In thermodynamics, the Principia of thermodynamics is an oft-quoted term generally referring to American engineer Willard Gibbs’ 1876 On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances. [1] The tribute is used in the sense that Gibbs’ 300-page Equilibrium treatise, containing exactly 700-equations, is the mark of scientific excellence, in thermodynamics, just as is English physicist Isaac Newton’s 1687 Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica), in physics.

Science writers Bill Bryson (2003) and William Cropper (2004) both state that Gibbs’ Equilibrium treatise “has been called” the Principia of thermodynamics. [2] The tribute seems to trace to the 1925 article “Influence of J. Willard Gibbs” by Irish physical chemist Frederick Donnan who stated: [3]

“Nothing in the history of science is more remarkable than the way in which Gibbs in 1878 provided the electrochemical science of the succeeding generation with its thermodynamic Principia.

In a short 2006 article “Science as Drama”, American philosopher-historian Robert Crease states that William Thomson and Peter Tait’s 1867 Treatise on Natural Philosophy is the “Principia of thermodynamics”. [4] This, however, seems to be an uneducated dart throw, off-target.

The only other publication that may compete for the title of thermodynamics' Principia would be German physicist Rudolf Clausius' 1865 textbook Mechanical Theory of Heat, upon which Gibbs built his Equilibrium. Clausius' textbook, however, is collection of nine separate memoirs, published in various journals, during period 1850-65, which slowly formed into a unified textbook by 1875, the year of the second updated, ordered, and amended edition.

1. Thims, Libb. (2007). Human Chemistry (Volume Two), (pg. 657), (preview), (Google books). Morrisville, NC: LuLu.
2. (a) Cropper, William H. (2004). Great Physicists: the Life and Times of Leading Physicists from Galileo to Hawking, (section II: Thermodynamics, pgs. 41-134; ch. 9: “The Principia of Thermodynamics”, pgs 109-10). Oxford University Press.
(b) Bryson, Bill. (2003). A Short History of Nearly Everything, (pg. 117). Broadway Books.
3. (a) Donnan, Frederick G. (1925). “Influence of J. Willard Gibbs”, Jour. Franklin Institute.
(b) Rukeyser, Muriel. (1942). Willard Gibbs - American Genius, (pg. 271). Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
4. Crease, Robert P. (2006). “Science as Drama”, Physics World, Sep. 01.

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