Edinburgh school of thermodynamics

In thermodynamics schools, Edinburgh school of thermodynamics is the school of thermodynamics thought centered around the Edinburgh University, Scotland, and the Edinburgh Philosophical Society, through the particularly the synergy of James Maxwell and Peter Tait, from the late 1840s and into the 1860s. Also connected to this school of logic are William Hamilton and James Forbes, among others.

In 1841, at age 10, Irish physicist James Maxwell entered the Edinburgh Academy, the best school in Scotland, where he met mathematical physicist Peter Tait, who would become his life-long friend.

During this period, Maxwell began friends with Irish physicist William Thomson, the central person of the Glasgow school of thermodynamics. Specifically, in circa 1846, Maxwell made visits to his cousin Jemima who was living in Glasgow. She had recently fell in love with and married Glasgow mathematics professor Hugh Blackburn and Blackburn, in turn, was friendly with the newly appointed Glasgow professor of natural philosophy, Scottish physicist William Thomson, recently appointed professor in 1846 at the age of 22. Thomson saw at once that the young fifteen-year-old Maxwell rare gift and the two struck up a friendship that lasted a life-time. [1]

In 1847, at age 16, Maxwell entered the University of Edinburgh.

In 1860, Maxwell published his “Illustrations on the Dynamical Theory of Gases”, an elaboration of Berlin school of thermodynamics founder German physicist Rudolf Clausius’ 1857 paper "On the Nature of the Motion we Call Heat", taking into account not only the average speeds of particles, but a graph of the distribution of speeds of the particles at any given temperature, which can be said to be representative of the core start date of the Edinburgh school.

With Thomson, Tait co-authored the 1867 Treatise on Natural Philosophy, a seminal energy physics textbook. It was important for establishing energy within the structure of the theory of mechanics. [2] The following year, Tait wrote the short 128-page A Sketch of Thermodynamics, in which he expanded on his 1864 articles “Dynamical Theory of Heat” and “Energy” published in the North British Review. [4] This was one of the first publications to discuss, in large, the "history of thermodynamics". [3]
Maxwell’s thermodynamic surface
Plaster bust of the thermodynamics surface for water made by Maxwell in 1875, based on Gibbs 1873 graphical thermodynamics papers, and sent to Gibbs as a gift.

Gibbs had a mailing list of over 300 of the world’s greatest scientists, to which, it has been said, he sent his publications to. At some point during the years 1873-1878, Gibbs had sent Maxwell his three papers On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, and it is said that Maxwell was the first to recognize the genius of Gibbs' work and thereafter became a promoter of his chemical thermodynamics theories in Europe. One of Gibbs’ biographers, J. G. Crowther, remarked that Maxwell became, in effect, Gibbs’ “intellectual publicity agent”.

One interesting anecdote occurred during a visit to Cambridge University, where Maxwell was a professor, in the years circa 1873-78, the president of Yale (likely Reverend Noah Porter, president from 1871 to 1886) inquired about possible people to promote at Yale. [4] The famous Scottish physicist, James Maxwell immediately suggested Gibbs. At this time there was also a socially rather prominent individual, named Alan Gibbs, at Yale. Thus, the president replied with pleasure. "Oh, you mean Alan Gibbs." "No! No!" answered Maxwell; "Willard Gibbs." The president's reply was: [5]

“Well, but he is a nobody. He just sits in his room and writes.”

This explains how Maxwell worked to connect Gibbsian school to both the Edinburgh school, the Glasgow school, England in general, via Cambridge, wherein his work reached the hands of Clausius, and the Berlin school, who began to cite Gibbs in the circa 1875.

1. Mahon, Basil (2003). The Man Who Changed Everything – the Life of James Clerk Maxwell. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
2. Tait, Peter Guthrie (1831-1901) - Eric Weisstein's World of Scientific Biography.
3. (a) Maxwell, James C. (1878). “Tait’s ‘Thermodynamics’ (I)”, (pgs. 257-59). Nature, Jan. 31.
(b) Maxwell, James C. (1878). “Tait’s ‘Thermodynamics’ (II)”, (pgs. 278-81). Nature, Feb. 07.
4. Presidents of Yale – Yale University.
5. Staff writer. (1943). “Scientists’ Scientist”, Time, Monday, Jan 04.

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