Willard Gibbs

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For Josiah Willard Gibbs, Sr. see Willard Gibbs (linguist).
Willard Gibbs
February 11, 1839
New Haven, Connecticut, USA
April 28, 1903
New Haven, Connecticut, USA

Josiah Willard Gibbs (February 11, 1839April 28, 1903) was an American mathematical physicist who contributed much of the theoretical foundation that led to the development of chemical thermodynamics and was one of the founders of vector analysis. (ed. Though his father was also named Josiah Willard, he is not referred to as "Josiah Willard Gibbs, Jr.")


Gibbs' scientific career can be divided into four phases. Up until 1879, he worked on the theory of thermodynamics. From 1880 to 1884, he worked on the field of vector analysis. From 1882 to 1889, he worked on optics and the electromagnetic theory of light. After 1889, he worked on statistical mechanics, laying a foundation and "providing a mathematical framework for quantum theory and for Maxwell's theories" [1]; he also produced classic textbooks on the matter.

Early years

File:A young Willard Gibbs.jpg
Gibbs in his youth.

Gibbs was born in New Haven, Connecticut, where his father was a professor of sacred literature at Yale University's Divinity School, best known today for his involvement in the Amistad trial. Gibbs attended Hopkins School and Yale College of Yale University, receiving prizes in mathematics and Latin. Gibbs was the seventh in a long line of American academics stretching back to the 17th century. He graduated, high in his class, in 1858.

Middle years

Gibbs continued his studies at Yale, gaining his Ph.D. degree in 1863. This was the first engineering doctorate granted in the United States. He then tutored in Yale College: two years in Latin and a year in what was then called "natural philosophy." In 1866 he went to Europe to study, spending one year each at Paris, Berlin, and Heidelberg, where he was influenced by the luminaries Kirchhoff and Helmholtz. These three years were almost the only time he was ever away from the New Haven area.

File:Thermodynamicist Willard Gibbs.jpg
Founder of Chemical Thermodynamics

In 1869 he returned to Yale and, in 1871, he was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics. This was the first professorship in mathematical physics in the United States. It was unpaid, in part because Gibbs had never published. From 1871 until his death, he held the chair of mathematical physics at Yale. Between 1876 and 1878 Gibbs wrote a series of papers collectively entitled "On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances", considered one of the greatest achievements in physical science in the 19th century and the foundation of the science of physical chemistry. In these papers Gibbs applied thermodynamics to the interpretation of the physicochemical phenomena and showed an explanation and interrelationship of what was a previous collection of disjunctive and isolated facts. [2]

"It is universally recognised that its publication was an event of the first importance in the history of chemistry. ... Nevertheless it was a number of years before its value was generally known, this delay was due largely to the fact that its mathematical form and rigorous deductive processes make it difficult reading for any one, and especially so for students of experimental chemistry whom it most concerns... " - J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, J. Willard Gibbs

Gibbs then started work on the development and presentation of his theory of thermodynamics. In 1873, Gibbs published a paper on the geometric representation of thermodynamic quantities. This paper inspired Maxwell to make (with his own hands) a plaster cast illustrating Gibbs' construct (which he sent to Gibbs and which Yale still retains with great pride).

Gibbs next published the paper "On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances". This appeared in two installments in 1876 and 1878. Gibbs' papers on heterogeneous equilibria included:

Later years

In 1880, Gibbs was offered a $3000 salary by the new Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland and Yale responded by offering him $2000, which seemingly was enough to keep him in New Haven. From 1880 to 1884, Gibbs combined the ideas of the Irish mathematician William Rowan Hamilton on quaternions and the German Hermann Grassmann's Theory of Extension (Ausdehnungslehre) to produce the mathematical field of vector analysis (co-independent formulation; Oliver Heaviside also developed this field). Gibbs designed this to suit the purposes of mathematical physics.

From 1882 to 1889, Gibbs researched optics, developing a new electrical theory of light. Gibbs also completed his vector analysis during this time. He deliberately avoided theorizing on the structure of matter, developing a theory of more generality than any type of matter composition would imply. After 1889, Gibbs produced milestone textbooks on statistical mechanics, which were published by Yale in 1902. Other areas Gibbs contributed to include crystallography and the determinism of planetary and comet orbits, the latter by application of his vector methods.

Gibbs never married, but lived with his sister and brother-in-law. His brother-in-law was librarian at Yale and publisher of the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences, the little read journal which published most of Gibbs' work.

Death and afterwards

Gibbs remained at Yale until his death in 1903. Since Gibbs died shortly after the inauguration of the Nobel Prizes, he never won a Nobel. However, his receipt of the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of the United Kingdom is regarded as the highest honor available at the time from the international scientific community.

Scientific recognition

File:Josiah Willard Gibbs.jpg
A U.S. stamp commemorating Thermodynamicist J.W. Gibbs

Among the honors given to Gibbs' memory after his death, Yale University created the "J. Willard Gibbs Professorship in Theoretical Chemistry". Held during most of his career at Yale by eventual Nobel Prize laureate Lars Onsager, it was an extremely appropriate title for Onsager, who was primarily involved, like Gibbs, in the application of new mathematical ideas to problems in physical chemistry, especially statistical mechanics.

Since, in the mid-1800s, American colleges had little interest in the sciences and emphasized classics, Gibbs found little student interest in his lectures. The interest in his work came mainly from other scientists, particularly the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell, who was one of the first European scientists to recognize Gibbs as an significant theoretical physicist [3]. Even that recognition was slow in coming, because he published in an obscure journal which was not widely read in Europe, and it was only when Wilhelm Ostwald translated his papers into book form in German (in 1892) and Henri Louis le Chatelier made a French translation (in 1899), that his ideas received wide currency in Europe.

See also

Further reading

Sorted by date

  • Bumstead, H. A., "Josiah Willard Gibbs". American Journal of Science, 4, XVI. 1903.
  • Longley, W. R., and R. G. Van Name, "The Collected Works of J Willard Gibbs". 1928.
  • Donnan, F. G., and A. E. Haas, "A Commentary on the Scientific Writings of J Willard Gibbs". 1936. ISBN 0405125445
  • Rukeyser,M., "Willard Gibbs: American Genius". 1942. ISBN 0918024579
  • Gibbs, J. Willard, "The Early Work of Willard Gibbs in Applied Mechanics". 1947. ISBN 1881987175
  • Wheeler, L. P., "Josiah Willard Gibbs, The History of a Great Mind". 1952. ISBN 1881987116
  • Gibbs, J. Willard, "Scientific Papers". 1961. ISBN 084462127
  • Crowther, J. G., "Famous American Men of Science". 1969. ISBN 0836900405
  • Seeger, Raymond John (1974). J. Willard Gibbs, American mathematical physicist par excellence, Pergamon Press. ISBN 0080180132.

External articles and references



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