David Nightingale: J.Willard Gibbs (1839-1903)

Aug 10, 2014

J.W. Gibbs

Josiah Willard Gibbs was a contemporary of Mark Twain, and while Walt Whitman was enjoying the popularity of “Leaves of Grass”, and Dickens' final and unfinished novel “Edwin Drood” had just been published, J.Willard Gibbs was quietly working single-handedly at Yale on subjects that benefit mankind even today. This complex work, however, is not commonly known to a large segment of the reading public.

He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a long line of New England scholars. An ancestor had been Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts Bay in the 1700s, and his father, also Josiah Willard Gibbs, was a theologian and linguist, and Professor of Sacred Literature at Yale.

I have in my possession a 2005 US postage stamp, printed “37 cents”, which shows a pleasant, kindly-looking neatly dressed man in collar and tie, with white hair and trim white beard – and beside him an abstruse picture. Under his full name it says, in smaller print, for which one almost needs a magnifying glass, what the stamp called his occupation. But a clue to that occupation would need, without exaggeration, an actual microscope. What the Post Office did was put a microprint of important information onto the collar of Mr Gibbs' white shirt. (If it had been Einstein's picture, of course, the most likely near-invisible thing on the collar would probably have been E=mc(squared), except that Einstein didn't care for collar and tie.)

J.Willard Gibbs lived in the same house in New Haven all his life, with the exception of three years travelling and studying in Paris, Berlin and Heidelberg, where he went as a young man with his two sisters. He never married. Later, he would only leave New Haven for his summer vacations at Keene Valley in the Adirondacks. He was an unassuming man who, after receiving his doctorate worked first as an unsalaried tutor of Latin and Natural Philosophy at Yale. (His Yankee family, while not wealthy, had enough money for the children to be self-supporting.) He published 3 great papers [ref.3] in the 1870s in the relatively obscure Transactions of the Connecticut Academy, and Einstein said later “if I had known of these papers I would not have written my 1902 papers [on the subject]...”

After Johns Hopkins offered him a salaried position as professor [of theoretical physics], Yale decided they would pay him, so he stayed in New Haven all his life.

Left intentionally to the end of this short essay is what Gibbs is known for worldwide.

The small print under his full name says THERMODYNAMICIST, whatever that is, and the microprint is his correct 19th century equation for the so-called free energy – which tells us how much energy is available in any chemical reaction.

Our philosopher is known for the famous Phase Rule, Gibbs entropy, the Gibbs-Helmholtz equation, Gibbs Free Energy, as well as for vector calculus, and – all the while working quietly at Yale –  communicating with the likes of Maxwell and Helmholtz and other admiring European scientists. He was awarded the Rumford Prize, as well as London's Copley Medal, and Max Planck, instigator of the quantum of energy, wrote: '… his name, not only in America … will ever be reckoned among the most renowned physicists of all time...' [ref 3.] The writer Zemansky, author of a famous text on Heat and Thermodynamics says on p.613 [ref.1]: “... [Gibbs' 1878] paper stands today as one of the most profound contributions to the world of human thought and … places him with the greatest of the world's geniuses”.

Strong praise indeed.

Gibbs died in New Haven in 1903. So whether it's literature, music, art or science, he is certainly worthy of that stamp.


1. “Heat and Thermodynamics”, 5th ed., by Mark W. Zemansky; McGraw-Hill Book Company, NY 1968 (p.613)

2. “Josiah Willard Gibbs; the History of a Great Mind”, by (Dr) Lynde Phelps Wheeler, Yale Univ. Press, 1952.

3.  (i) “Graphical methods in the Thermodynamics of Fluids” (1873); (ii) “A Method of Geometrical Representation of the Thermodynamic Properties of Substances by means of Surfaces”(1873); (iii) “On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances”(1876).