Reading through Wikipedia says that Coriolis was the first to introduce the notion of work, described as "weight lifted through a height".

Our modern conception of work is of a force that realizes a displacement. This is general and valid for most forces (I don't know if we can apply this in general relativity or quantum mechanics). The book I'm studying for thermodynamics says that Joule's experiments clarified the relationship between heat and work, moving on to the first law.

We now regard heat as energy and give it his name. I don't think they saw these concepts in the same light we do now. Energy is one of the fundamental principles all of physics is based on, and it has many faces: Vibrational, kinetic (translational and rotational), heat, potential, internal energy, etc. When did work and energy they take the form we use now?

The book is "Mere Thermodynamics", by Don Lemons.

  • $\begingroup$ Virtual work laws certainly predate Coriolis, going all the way back to the Greeks and the law of the lever. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 2:03

1 Answer 1


Mainly in the work of Hermann von Helmholtz in 1847. But of course (as always) there was a long development before and after. http://books.google.com/books?id=C1i4AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA114#v=onepage&q&f=false

Notice that Helmholtz did not use the word "energy". At the time of Newton (and even before) it was noticed that some quantities are preserved in the systems that obey Newton's laws (one of them is momentum, another energy, using modern terminology). But there was a long confusion about this, and discussions on what is really presevred: mv or mv^2 :-) Later, different forms of energy were discovered (energy of heat, for example). But it was Helmholtz who finally made an order in this and stated conservation of all kinds of energy together as a universal law of nature.

Remark. At the time of writing this paper, Helmholtz was a military doctor (physician). When he published this paper, his commanders were very pleased that an officer does useful research on "preservation of force" :-)

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    $\begingroup$ Do you know which work? :) $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 12, 2014 at 21:47
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    $\begingroup$ I'll upvote if you can prove that Helmholtz was the first. $\endgroup$
    – HDE 226868
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 1:43
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    $\begingroup$ @HDE226868 "Work moved from thermodynamics to mechanics with Rankine, Helmholtz, and Duhem in the XIX century." (History of Virtual Work Laws by Danilo Capecchi, 2012, p. 11). Helmholtz's Über die Erhaltung der Kraft was first, being in 1847. Rankine's Outilines of the Energetic Science was in 1855 and Duhem's first thermodynamics/energetics books were in the late 1880s to 1890s, his masterpiece, the Traité d’énergétique ou de thermodynamique générale, being in 1911. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 2:12
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is a little too short right now; it could almost be posted as a comment. Could you please expand a bit? Especially the lack of references is problematic. $\endgroup$
    – Danu
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 8:54
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    $\begingroup$ HDE 226868: I disagree about Wikipedia. It contains a lot of useful info, in many cases it is correct. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 16:13

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