A Source Book in Physics

Author: James Prescott Joule


The Second Law of Thermodynamics

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 beat 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.


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Chicago: William Thomson et al., "The Second Law of Thermodynamics," A Source Book in Physics in A Source Book in Physics, ed. William Frances Magie (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1935), 242–246. Original Sources, accessed April 18, 2021, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XQJ6Q7FBVL64I8P.

MLA: Joule, James Prescott, et al. "The Second Law of Thermodynamics." A Source Book in Physics, in A Source Book in Physics, edited by William Frances Magie, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1935, pp. 242–246. Original Sources. 18 Apr. 2021. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XQJ6Q7FBVL64I8P.

Harvard: Joule, JP et al., 'The Second Law of Thermodynamics' in A Source Book in Physics. cited in 1935, A Source Book in Physics, ed. , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, pp.242–246. Original Sources, retrieved 18 April 2021, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=XQJ6Q7FBVL64I8P.