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Thermodynamics the Salford Way by Simon Ward

I had decided to write this article on very much a local pioneer of physics and thermodynamics, I had missed that Joule lived in Manchester and Salford until another Ragged University member pointed it out. I wish to thank Connor for this useful piece of crowd sourcing when we were discussing this outside Gulliver’s.

James Prescott Joule was born in Salford on Christmas Eve 1818 to a brewing family. He studied mathematics under John Dalton who was a pioneer with the periodic table and atomic theory. As a child he was fascinated by electricity and he and his brothers would give each other electric shocks, and also to unsuspecting servants. He would also fly kites in thunderstorms to try and “capture electricity”, but eventually decided this was too dangerous. This expanded into experiments with electricity and magnetism in the cellar of the family home in Pendlebury.

James Prescott Joule
James Prescott Joule

In 1840 Joule published a paper on the production of heat by voltaic electricity for the Royal Society, Through experiment with a sample of nickel in 1842 Joule was the first to discover the relationship between the flow of current through a resistance and the heat dissipated through it, this is now known as Joule’s First Law.

In 1843 after extensive work he published a paper on “The Heat Evoked During The Electrolysis of Water”, and that year he conducted experiments for Joule’s Second Law which states that; the internal energy of a given mass of an ideal gas is independent of its volume and pressure, depending only on its temperature. 1847 Joule gave a lecture in the reading room of St Anns Church on “Matter, Living Fire and Heat”.

That year during his honeymoon he measured the temperature difference of the water of the Sallanches waterfall at its top and bottom. This was the first time he explained the principle of conservation of energy. 1863 Joule developed the Thermoscope to measure the temperature of the Moon and determine if it was hot or cold. Neither the Thermoscope or it’s drawings have survived to the present day.

Joule also collaborated with Lord Kelvin (1824 -1907) on applying thermodynamics to gases during the years 1852 – 1859, also known as the Joule-Thomson effect. In 1853 with Lord Kelvin he used his own brewery steam engine to experiment on the thermal effects of fluids in motion. By recognising the achievements of Joule he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1850, and elected as its chair in 1869. In 1870 he was awarded the Copley Medal, which was awarded to Lord Kelvin in 1883.

In addition to his work on electromagnetism and thermodynamics Joule developed a method of welding with an electro current in 1855. James Prescott Joule died in Sale on October 11th 1889 and is buried in Brooklands Cometary. Edwin Gibbs one of the founders of the Ragged School Movement in Manchester is also buried at Brooklands. The SI unit (International System of Units) for energy the Joule is named after him, where 1J = 1NM – with N or Newtons the SI unit of force..


Simon will be doing a talk in Manchester in October:

Click Here For More Details


Some Further Reading:



The Biography of James Prescott Joule

by Osborne Reynolds

Wexford College Press

ISBN 1427615748

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