Crosbie Smith, The Science of Energy: A Cultural History of Energy Physics in Victorian Britain. London: The Athlone Press, 1998. Pp. xi+404. ISBN 0-485-11431-3. £55.00 (hardback); ISBN 0-485-12145-X. £19.95 (paperback)


The Science of Energy, by Crosbie Smith, is a sweeping cultural history of the development of the science of energy in Victorian Britain. Smith claims that the key ideas of energy physics depended upon an informal network of scientific practitioners. Thus, a core group of ‘North British’ scientists and engineers including James Prescott Joule, William Thomson, Macquorn Rankine, and James Clerk Maxwell constructed the science of energy by working in three local contexts: Scottish universities, Clydeside marine engineering, and British scientific societies. More broadly, Smith demonstrates that the cultures of Scottish presbyterianism and industrialization intimately shaped the formulation of energy physics.

Borrowing terminology from Bruno Latour and Steven Woolgar’s Laboratory Life (Princeton, 1986), Smith argues that the ‘North British’ group engaged in a carefully managed quest for ‘credibility’. Hinging on the notion that the contents of science are ‘symbolic capital,’ Smith’s economic model of scientific activity integrates three meanings of credibility: believability, business trust, and confidence of others. Smith’s primary argument is that the ‘North British’ group, via a ‘spiral of credibility,’ rose in status within both the scientific community and larger public arenas. Upon enhancement of local credibility, the group widened its search to include national, imperial and international contexts.

Adaptation of the ‘credibility’ model pervades Smith’s account, sometimes to the point of distraction. In fact, one may wonder if the main participants were as deliberately calculating in their actions as Smith implies: ‘the key players not only added to their number, but, through careful stage management, attracted national and international recognition. As a result of their strategy, they enhanced their scientific credibility to such a degree that even in their own lifetimes they became international stars of science assured of a place in every hall of fame of physics’ (p. ix). Throughout Smith’s account, the promoters of the ‘science of energy’ seem to have intentionally staged an ‘energy coup’ of sorts to meet their incessant search for international ‘credibility.’ Smith’s ‘credibility’ model may be useful, but it is less convincing when considered with his professed goal of presenting the historical events as ‘perceived by the protagonists of energy physics themselves’ (p. 12).

These caveats aside, The Science of Energy undoubtedly provides a penetrating study of the contexts in which Victorian energy physics evolved and eventually flourished. Perhaps the most interesting analysis is that of the nineteenth-century cultural transformations of Scottish presbyterianism (Ch. 2) and industrialization and their formative influences on the ‘North British’ group. Smith, for instance, clearly demonstrates how the researches of the Thomson brothers relied on a Scottish engineering tradition which analysed and eliminated causes of waste (Ch. 3). Furthermore, the ideals of minimizing waste and maximizing work were also deeply connected with the Scottish presbyterian view that mankind had a moral duty to accept God-given gifts, be they spiritual or material. Once refused or wasted, material gifts of power became irrecoverable to humans, thus the second law of thermodynamics is linked to presbyterian culture.

The Science of Energy is too sweeping in scope to be adequately condensed in a brief review. Nevertheless, summarizing several chapters will illuminate its general contents. While discussing the origins of Joule’s concept of mutual convertibility of heat and work, chapter four also examines his quest for credibility via the British Association. The next three chapters largely focus on a key member in the ‘North British’ group, William Thomson: his efforts to reconcile the ideas of Emile Clapeyron, and later Sadi Carnot, with those of Joule (Ch. 5); his correspondence with Rankine on the dynamical theory of heat and the evolution of Thomson’s ideas regarding the directionality of natural processes (Ch. 6); and his use of Hermann von Helmholtz’ ideas to advance the cause for energy physics, largely via the British Association (Ch. 7). The next several chapters evaluate the consolidation of thermodynamics (Ch. 8), culminating with the publication of Thomson and P. G. Tait’s Treatise on Natural Philosophy (Ch. 10). Smith persistently emphasizes that these triumphs were neither simple nor inevitable; for example, ‘North Britain versus Metropolis: Territorial Controversy in the History of Energy’ (Ch. 9) illustrates the conflicts which arose as energy physics moved into different contexts.

Smith uses the ‘credibility’ model throughout the book. Thus, members of the ‘North British’ group bestow mutually credibility upon one another; exchange credibility with outsiders (e. g., Helmholtz); and deny credibility to those dissenting from their core beliefs (e. g., John Tyndall). In addition, he reinforces the particular Scottish circumstances in which energy physics evolved: ‘[Thomson and Tait’s] construction of dynamics centred on work and energy was radically contingent upon Scottish academic, religious and industrial culture. There was thus nothing self-evident or essential about the authors’ choices’ (p. 202). Repeating this claim in the Epilogue, Smith writes, ‘I have adopted a historicist approach which places emphasis on a contextualist account of the rise of the science of energy at a particular time and place’ (p. 313).

The final chapters continue this approach, discussing another key member of the ‘North British’ group, James Clerk Maxwell (Ch. 11, 12) and the establishment of electrical measurement standards (Ch. 13). Largely based on Bruce Hunt’s The Maxwellians (Ithaca and London, 1991), the last chapter (Ch. 14) explains the mathematical and conceptual transformations of Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism, primarily at the hands of George Fitzgerald, Oliver Heaviside, and Oliver Lodge. Meanwhile, in Germany, the legacy of the ‘science of energy’ met with another set of interpretations. While ‘Maxwellians’ located energy in the surrounding field and began reifying the concept, the ‘Energeticist’ school of Wilhelm Ostwald replaced energy for mass as the primary ‘substance’ in nature.

As Smith demonstrates, the legacy of energy physics continued to be debated and transformed in a multitude of local and national contexts. Some may wish to modify or disavow Smith’s ‘credibility’ model or his specific notions regarding the ‘construction’ of scientific ideas. Nonetheless, for its insightful contextual analysis and its breadth of scope, The Science of Energy makes a valuable contribution to the history of Victorian physics.