John Smeaton and the vis viva controversy: Measuring waterwheel efficiency and the influence of industry on practical mechanics in Britain 1759–1808

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

3 Citations (Scopus)

Abstract

In this paper, I will examine John Smeaton’s contribution to the vis viva controversy in Britain, focusing on how the hybridization of science, technology, and industry helped to establish vis viva, or mechanic power, as a measure of motive force. Smeaton, embodying the ‘hybrid expert’ who combined theoretical knowledge and practical knowhow, demonstrated that the notion of vis viva possessed a greater explanatory power than momentum, because it could be used to explain the difference in efficiency between overshot and undershot waterwheels. Smeaton’s conclusions were correct since waterwheel efficiency was already measured in terms that were proportional to vis viva, not momentum, as a result of the industrial applications of waterwheel technology, which favored measuring efficiency by the product of mass and vertical displacement. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the loss of motive force in the inelastic collision driving the undershot wheel began to be seen as equivalent to the expenditure of labor in the manufacture of commodities, further underlining how strictly scientific conclusions about motive force could have their origin in industrial practices.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)196-223
Number of pages28
JournalHist Sci
Volume56
Issue number2
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2018

Fingerprint

Dive into the research topics of 'John Smeaton and the vis viva controversy: Measuring waterwheel efficiency and the influence of industry on practical mechanics in Britain 1759–1808'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this