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James Prescott Joule Papers

Date range: 1841-1887

Medium: Archive

The physicist James Prescott Joule (1818–1889) was born into a wealthy Salford brewing family. He studied under the celebrated chemist John Dalton, and in the late 1830s began experiments on electro-magnetism in a laboratory at his family home. He later published his findings in a series of papers on the motive power of electricity and the mechanical value of heat.

In 1840 he announced what became known as Joule’s Law: that the heat produced in a metallic conductor by an electric current is proportional to the product of the resistance of the conductor and the square of the current. This led to Joule’s second great discovery, the equivalence of heat and energy.

In 1843 he published his value for the amount of work (energy) required to produce a unit of heat, called the mechanical equivalent of heat, although his experimental methods met with initial scepticism. William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) and others used Joule’s results as the foundation for the new doctrine of conservation of energy from the early 1850s. Joule was awarded the Copley medal by the Royal Society in 1870.

Joule's main body of papers were chased by the Manchester Municipal Technical School from his son Benjamin in 1900. This important collection included Joule's research notebooks, although some of these later went missing.

The remaining forty or so items comprise three notebooks containing drafts of scientific papers, a single laboratory notebook, 1843–58, and a selection of correspondence between Joule and Edward Binney, Sir William Fairbairn, Sir John Herschel, James Clerk Maxwell, Lyon Playfair, Sir (Charles) William Siemens, Sir Edward Sabine, Robert Angus Smith, Sir George Stokes, William Sturgeon and John Tyndall.

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Further information:

Catalogue available online via ELGAR.


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