"Dynamical Theory of Heat," Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1851

Author: James Prescott Joule  | Date: 1851

An Absolute Scale of Temperature

William Thomson Kelvin

The determination of temperature has long been recognized as a problem of the greatest importance in physical science. It has accordingly been made a subject of most careful attention, and, especially in late years, of very elaborate and refined experimental researches; and we are thus at present in possession of as complete a practical solution of the problem as can be desired, even for the most accurate investigations. The theory of ther-mometry is however as yet far from being in so satisfactory a state. The principle to be followed in constructing a thermometric scale might at first sight seem to be obvious, as it might appear that a perfect thermometer would indicate equal additions of heat, as corresponding to equal elevations of temperature, estimated by the numbered divisions of its scale. It is however now recognized (from the variations in the specific heats of bodies) as an experimentally demonstrated fact that thermometry under this condition is impossible, and we are left without any principle on which to found an absolute thermometric scale.

Next in importance to the primary establishment of an absolute scale, independently of the properties of any particular kind of matter, is the fixing upon an arbitrary system of thermometry, according to which results of observations made by different experimenters, in various positions and circumstances, may be exactly compared. This object is very fully attained by means of thermometers constructed and graduated according to the clearly defined methods adopted by the best instrument-makers of the present day, when the rigorous experimental processes which have been indicated, especially by Regnault, for interpreting their indications in a comparable way, are followed. The particular kind of thermometer which is least liable to uncertain variations of any kind is that founded on the expansion of air, and this is therefore generally adopted as the standard for the comparison of thermometers of all constructions. Hence the scale which is at present employed for estimating temperature is that of the air-thermometer; and in accurate researches care is always taken to reduce to this scale the indications of the instrument actually used, whatever may be its specific construction and graduation.

The principle according to which the scale of the air-thermometer is graduated, is simply that equal absolute expansions of the mass of air or gas in the instrument, under a constant pressure, shall indicate equal differences of the numbers on the scale; the length of a "degree" being determined by allowing a given number for the interval between the freezing- and the boiling-points. Now it is found by Regnault that various thermometers, constructed with air under different pressures, or with different gases, give indications which coincide so closely, that, unless when certain gases, such as sulphurous acid, which approach the physical condition of vapours at saturation, are made use of, the variations are inappreciable. This remarkable circumstance enhances very much the practical value of the air-thermometer; but still a rigorous standard can only be defined by fixing upon a certain gas at a determinate pressure, as the thermometric substance. Although we have thus a strict principle for constructing a definite system for the estimation of temperature, yet as reference is essentially made to a specific body as the standard thermometric substance, we cannot consider that we have arrived at an absolute scale, and we can only regard, in strictness, the scale actually adopted as an arbitrary series of numbered points of reference sufficiently close for the requirements of practical thermometry.

In the present state of physical science, therefore, a question of extreme interest arises: Is there any principle on which an absolute thermometric scale can be founded? It appears to me that Carnot’s theory of the motive power of heat enables us to give an affirmative answer.

The relation between motive power and heat, as established by Carnot, is such that quantities of heat, and intervals of temperature, are involved as the sole elements in the expression for the amount of mechanical effect to be obtained through the agency of heat; and since we have, independently, a definite system for the measurement of quantities of heat, we are thus furnished with a measure for intervals according to which absolute differences of temperature may be estimated. To make this intelligible, a few words in explanation of Carnot’s theory must be given; but for a full account of this most valuable contribution to physical science, the reader is referred to either of the works mentioned above.

The original treatise by Carnot, and Clapeyron’s paper on the same subject.

In the present state of science no operation is known by which heat can be absorbed, without either elevating the temperature of matter, or becoming latent and producing some alteration in the physical condition of the body into which it is absorbed; and the conversion of heat (or caloric) into mechanical effect is probably impossible, certainly undiscovered. In actual engines for obtaining mechanical effect through the agency of heat, we must consequently look for the source of power, not in any absorption and conversion, but merely in a transmission of heat. Now Carnot, starting from universally acknowledged physical principles, demonstrates that it is by the letting down of heat from a hot body to a cold body, through the medium of an engine (a steam-engine, or an air-engine for instance), that mechanical effect is to be obtained; and conversely, he proves that the same amount of heat may, by the expenditure of an equal amount of labouring force, be raised from the cold to the hot body (the engine being in this case worked backwards); just as mechanical effect may be obtained by the descent of water let down by a water-wheel, and by spending labouring force in turning the wheel backwards, or in working a pump, water may be elevated to a higher level. The amount of mechanical effect to be obtained by the transmission of a given quantity of heat, through the medium of any kind of engine in which the economy is perfect, will depend, as Carnot demonstrates, not on the specific nature of the substance employed as the medium of transmission of heat in the engine, but solely on the interval between the temperature of the two bodies between which the heat is transferred.

Carnot examines in detail the ideal construction of an air-engine and of a steam-engine, in which, besides the condition of perfect economy being satisfied, the machine is so arranged, that at the close of a complete operation the substance (air in one case and water in the other) employed is restored to precisely the same physical condition as at the commencement. He thus shews on what elements, capable of experimental determination, either with reference to air, or with reference to a liquid and its vapour, the absolute amount of mechanical effect due to the transmission of a unit of heat from a hot body to a cold body, through any given interval of the thermometric scale, may be ascertained. In M. Clapeyron’s paper various experimental data, confessedly very imperfect, are brought forward, and the amounts of mechanical effect due to a unit of heat descending a degree of the air-thermometer, in various parts of the scale, are calculated from them, according to Carnot’s expressions. The results so obtained indicate very decidedly, that what we may with much propriety call the value of a degree (estimated by the mechanical effect to be obtained from the descent of a unit of heat through it) of the air-thermometer depends on the part of the scale in which it is taken, being less for high than for low temperatures.

The characteristic property of the scale which I now propose is, that all degrees have the same value; that is, that a unit of heat descending from a body A at the temperature T of this scale, to a body B at the temperature (T — 1), would give out the same mechanical effect, whatever be the number T. This may justly be termed an absolute scale, since its characteristic is quite independent of the physical properties of any specific substance.

To compare this scale with that of the air-thermometer, the values (according to the principle of estimation stated above) of degrees of the air-thermometer must be known. Now an expression, obtained by Carnot from the consideration of his ideal steam-engine, enables us to calculate these values, when the latent heat of a given volume and the pressure of saturated vapour at any temperature are experimentally determined. The determination of these elements is the principal object of Regnault’s great work, already referred to, but at present his researches are not complete. In the first part, which alone has been as yet published, the latent heats of a given weight, and the pressures of saturated vapour at all temperatures between 0 and 230 (Cent. of the air-thermometer), have been ascertained; but it would be necessary in addition to know the densities of saturated vapour at different temperatures, to enable us to determine the latent heat of a given volume at any temperature. M. Regnault announces his intention of instituting researches for this object; but till the results are made known, we have no way of completing the data necessary for the present problem, except by estimating the density of saturated vapour at any temperature (the corresponding pressure being known by Regnault’s researches already published) according to the approximate laws of compressibility and expansion (the laws of Mariotte and Gay-Lussac, or Boyle and Dalton). Within the limits of natural temperature in ordinary climates, the density of saturated vapour is actually found by Regnault (tudes Hygromtriques in the Annales de Chimie) to verify very closely these laws; and we have reason to believe from experiments which have been made by Gay-Lussac and others, that as high as the temperature 100 there can be no considerable deviation; but our estimate of the density of saturated vapour, founded on these laws, may be very erroneous at such high temperatures as 230. Hence a completely satisfactory calculation of the proposed scale cannot be made till after the additional experimental data shall have been obtained; but with the data which we actually possess, we may make an approximate comparison of the new scale with that of the air-thermometer, which at least between 0 and 100 will be tolerably satisfactory.

The labour of performing the necessary calculations for effecting a comparison of the proposed scale with that of the air-thermome-ter, between the limits 0 and 230 of the latter, has been kindly undertaken by Mr. William Steele, lately of Glasgow College, now of St. Peter’s College, Cambridge. His results in tabulated forms were laid before the Society, with a diagram, in which the comparison between the two scales is represented graphically, In the first table, the amounts of mechanical effect due to the descent of a unit of heat through the successive degrees of the air-thermometer are exhibited. The unit of heat adopted is the quantity necessary to elevate the temperature of a kilogramme. of water from 0 to 1 of the air-thermometer; and the unit of mechanical effect is a metre-kilogramme; that is, a kilogramme raised a metre high.

In the second table, the temperatures according to the proposed scale, which correspond to the different degrees of the air-thermometer from 0 to 230, are exhibited. [The arbitrary points which coincide on the two scales are 0 and 100.]

Note.—If we add together the first hundred numbers given in the first table, we find 135.7 for the amount of work due to a unit of heat descending from a body A at 100 to B at 0. Now 79 such units of heat would, according to Dr. Black (his result being very slightly corrected by Regnault), melt a kilogramme of ice. Hence if the heat necessary to melt a pound of ice be now taken as unity, and if a metre-pound be taken as the unit of mechanical effect, the amount of work to be obtained by the descent of a unit of heat from 100 to 0 is 79 X 135.7, or 10,700 nearly. This is the same as 35,100 foot pounds, which is a little more than the work of a one-horse-power engine (33,000 foot pounds) in a minute; and consequently, if we had a steam-engine working with perfect economy at one-horse-power, the boiler being at the temperature 100, and the condenser kept at 0 by a constant supply of ice, rather less than a pound of ice would be melted in a minute.


According to an obvious principle, first introduced, however, into the theory of the motive power of heat by Carnot, mechanical effect produced in any process cannot be said to have been derived from a purely thermal source, unless at the end of the process all the materials used are in precisely the same physical and mechanical circumstances as they were at the beginning. In some conceivable "thermo-dynamic engines," as, for instance, Faraday’s floating magnet, or Barlow’s "wheel and axle," made to rotate and perform work uniformly by means of a current continuously excited by heat communicated to two metals in contact, or the thermo-electric rotatory apparatus devised by Marsh, which has been actually constructed, this condition is fulfilled at every instant. On the other hand, in all thermodynamic engines, founded on electrical agency, in which discontinuous galvanic currents, or pieces of soft iron in a variable state of magnetization, are used, and in all engines founded on the alternate expansions and contractions of media, there are really alterations in the condition of materials; but, in accordance with the principle stated above, these alterations must be strictly periodical. In any such engine the series of motions performed during a period, at the end of which the materials are restored to precisely the same condition as that in which they existed at the beginning, constitutes what will be called a complete cycle of its operations. Whenever in what follows, the work done or the mechanical effect produced by a thermo-dynamic engine is mentioned without qualification, it must be understood that the mechanical effect produced, either in a non-varying engine, or in a complete cycle, or any number of complete cycles of a periodical engine, is meant.

The source of heat will always be supposed to be a hot body at a given constant temperature put in contact with some part of the engine; and when any part of the engine is to be kept from rising in temperature (which can only be done by drawing off whatever heat is deposited in it), this will be supposed to be done by putting a cold body, which will be called the refrigerator, at a given constant temperature in contact with it.

The whole theory of the motive power of heat is founded on the two following propositions, due respectively to Joule, and to Carnot and Clausius.

Prop. I. (Joule).—When equal quantities of mechanical effect are produced by any means whatever from purely thermal sources, or lost in purely thermal effects, equal quantities of heat are put out of existence or are generated.

Prop. II. (Carnot and Clausius).—If an engine be such that, when it is worked backwards, the physical and mechanical agencies in every part of its motions are all reversed, it produces as much mechanical effect as can be produced by any thermo-dynamic engine, with the same temperatures of source and refrigerator, from a given quantity of heat.

The former proposition is shown to be included in the general "principle of mechanical effect," and is so established beyond all doubt by the following demonstration.

By whatever direct effect the heat gained or lost by a body in any conceivable circumstances is tested, the measurement of its quantity may always be founded on a determination of the quantity of some standard substance, which it or any equal quantity of heat could raise from one standard temperature to another; the test of equality between two quantities of heat being their capability of raising equal quantities of any substance from any temperature to the same higher temperatures. Now, according to the dynamical theory of heat, the temperature of a substance can only be raised by working upon it in some way so as to produce increased thermal motions within it, besides effecting any modifications in the mutual distances or arrangements of its particles which may accompany a change of temperature. The work necessary to produce this total mechanical effect is of course proportional to the quantity of the substance raised from one standard temperature to another; and therefore when a body, or a group of bodies, or a machine, parts with or receives heat, there is in reality mechanical effect produced from it, or taken into it, to an extent precisely proportional to the quantity of heat which it emits or absorbs. But the work which any external forces do upon it, the work done by its own molecular forces, and the amount by which the half vis viva of the thermal motions of all its parts is diminished, must together be equal to the mechanical effect produced from it; and, consequently, to the mechanical equivalent of the heat which it emits (which will be positive or negative, according as the sum of those terms is positive or negative). Now let there be either no molecular change or alteration of temperature in any part of the body, or, by a cycle of operations, let the temperature and physical condition be restored exactly to what they were at the beginning; the second and third of the three parts of the work which it has to produce vanish; and we conclude that the heat which it emits or absorbs will be the thermal equivalent of the work done upon it by external forces, or done by it against external forces; which is the proposition to be proved.

The demonstration of the second proposition is founded on the following axiom:

It is impossible, by means of inanimate material agency, to derive mechanical effect from any portion of matter by cooling it below the temperature of the coldest of the surrounding objects.

To demonstrate the second proposition, let A and B be two thermo-dynamic engines, of which B satisfies the conditions expressed in the enunciation; and let, if possible A derive more work from a given quantity of heat than B, when their sources and refrigerators are at the same temperatures, respectively. Then on account of the condition of complete reversibility in all its operations which it fulfills, B may be worked backwards, and made to restore any quantity of heat to its source, by the expenditure of the amount of work which, by its forward action, it would derive from the same quantity of heat. If, therefore, B be worked backwards, and made to restore to the source of A (which we may suppose to be adjustable to the engine B) as much heat as has been drawn from it during a certain period of the working of A, a smaller amount of work will be spent thus than was gained by the working of A. Hence, if such a series of operations of A forwards and of B backwards be continued, either alternately or simultaneously, there will result a continued production of work without any continued abstraction of heat from the source; and, by Prop. I., it follows that there must be more heat abstracted from the refrigerator by the working of B backwards than is deposited in it by A. Now it is obvious that A might be made to spend part of its work in working B backwards, and the whole might be made self-acting. Also, there being no heat either taken from or given to the source on the whole, all the surrounding bodies and space except the refrigerator might, without interfering with any of the conditions which have been assumed, be made of the same temperature as the source, whatever that may be. We should thus have a self acting machine, capable of drawing heat constantly from a body surrounded by others of a higher temperature, and converting it into mechanical effect. But this is contrary to the axiom, and therefore we conclude that the hypothesis that A derives more mechanical effect from the same quantity of heat drawn from the source than B is false. Hence no engine whatever, with source and refrigerator at the same temperatures, can get more work from a given quantity of heat introduced than any engine which satisfies the condition of reversibility, which was to be proved.

This proposition was first enunciated by Carnot, being the expression of his criterion of a perfect thermo-dynamic engine. He proved it by demonstrating that a negation of it would require the admission that there might be a self-acting machine constructed which would produce mechanical effect indefinitely, without any source either in heat or the consumption of materials, or any other physical agency; but this demonstration involves, fundamentally, the assumption that, in "a complete cycle of operations," the medium parts with exactly the same quantity of heat as it receives. A very strong expression of doubt regarding the truth of this assumption, as a universal principle, is given by Carnot himself; and that it is false, where mechanical work is, on the whole, either gained or spent in the operations, may (as I have tried to show above) be considered to be perfectly certain. It must then be admitted that Carnot’s original demonstration utterly fails, but we cannot infer that the proposition concluded is false. The truth of the conclusion appeared to me, indeed so probable that I took it in connection with Joule’s principle, on account of which Carnot’s demonstration of it fails, as the foundation of an investigation of the motive power of heat in air-engines or steam-engines through finite ranges of temperature, and obtained about a year ago results, of which the substance is given in the second part of the paper at present communicated to the Royal Society. It was not until the commencement of the present year that I found the demonstration given above, by which the truth of the proposition is established upon an axiom, which I think will be generally admitted. It is with no wish to claim priority that I make these statements, as the merit of first establishing the proposition upon correct principles is entirely due to Clausius, who published his demonstration of it in the month of May last year, in the second part of his paper on the motive power of heat. I may be allowed to add that I have given the demonstration exactly as it occurred to me before I knew that Clausius had either enunciated or demonstrated the proposition. The following is the axiom on which Clausius’s demonstration is founded:

It is impossible for a self-acting machine, unaided by any external agency, to convey heat from one body to another at a higher temperature.

It is easily shown that, although this and the axiom I have used are different in form, either is a consequence of the other. The reasoning in each demonstration is strictly analogous to that which Carnot originally gave.


Definition of temperature and general thermometric assumption. If two bodies be put in contact, and neither gives heat to the other, their temperatures are said to be the same; but if one gives heat to the other, its temperature is said to be higher.

The temperatures of two bodies are proportional to the quantities of heat respectively taken in and given out in localities at one temperature and at the other, respectively, by a material system subjected to a complete cycle of perfectly reversible thermodynamic operations, and not allowed to part with or take in heat at any other temperature: or, the absolute values of two temperatures are to one another in the proportion of the heat taken in to the heat rejected in a perfect thermo-dynamic engine working with a source and refrigerator at the higher and lower of the temperatures respectively.

Convention for thermometric unit, and determination of absolute temperatures of fixed points in terms of it.

Two fixed points of temperature being chosen according to Sir Isaac Newton’s suggestions, by particular effects on a particular substance or substances, the difference of these temperatures is to be called unity, or any number of units or degrees as may be found convenient. The particular convention is, that the difference of temperatures between the freezing- and boiling-points of water under standard atmospheric pressure shall be called 100 degrees. The determination of the absolute temperatures of the fixed points is then to be effected by means of observations indicating the economy of a perfect thermo-dynamic engine, with the higher and the lower respectively as the temperatures of its source and refrigerator. The kind of observation best adapted for this object was originated by Mr. Joule, whose work in 1844 laid the foundation of the theory, and opened the experimental investigation; and it has been carried out by him, in conjunction with myself, within the last two years, in accordance with the plan proposed in Part IV of the present series. The best result, as regards this determination, which we have yet been able to obtain is, that the temperature of freezing water is 273.7 on the absolute scale; that of the boiling-point being consequently 373.7. Further details regarding the new thermometric system will be found in a joint communication to be made by Mr. Joule and myself to the Royal Society of London before the close of the present session.

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Chicago: William Thomson et al., "Dynamical Theory of Heat," Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1851 in A Source Book in Physics, ed. William Francis Magie (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963), 237–247. Original Sources, accessed April 18, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=B8DVYIJQDSW5XR9.

MLA: Joule, James Prescott, et al. "Dynamical Theory of Heat," Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1851, in A Source Book in Physics, edited by William Francis Magie, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1963, pp. 237–247. Original Sources. 18 Apr. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=B8DVYIJQDSW5XR9.

Harvard: Joule, JP et al., "Dynamical Theory of Heat," Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, March, 1851. cited in 1963, A Source Book in Physics, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, pp.237–247. Original Sources, retrieved 18 April 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=B8DVYIJQDSW5XR9.