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The Caloric Theory of S. L. Metcalfe

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 January 2009

Masao Watanabe
Affiliation:
Niigata University, Faculty of Humanities, Ikarashi, Niigata-shi, 950–21, Japan.

Extract

Samuel Lytler Metcalfe (1798–1856) was an American chemist and physician who wrote a voluminous work, Caloric Its Mechanical Chemical and Vital Agencies in the Phenomena of Nature (2 vols., London, 1843); attempting to account for all natural phenomena in terms of caloric. The book came out at the time when the concept of caloric was being gradually discarded and the law of conservation of energy was about to appear. Metcalfe was convinced that caloric would be the key to unlock the secrets of nature; in order to develop the practical implications of his views he made research trips twice to England (1831 and 1835–45), and there he completed Caloric.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 1984

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References

1 Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. XII, New York, 1933, p. 584.Google Scholar

2 Metcalfe, Samuel L. M.D., Caloric Its Mechanical Chemical and Vital Agencies in the Phenomena of Nature, London, 1843, 2 Vols., xix + 1100 + [42] pp.CrossRefGoogle Scholar A revised edition appeared in Philadelphia in 1859, but the first edition only forms the subject of the present paper; see below, note 30.

3 Biographical sources on S. L. Metcalfe are: Preface, Caloric (1843)Google Scholar, ibid., pp. xv–xvi; ‘Dr. Metcalfe's Life,’ Caloric (1859)Google Scholar, ibid., Vol. I, pp. xv–xviii; and Dictionary of American Biography, op. cit. (note 1).

4 To the best of the present author's knowledge, the only mention of Metcalfe's caloric theory in the history of science is a five-line description with a one-line footnote in Fox, Robert, The Caloric Theory of Gases from Lavoisier to Regnault, Oxford, 1971, p. 278.Google Scholar

5 On the history of caloric, aether, and conservation of energy, see Heimann, P. M., ‘Ether and Imponderables,’ in Cantor, G. N. & Hodge, M. J. S. (eds.), Conceptions of Ether, Cambridge, 1981, pp. 6183Google Scholar; Heimann, P. M., ‘Conversion of Forces and the Conservation of Energy,’ Centaurus, Vol. 18, 1974, pp. 147161CrossRefGoogle Scholar; ‘Aether’ and ‘Energy’ in Bynum, W. F., Browne, E. J., & Porter, Roy (eds.), Dictionary of the History of Science, London & Basingstoke, 1981, pp. 78 and pp. 122123 respectively.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

6 Caloric (1843), op. cit. (note 2), pp. viviiGoogle Scholar, 4–6 & notes, 11–13 & note, 16 note, 37–38, 76, 86, 157–160, 162–165 & note, 168, 195, 388 note, 492, 557, & 586.

7 Ibid., p. 12.

8 Ibid., p. 109.

10 Ibid., p. 65.

12 Ibid., p. 94.

13 Ibid., p. 111.

14 Ibid., p. 228.

15 Ibid., p. 137.

16 Ibid., p. 451.

17 Ibid., pp. 97–99 with a footnote & p. 103. As to the contemporary speculations about chemical elements, see Knight, David M.. The Transcendental Part of Chemistry, Folkestone, 1978, esp. Chap. 4 ‘The Fourth State of Matter.’Google Scholar

18 Caloric (1843), op. cit. (note 2), pp. 103105.Google Scholar

19 Ibid., p. 34.

20 Ibid., p. 278.

21 Ibid., p. 36.

22 Ibid., p. 39.

23 Ibid., pp. 13 & 31.

24 Ibid., pp. 39–40.

25 Ibid., p. 35 (italics Mctcalfe's).

27 Kuhn, Thomas S., ‘Energy Conservation as an Example of Simultaneous Discovery,’ in Clagett, Marshall (ed.), Critical Problems in the History of Science, Madison, 1959, pp. 321356.Google Scholar

28 Metcalfe discussed the presumption that the magnitude of the sun, by emitting the solar light, may be reduced in the long run and ‘the centrifugal power of his rays becomes inferior to the centripetal pressure of the surrounding aether’ so that the planets and satellites ‘would gradually approach, and finally in succession fall into the sun.’ (Caloric, 1843, op. cit., pp. 104105.Google Scholar) In connexion with this presumption, see James, Frank A. J. L., ‘Thermodynamics and Sources of Solar Heat, 1846–1862,’ The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 15, 1982, pp. 155181.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

29 Caloric (1843), op. cit., (note 2), p. 7.Google Scholar

30 It is interesting to note that to the posthumously published revised edition of Metcalfe's Caloric (1859) an anonymous editor added an Appendix of 20 pages and attempted to supplement the text with some of the important outcomes of the recent study, including ‘Dynamical Theory of Heat,’ which Metcalfe had decidedly rejected, and ‘Mechanical Equivalent of Heat’ and ‘Correlation of the Physical Forces,’ to both of which Metcalfe apparently could not have assented.

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