Julius Robert von Mayer (November 25, 1814 – March 20, 1878) was a German physician and physicist and one of the founders of thermodynamics. He is best known for enunciating in 1841 one of the original statements of the conservation of energy or what is now known as one of the first versions of the first law of thermodynamics, namely that "energy can be neither created nor destroyed".
In 1842, Mayer described the vital chemical process now referred to as oxidation as the primary source of energy for any living creature. His achievements were overlooked and priority for the discovery of the mechanical equivalent of heat was attributed to James Joule in the following year. He also proposed that plants convert light into chemical energy.
Von Mayer was born on November 25, 1814 in Heilbronn, Württemberg (Baden-Württemberg, modern day Germany), the son of a pharmacist. He grew up in Heilbronn. After completing his Abitur, he studied medicine at the University of Tübingen, where he was a member of the Corps Guestphalia, a German Student Corps. During 1838 he attained his doctorate as well as passing the Staatsexamen. After a stay in Paris (1839/40) he left as a ship's physician on a Dutch three-mast sailing ship for a journey to Jakarta.
Although he had hardly been interested before this journey in physical phenomena, his observation that storm-whipped waves are warmer than the calm sea started him thinking about the physical laws, in particular about the physical phenomenon of warmth and the question: whether the directly developed heat alone or whether the sum of the amounts of heat developed in direct and indirect ways contributes to the temperature. After his return in February 1841 Mayer dedicated his efforts to solve this problem.
Even as a young child, Mayer showed an intense interest with various mechanical mechanisms. He was a young man who performed various experiments of the physical and chemical variety. In fact, one of his favorite hobbies was creating various types of electrical devices and air pumps
In 1837, he and some of his friends were arrested for wearing the coleurs of a forbidden organization. The consequences for this arrest included a one year expulsion from the college and a brief period of incarceration. This diversion sent Mayer traveling to Switzerland, France, and the Dutch East Indies. Mayer drew some additional interest in mathematics and engineering from his friend Carl Baur through private tutoring. In 1841, Mayer returned to Heilbronn to practice medicine, but physics became his new passion.
In June 1841, he completed his first scientific paper entitled "On the Quantitative and Qualitative Determination of Forces". It was largely ignored by other professionals in the area. Then, Mayer became interested in the area of heat and its motion. He presented a value in numerical terms for the mechanical equivalent of heat. He also was the first person to describe the vital chemical process now referred to as oxidation as the primary source of energy for any living creature.
In 1848 he calculated that in the absence of a source of energy the Sun would cool down in only 5000 years, and he suggested that the impact of meteorites kept it hot. Since he was not taken seriously at the time, his achievements were overlooked and credit was given to James Joule. He spent some time in mental institutions to recover from this and the loss of some of his children. Several of his papers were published due to the advanced nature of the physics and chemistry. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1859 by the philosophical faculty at the University of Tübingen.
His overlooked work was revived in 1862 by fellow physicist John Tyndall in a lecture at the London Royal Institution. In July 1867, Mayer published "Die Mechanik der Wärme." This publication dealt with the mechanics of heat and its motion. On November 5, 1867, Mayer was awarded personal nobility by the Kingdom of Württemberg (von Mayer) which is the German equivalent of a British knighthood. Julius Robert von Mayer died from tuberculosis on March 20, 1878 in Germany.
Mayer was aware of the importance of his discovery, but his inability to express himself scientifically led to degrading speculation and resistance from the scientific establishment. Contemporary physicists rejected his principle of conservation of energy, and even acclaimed physicists Hermann von Helmholtz and James Prescott Joule viewed his ideas with hostility. The former doubted Mayer's qualifications in physical questions, and a bitter dispute over priority developed with the latter.
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