Electromagus on Heat

Miss Porden

My dear Sir,

It is some time since you have heard from me and I fear you may have supposed me forgetful of your kind attention to my communications; but the fact is, Mr Editor, that he who has great and arduous duties to perform, must find in the his pleasure, or forego it, and hence I can but seldom indulge myself in writing, even to you. How many persons have I seen rendered miserable by not feeling the force of the above remark! With amicable dispositions, and talents in every way formed to discharge the duties and adorn the situation in which they were placed, they allowed themselves to find those duties irksome, and those situations degrading; to devote their time with ardour to other pursuits, and grudge it only where it was of right appropriated.

As the regulations of our Society do not admit of much variety in our mode of life, and as I fancied my pupils began to weary of each other’s faces and conversation, I endeavoured to diversify the long winter evenings by occasional lectures on striking parts of Electrical and Chemical Science, the composition of which I found both amusing and instructive; and I derived much advantage from the assistance of Mr Beauclerc. Among other subjects I had to discuss the oft-contested question of the nature of Light, Heat, and Electricity; and I cannot help thinking that the latter will eventually be the means of clearing the difficulty with respect to the two first. I am inclined to believe that Heat and Electricity, if not Light also, are material, and perhaps one great argument in its favor is the greater clearness of the hypothesis. I have often been amused to find our lecturers, while denying the materiality of heat, obliged to have recourse to this theory, and to adopt its terms, in order to make its phenomena capable of popular elucidation. It has been said that Electricity could not be material, because it moved in no sensible time, but I do not see that this assertion had any foundation. It certainly moves very rapidly, but its velocity is perhaps not even equal to that of light. In a chain of some miles in length, it has been said that the electric shock was felt at the same instant in every part. But would not this have been the same with light? Light moves at the rate of 200,000 miles in a second — in the space of 4 or 5 miles could any watch detect its progress?

Attraction seems to be a necessary property of solid matter in its most stupendous masses and minutest particles, equally necessary to the preservation of our globe and the formation of a crystal. To this agent heat is opposed, and the question is, whether heat is a subtle fluid insinuating itself into the interstices of bodies and diminishing their specific gravity by its own levity, or whether it be merely an action. Alas! how much easier is the former solution than the labyrinth of vibratory, undulatory, and rotatory motions, in which the other would involve us. It is true that almost all the phenomena of heat may be twisted to agree with either hypothesis, but how much easier is to comprehend that, when two bodies collide, their increase or diminution of temperature arises from the real evolution or absorption of heat in inconsequence of the different capacities of the two bodies in their simple and compound states, that that it arises from the increased action induced by the collision of the particles in combination. And how indeed would the theory of action, though it explain the increase of temperature in combination, account for its diminution. Are we to believe that while the particles of sulphuric acid and water rush together and jostle themselves into a fever, those of salt and water become really torpid in their collision? It is easy to account for the atmospheric cold occasioned by the thawing of ice, on the idea that water consists of ice at 32° and 140° of thermometric heat, which latter is absorbed from the atmosphere, and again that water at 212° combining with 1200° of thermometric heat produces steam, and carrying off the superfluous heat keep the water still at 212°. But how can we suppose that the change effected we know not how, from vibratory to undulatory motion, even though it might convert ice into water, should diminish the motion of the air? It seems more probable that the increased action would be communicated, and its temperature consequently augmented. Again, how can it appear that one particle of water, breaking from the restraints of its nature and whisking off in a whirligig, suddenly reduces all its companions into sobriety, till some new whim induces them to follow its example.

It is my opinion, not only that heat is material, but that it is an essential element of matter in every form, perhaps even that connecting link whose escape passes undetected, and from the impossibility of arresting or recombining it, forbids us to form again the body we have decompounded. If heat exist in ice, if it exist even in frozen mercury, and in those it is allowed to exist, where shall we say that it is absent? The terms of positive and negative might be as correctly applied to heat as to electricity.

I fear, Mr Editor, that I have wearied you, and indeed I fear that in my remarks on a subject so often discussed in vain by the ablest writers, I have shown less acuteness than presumption, but I rely on your candour, and on that of the Attic Society, and if any of its members think what I have advanced worthy either of approbation or refutation, I shall be proud of their applause or happy to have my errors corrected. Perhaps in a future letter I may trouble you with my ideas on the nature of Light and Electricity, and in the mean time I remain,

your sincerely obliged



I was so absorbed in the consideration of my subject as almost to have forgotten my pupils: but I cannot resist the temptation to inclose you Mr Scriblerus’s little poem on the Voltaic Battery; hoping that your judgement will not think unmerited the approbation I have ventured to bestow; though indeed I should have wondered had the Voltaic Batter failed to inspire some bard to celebrate itself.