Energy - History


The word energy derives from the Greek ἐνέργεια energeia, which possibly appears for the first time in the work of Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.

The concept of energy emerged out of the idea of vis viva (living force), which Gottfried Leibniz defined as the product of the mass of an object and its velocity squared; he believed that total vis viva was conserved. To account for slowing due to friction, Leibniz theorized that thermal energy consisted of the random motion of the constituent parts of matter, a view shared by Isaac Newton, although it would be more than a century until this was generally accepted. In 1807, Thomas Young was possibly the first to use the term "energy" instead of vis viva, in its modern sense. Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis described "kinetic energy" in 1829 in its modern sense, and in 1853, William Rankine coined the term "potential energy". It was argued for some years whether energy was a substance (the caloric) or merely a physical quantity, such as momentum.

William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) amalgamated all of these laws into the laws of thermodynamics, which aided in the rapid development of explanations of chemical processes by Rudolf Clausius, Josiah Willard Gibbs, and Walther Nernst. It also led to a mathematical formulation of the concept of entropy by Clausius and to the introduction of laws of radiant energy by Jožef Stefan.

During a 1961 lecture for undergraduate students at the California Institute of Technology, Richard Feynman, a celebrated physics teacher and Nobel Laureate, said this about the concept of energy:

There is a fact, or if you wish, a law, governing all natural phenomena that are known to date. There is no known exception to this law—it is exact so far as we know. The law is called the conservation of energy. It states that there is a certain quantity, which we call energy, that does not change in manifold changes which nature undergoes. That is a most abstract idea, because it is a mathematical principle; it says that there is a numerical quantity which does not change when something happens. It is not a description of a mechanism, or anything concrete; it is just a strange fact that we can calculate some number and when we finish watching nature go through her tricks and calculate the number again, it is the same. —The Feynman Lectures on Physics

Since 1918 it has been known that the law of conservation of energy is the direct mathematical consequence of the translational symmetry of the quantity conjugate to energy, namely time. That is, energy is conserved because the laws of physics do not distinguish between different instants of time (see Noether's theorem).

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