William John Macquorn Rankine

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The laws of phenomena have to a certain extent been anticipated, and their investigation facilitated, by the aid of hypotheses as to occult molecular structures and motions with which such phenomena are assumed to be connected.

William John Macquorn Rankine (5 July 182024 December 1872) was a Scottish engineer and physicist.



  • The hypothesis of molecular vortices is defined to be that which assumes — that each atom of matter consists of a nucleus or central point enveloped by an elastic atmosphere, which is retained in its position by attractive forces, and that the elasticity due to heat arises from the centrifugal force of those atmospheres revolving or oscillating about their nuclei or central points.
    According to this hypothesis, quantity of heat is the vis viva of the molecular revolutions or oscillations.
    • "On the Centrifugal Theory of Elasticity as applied to Gases and Vapours" in The London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science (July-December 1851), p. 510
  • Discrepancy between theory and practice, which in sound physical and mechanical science is a delusion, has a real existence in the minds of men; and that fallacy, through rejected by their judgments, continues to exert and influence over their acts.
    • "Introductory Lecture on the Harmony of Theory and Practice in Mechanics" (1856), p. 4
  • Another evil, and one of the worst which arises from the separation of theoretical and practical knowledge, is the fact that a large number of persons, possessed of an inventive turn of mind and of considerable skill in the manual operations of practical mechanics, are destitute of that knowledge of scientific principles which is requisite to prevent their being misled by their own ingenuity. Such men too often spend their money, waste their lives, and it may be lose their reason in the vain pursuits of visionary inventions, of which a moderate amount of theoretical knowledge would be sufficient to demonstrate the fallacy ; and for want of such knowledge, many a man who might have been a useful and happy member of society, becomes a being than whom it would be hard to find anything more miserable. The number of those unhappy persons — to judge from the patent-lists, and from some of the mechanical journals — must be much greater than is generally believed.
    • "On the harmony of theory and practice in mechanics" in The Mechanics' Magazine (1856), p. 176
  • This law (regarding the theoretical efficiency of heat engines by Mr. Joule), and the law of the maximum efficiency of heat engines, are particular cases of a general law which regulates all transformation of energy, and is the basis of the Science of Energetics.
    • Manual of Applied Mechanics, (1858) London and Glasgow : Richard Griffin and Company, p. 630

"Outlines of the Science of Energetics," (1855)[edit]

William John Macquorn Rankine, "Outlines of the Science of Energetics" in Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow (1855),

  • An essential distinction exists between two stages in the process of advancing our knowledge of the laws of physical phenomena; the first stage consists in observing the relations of phenomena, whether of such as occur in the ordinary course of nature, or of such as are artificially produced in experimental investigations, and in expressing the relations so observed by propositions called formal laws. The second stage consists in reducing the formal laws of an entire class of phenomena to the form of a science; that is to say, in discovering the most simple system of principles, from which all the formal laws of the class of phenomena can be deduced as consequences.
    • p. 121; Lead paragraph: Section "What Constitutes A Physical Theory"
  • A physical theory, like an abstract science, consists of definitions and axioms as first principles, and of propositions, their consequences; but with these differences:—first, That in an abstract science, a definition assigns a name to a class of notions derived originally from observation, but not necessarily corresponding to any existing objects of real phenomena, and an axiom states a mutual relation amongst such notions, or the names denoting them; while in a physical science, a definition states properties common to a class of existing objects, or real phenomena, and a physical axiom states a general law as to the relations of phenomena; and, secondly,—That in an abstract science, the propositions first discovered are the most simple; whilst in a physical theory, the propositions first discovered are in general numerous and complex, being formal laws, the immediate results of observation and experiment, from which the definitions and axioms are subsequently arrived at by a process of reasoning differing from that whereby one proposition is deduced from another in an abstract science, partly in being more complex and difficult, and partly in being to a certain extent tentative, that is to say, involving the trial of conjectural principles, and their acceptance or rejection according as their consequences are found to agree or disagree with the formal laws deduced immediately from observation and experiment.
    • p. 121; Second paragraph
  • A hypothetical theory is necessary, as a preliminary step, to reduce the expression of the phenomena to simplicity and order before it is possible to make any progress in framing an abstractive theory.
    • p. 213

A Manual of the Steam Engine and Other Prime Movers (1859)[edit]

A Manual of the Steam Engine and Other Prime Movers (1859)
  • It is possible to express the laws of thermodynamics in the form of independent principles, deduced by induction from the facts of observation and experiment, without reference to any hypothesis as to the occult molecular operations with which the sensible phenomena may be conceived to be connected; and that course will be followed in the body of the present treatise. But, in giving a brief historical sketch of the progress of thermodynamics, the progress of the hypothesis of thermic molecular motions cannot be wholly separated from that of the purely inductive theory.
    • p. 27
  • Hypothesis Of Molecular Vortices. In thermodynamics as well as in other branches of molecular physics, the laws of phenomena have to a certain extent been anticipated, and their investigation facilitated, by the aid of hypotheses as to occult molecular structures and motions with which such phenomena are assumed to be connected. The hypothesis which has answered that purpose in the case of thermodynamics, is called that of "molecular vortices," or otherwise, the "centrifugal theory of elasticity. (On this subject, see the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, 1849; Edinburgh Transactions, vol. xx.; and Philosophical Magazine, passim, especially for December, 1851, and November and December, 1855.)
    • p. 31
  • Science Of Energetics. Although the mechanical hypothesis just mentioned may be useful and interesting as a means of anticipating laws, and connecting the science of thermodynamics with that of ordinary mechanics, still it is to be remembered that the science of thermodynamics is by no means dependent for its certainty on that or any other hypothesis, having been now reduced, to a system of principles, or general facts, expressing strictly the results of experiment as to the relations between heat and motive power. In this point of view the laws of thermodynamics may be regarded as particular cases of more general laws, applicable to all such states of matter as constitute Energy, or the capacity to perform work, which more general laws form the basis of the science of energetics, — a science comprehending, as special branches, the theories of motion, heat, light, electricity, and all other physical phenomena.
    • p. 31

Quotes about William John Macquorn Rankine[edit]

  • We have... used the word stress to denote the mutual action between two portions of matter. This word was borrowed from common language, and invested with a precise scientific meaning by the late Professor Rankine to whom we are indebted for several other valuable scientific terms.

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