Colding, Ørsted, and the Meanings of Force

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Kenneth Caneva, Professor (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
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Abstract: THE DANISH PHYSICIST and engineer Ludvig August Colding (1815-1888) is known to historians of nineteenth-century physics as the author of one of several formulations, during the 1840s, of the concept that eventually gained currency as the principle of the conservation of energy. Thanks largely to the work of Per Dahl, the substance of Colding's work and a rough idea of the route he followed has been known for several decades.1 In brief, Colding sought experimental corroboration, in terms of the frictional heat produced via the expenditure of a measured amount of mechanical work, of a rough notion of the general imperishability of the forces of nature that he derived from an originally metaphysical conviction concerning the imperishability of the human spirit regarded as a species of force. Nor has the importance gone unnoticed of (Holding's relationship to Hans Christian Ørsted (1777-1851), to whom Colding was attached for many years as student and protégé Ørsted had disclosed the interactive relationship between electricity and magnetism in 1820 and was a highly visible proponent of the notion of the unity of nature, as showcased in particular in the collection of essays he entitled The spirit in nature? Yet some of the important details in this overall picture remain unclear. The quality of Colding's metaphysical beliefs has not been explored in appropriate depth, nor has the significance been established of his brief reference to the role played in the development of his ideas by the antimateri alistic pronouncements of zoologist and physiologist Daniel Frederik Eschricht (1798-1863).3 Nor have we been adequately enlightened as to the significance of what he referred to as d'Alembert's principle of lost forces, or to the status of such a principle in the mechanics of the period.4 And his relationship to Ørsted is problematic. Although there would appear to be some important con nection between Colding's and Ørsted's general views on nature and its forces, and Ørsted occasionally asserted some kind of unity among the forces of nature, he failed signally to appreciate the significance of Colding's work when it was given him to evaluate.5 The solution to this apparent paradox will be sought through an understanding of Ørsted's changing conception of force and its relationship to the "activities" of heat, light, electricity, magnetism, and chemical activity.6 Without paying proper attention to language, historians have tended to read back into Ørsted's usages meanings of "force" that came to it in large part as a result of the work of Colding and his generation.7

Additional Information

Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences
Language: English
Date: 1998
History, History of Science, Ludvig August Colding, Hans Christian Ørsted

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