1842 his work had made considerable progress; but he had become physician to the town of Heilbronn, and the duties of his profession limited' the time which he could devote to purely scientific inquiry. He thought it wise, therefore, to secure himself against accident, and in the spring of 1842 wrote to Liebig, asking him to publish in his "Annalen" a brief preliminary notice of the work then accomplished. Liebig did so, and Dr. Mayer's first paper is contained in the May number of the "Annalen" for 1842.

Mayer had reached his conclusions by reflecting on the complex processes of the living body; but his first step in public was to state definitely the physical principles on which his physiological deductions were to rest. He begins, therefore, with the forces of inorganic nature. He finds in the universe two systems of causes which are not mutually convertible—the different kinds of matter and the different forms of force. The first quality of both he affirms to be indestructibility. A force cannot become nothing, nor can it arise from nothing. Forces are convertible, but not destructible. In the terminology of his time, he then gives clear expression to the ideas of potential and dynamic energy, illustrating his point by a weight resting upon the earth, suspended at a height above the earth, and actually falling to the earth. He next fixes his attention on cases where motion is apparently destroyed, without producing other motion; on the shock of inelastic bodies for example. Under what form does the vanished motion maintain itself 2 Experiment alone, says Mayer, can help us here. He warms water by stirring it; he refers to the force expended in overcoming friction. Motion in both cases disappears; but heat is generated, and the quantity generated is the equivalent of the motion destroyed. "Our locomotives," he . observes with extraordinary sagacity, "may be compared to distilling apparatus: the heat beneath the boiler passes into the motion of the train, and is again deposited as heat in the axles and wheels."

A numerical solution of the relation between heat and work was what Mayer aimed at, and toward the end of his first paper he makes the attempt. It was known that a definite amount of air, in rising one degree in temperature, can take up two different amounts of heat. If its volume be kept constant, it takes up one amount: if its pressure be kept constant it takes up a different amount. These two amounts are called the specific heat under constant volume and under constant pressure. The ratio of the first to the second is as 1 : 1.421. No man, to my knowledge, prior to Dr. Mayer, penetrated the significance of these two numbers. He first saw that the excess 0 421 was not, as then universally supposed, heat actually lodged in the gas, but heat which had been actually consumed by the gas in expanding against pressure. The amount of work here performed was accurately known, the amount of heat consumed was also accurately known, and from these data Mayer determined the mechanical equivalent of heat. Even in this first paper he is able to direct attention to the enormous discrepancy between the theoretic power of the fuel consumed in steam-engines and their useful effect.

Though this paper contains but the germ of his further labors, I think it may be safely assumed that, as regards the mechanical theory of heat, this obscure Heilbronn physician, in the year 1842, was in advance of all the scientific men of the time.

Having, by the publication of this paper, secured him-self against what he calls "Eventualitaten," he devoted every hour of his spare time to his studies, and, in 1845, published a memoir which far transcends his first one in weight and fulness, and, indeed, marks an epoch in the history of science. The title of Mayer's first paper was, "Remarks on the Forces of Inorganic Nature." The title of his second great essay was, "Organic Motion in its Connection with Nutrition." In it he expands and illustrates the physical principles laid down in his first brief paper. He goes fully through the calculation of the mechanical equivalent of heat. He calculates the performances of steam-engines, and finds that 100 lbs. of coal, in a good working engine, produce only the same amount of heat as 95 lbs. in an unworking one; the 5 missing lbs. having been converted into work. He determines the useful effect of gunpowder, and finds nine per cent of the force of the consumed charcoal invested on the moving ball. He records observations on the heat generated in water agitated by the pulping-engine of a paper manufactory, and calculates the equivalent of that heat in horse-power. He compares chemical combination with mechanical combination—the union of atoms with the union of falling bodies with the earth. He calculates the velocity with which a body starting at an infinite distance would strike the earth's surface, and finds that the heat generated by its collision would raise an equal weight of water 17,356° C. in temperature. He then determines the thermal effect which would be produced by the earth itself falling into the sun. So that here, in 1845, we have the germ of that meteoric theory of the sun's heat which Mayer developed with such extraordinary ability three years afterward. He also points to the almost exclusive efficacy of the sun's heat in producing mechanical motions upon the earth, winding up with the profound remark, that the heat developed by friction in the wheels of our wind and water mills comes from the sun in the form of vibratory motion; while the heat produced by mills driven by tidal action is generated at the expense of the earth's axial rotation.

Having thus, with firm step, passed through the powers of inorganic nature, his next object is to bring his principles to bear upon the phenomena of vegetable and animal life. Wood and coal can burn; whence come their heat, and the work producible by that heat? From the immeasurable reservoir of the sun. Nature has proposed to herself the task of storing up the light which streams earthward from the sun, and of casting into a permanent form the most fugitive of all powers. To this end she has overspread the earth with organisms which, while living, take in the solar light, and by its consumption generate forces of another kind. These organisms are plants. The vegetable world, indeed, constitutes the instrument where-by the wave-motion of the sun is changed into the rigid form of chemical tension, and thus prepared for future use. With this prevision, as shall subsequently be shown, the existence of the human race itself is inseparably connected. It is to be observed that Mayer's utterances are far from being anticipated by vague statements regarding the "stimulus" of light, or regarding coal as "bottled sun-light." He first saw the full meaning of De Saussure's observation as to the reducing power of the solar rays, and gave that observation its proper place in the doctrine of conservation. In the leaves of a tree, the carbon and oxygen of carbonic acid, and the hydrogen and oxygen of water, are forced asunder at the expense of the sun, and the amount of power thus sacrificed is accurately restored by the combustion of the tree. The heat and work potential in our coal strata are so much strength withdrawn from the sun of former ages. Mayer lays the axe to the root of the notions regarding "vital force," which were prevalent when he wrote. With the plain fact before us that in the absence of the solar rays plants cannot per-form the work of reduction, or generate chemical tensions, it is, he contends, incredible that these tensions should be caused by the mystic play of the vital force. Such a hypothesis would cut off all investigation; it would land us in a chaos of unbridled fantasy. "I count," he says, "therefore, upon your agreement with me when I state, as an axiomatic truth, that during vital processes the conversion only, and never the creation of matter or force occurs.

Having cleared his way through the vegetable world, as he had previously done through inorganic nature, Mayer passes on to the other organic kingdom. The physical forces collected by plants become the property of animals. Animals consume vegetables, and cause them to reunite with the atmospheric oxygen. Animal heat is thus produced; and not only animal heat, but animal motion. There is no indistinctness about Mayer here; he grasps his subject in all its details, and reduces to figures the concomitants of muscular action. A bowler who imparts to an 8-lb. ball a velocity of 30 feet, consumes in the act 1/10 of a grain of carbon. A man weighing 150 lbs., who lifts his own body to a height of 8 feet, consumes in the act 1 grain of carbon. In climbing a mountain 10,000 feet high, the consumption of the same man would be 2 oz. 4 drs. 50 grs. of carbon. Boussingault had determined experimentally the addition to be made to the food of horses when actively working, and Liebig had determined the addition to be made to the food of men. Employing the mechanical equivalent of heat, which he had previously calculated, Mayer proves the additional food to be amply sufficient to cover the increased oxidation.

But he does not content himself with showing, in a general way, that the human body burns according to definite laws, when it performs mechanical work. He seeks to determine the particular portion of the body consumed, and in doing so executes some noteworthy calculations. The muscles of a laborer 150 lbs. in weight weigh 64 lbs. ; but when perfectly desiccated they fall to 15 lbs. Were the oxidation corresponding to that laborer's work exerted on the muscles alone, they would be utterly consumed in 80 days. The heart furnishes a still more striking example. Were the oxidation necessary to sustain the heart's action exerted upon its own tissue, it would be utterly consumed in 8 days. And if we confine our attention to the two ventricles, their action would be sufficient to consume the associated muscular tissue in 8% days. Here, in his own words, emphasized in his own way, is Mayer's pregnant conclusion from these calculations: "The muscle is only the apparatus by means of which the conversion of the force is effected; but it is not the substance consumed in the production of the mechanical effect." He calls the blood "the oil of the lamp of life"; it is the slow-burning fluid whose chemical force, in the furnace of the capillaries, is sacrificed to produce animal motion. This was Mayer's conclusion twenty-six years ago. It was in complete opposition to the scientific conclusions of his time; but eminent investigators have since amply verified it.

Thus, in baldest outline, I have sought to give some notion of the first half of this marvellous essay. The second half is so exclusively physiological that I do not wish to meddle with it. I will only add the illustration employed by Mayer to explain the action of the nerves upon the muscles. As an engineer, by the motion of his finger in opening a valve or loosing a detent, can liberate an amount of mechanical motion almost infinite compared with its exciting cause, so the nerves, acting upon the muscles, can unlock an amount of activity wholly out of proportion to the work done by the nerves themselves.

As regards these questions of weightiest import to the science of physiology, Dr. Mayer, in 1845, was assuredly far in advance of all living men.

Mayer grasped the mechanical theory of heat with commanding power, illustrating it and applying it in the most diverse domains. He began, as we have seen, with physical principles; he determined the numerical relation between heat and work; he revealed the source of the energies of the vegetable world, and showed the relationship of the heat of our fires to solar heat. He followed the energies which were potential in the vegetable up to their local exhaustion in the animal. But, in 1845, a new thought was forced upon him by his calculations. He then, for the first time, drew attention to the astounding amount of heat generated by gravity where the force has sufficient distance to act through. He proved, as I have before stated, the heat of collision of a body falling from an infinite distance to the earth to be sufficient to raise the temperature of a quantity of water, equal to the falling body in weight, 17,356° C. He also found, in 1845, that the gravitating force between the earth and sun was competent to generate an amount of heat equal to that obtainable from the combustion of 6,000 times the weight of the earth of solid coal. With the quickness of genius he saw that we had here a power sufficient to produce the enormous temperature of the sun, and also to account for the primal molten condition of our own planet. Mayer shows the utter inadequacy of chemical forces, as we know them, to produce or maintain the solar temperature. He shows that were the sun a lump of coal it would be utterly consumed in 5,000 years. He shows the difficulties attending the assumption that the sun is a cooling body; for, supposing it to possess even the high specific heat of water, its temperature would fall 15,000° in 5,000 years. He finally concludes that the light and heat of the sun are maintained by the constant impact of meteoric matter. I never ventured an opinion as to the truth of this theory; that is a question which may still have to be fought out. But I refer to it as an illustration of the force of genius with which Mayer followed the mechanical theory of heat through all its applications. Whether the meteoric theory be a matter of fact or not, with him abides the honor of proving to demonstration that the light and heat of suns and stars may be originated and maintained by the collisions of cold planetary matter.

It is the man who with the scantiest data could accomplish all this in six short years, and in the hours snatched from the duties of an arduous profession, that the Royal Society, in 1871, crowned with its highest honor.

Comparing this brief history with that of the Copley Medalist of 1870, the differentiating influence of "environment," on two minds of similar natural cast and endowment, comes out in an instructive manner. With-

drawn from mechanical appliances, Mayer fell back upon reflection, selecting with marvellous sagacity, from existing physical data, the single result on which could be founded a calculation of the mechanical equivalent of heat. In the midst of mechanical appliances, Joule resorted to experiment, and laid the broad and firm foundation which has secured for the mechanical theory the acceptance it now enjoys. A great portion of Joule's time was occupied in actual manipulation; freed from this, Mayer had time to follow the theory into its most abstruse and impressive applications. With their places re-versed, however, Joule might have become Mayer, and Mayer might have become Joule.

It does not lie within the scope of these brief articles to enter upon the developments of the Dynamical Theory accomplished since Joule and Mayer executed their memorable labors.



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