A True Proteus: A history of energy conservation in German science and culture, 1847-1914

F.D.A. Wegener

Research output: ThesisDoctoral thesis 1 (Research UU / Graduation UU)


This thesis follows the career of the law of energy conservation in German science and culture between 1847 and 1914. There is an interesting contrast between the initial reception of Hermann Helmholtz’ 1847 treatise ‘Über die Erhaltung der Kraft’, which was rejected by the editor of the Annalen der Physik, and its later status as a classic of science. ‘Energy’ was the shared concept of the disciplines. It was used by physiologists, physicists, psychologists, sociologists and philosophers. Moreover, the law of energy conservation also made a huge cultural impact. The period around 1900 has justly been called an energetic era. Why did the law of energy conservation become such a universal success? The obvious way to explain this success would be to say: because it is true, and subsequently comment upon its great scientific value. This thesis adopts a different perspective. It adopts Wittgenstein’s definition of meaning as use in language. Consequently, the meaning of the law is only referred to in relation to the way in which it was put to use in communicative practice. From this perspective it is immediately evident that the understanding of the law of energy conservation was subject to considerable change. Helmholtz initially conceptualized the law in terms of atoms and forces; Gustav Kirchhoff and Ernst Mach, rejected atoms and forces as hypothetical entities and they preferred to use the more mundane concept of work instead; Wilhelm Ostwald, finally, thought of energy as an immaterial substance. This thesis meticulously follows the changes in use and understanding to which the law was subject as it penetrated German science and culture. Communication and interests, rather than natural essences, are the central explanatory concepts of the thesis. From 1847 onwards Helmholtz and Du Bois-Reymond actively sought to spread the law of energy conservation among their colleagues and the general public. They told their fellow physiologists, for example, that the law could be invoked as an argument against vitalism. In popular scientific lectures they emphasized the law’s connection to Germany’s industrialization and its ethical value. Thus they partly shaped the reception of the law. But of course, its reception could not be completely controlled. People have interests of their own and they often appropriated the law in unexpected ways. This thesis’ stress on meaning as use, and its use of concepts like interests and appropriation may make it appear as if energy was whatever people wanted it to be. This is a misunderstanding. Obviously, within a specific community, there were limits to what one could reasonably make of energy. But these were social as much as intellectual constraints. More importantly, by the turn of the century, the law of energy conservation had acquired a certain ubiquity in German science and culture. The continuous talk about energy had a persuasive power of its own. Centerum censeo, Du Bois-Reymond said. Ultimately, the law imposed itself on everybody, even those who tried to ignore it.
Original languageUndefined/Unknown
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Utrecht University
  • Theunissen, Bert, Primary supervisor
  • Lunteren, F.H., Supervisor
Award date25 Nov 2009
Publication statusPublished - 25 Nov 2009

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