(born , Feb. 11, 1839, New Haven, Conn., U.S.—died April 28, 1903, New Haven) U.S. theoretical physicist and chemist. He became the first person to earn an engineering doctorate from Yale University, where he taught from 1871 until his death. He began his career in engineering but turned to theory, analyzing the equilibrium of James Watt's steam-engine governor. His major works were on fluid thermodynamics and the equilibrium of heterogeneous substances, and he developed statistical mechanics. Gibbs was the first to expound with mathematical rigour the “relation between chemical, electrical, and thermal energy and capacity for work.” Though little of his work was appreciated during his lifetime, his application of thermodynamic theory to chemical reactions converted much of physical chemistry from an empirical to a deductive science, and he is regarded as one of the greatest U.S. scientists of the 19th century.
Learn more about Gibbs, J(osiah) Willard with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Josiah Willard Gibbs (February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903) was an American theoretical physicist, chemist, and mathematician. One of the greatest American scientists of all time, he devised much of the theoretical foundation for chemical thermodynamics as well as physical chemistry. As a mathematician, he invented vector analysis (independently of Oliver Heaviside). It is in good part thanks to Gibbs that much of physical and chemical theory has since been exposited using vector analysis. Yale University awarded Gibbs the first American Ph.D. in engineering in 1863, and he spent his entire career at Yale. His thesis was entitled: On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing.
In 1901, Gibbs was awarded the highest possible honor granted by the international scientific community of his day, granted to only one scientist each year: the Copley Medal of the Royal Society of London, for being "the first to apply the second law of thermodynamics to the exhaustive discussion of the relation between chemical, electrical, and thermal energy and capacity for external work. This is considered Gibbs's greatest scientific contribution.
Gibbs was the seventh in a long line of American academics stretching back to the 17th century. His father, a professor of sacred literature at the Yale Divinity School, is now most remembered for his involvement in the Amistad trial. Although the father was also named Josiah Willard, the son is never referred to as "Jr." Five other members of Gibbs's extended family were named Josiah Willard Gibbs. His mother was the daughter of a Yale graduate in literature.
In 1863, Gibbs was awarded the first Ph.D. degree in engineering in the USA from the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale. He then tutored at Yale, two years in Latin and one year in what was then called natural philosophy, now comparable to the natural sciences, particularly physics. In 1866 he went to Europe to study, spending a year each at Paris, Berlin, and Heidelberg, where he was influenced by Kirchhoff and Helmholtz. At the time, German academics were the leading authorities in chemistry, thermodynamics, and theoretical natural science in general. These three years account for nearly all of his life spent outside New Haven.
In 1869, he returned to Yale and was appointed Professor of Mathematical Physics in 1871, the first such professorship in the United States and a position he held for the rest of his life. The appointment was unpaid at first, a situation common in Germany and otherwise not unusual at the time, because Gibbs had yet to publish anything. Between 1876 and 1878 Gibbs wrote a series of papers on the graphical analysis of multi-phase chemical systems. These were eventually published together in a monograph titled On the Equilibrium of Heterogeneous Substances, his most renowned work. It is now deemed one of the greatest scientific achievements of the 19th century, and one of the foundations of physical chemistry. In these papers Gibbs applied thermodynamics to interpret physicochemical phenomena, successfully explaining and interrelating what had previously been a mass of isolated facts.
"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 anyone, and especially so for students of experimental chemistry whom it most concerns... " (J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, J. Willard Gibbs)
Some important topics covered in his other papers on heterogeneous equilibria include:
Gibbs also wrote on theoretical thermodynamics. In 1873, he 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's construct which he then sent to Gibbs. Yale proudly owns it to this day.
In 1880, the new Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland offered Gibbs a position paying $3000. Yale responded by raising his salary to $2000, and he did not leave New Haven. From 1880 to 1884, Gibbs combined the ideas of two mathematicians, the quaternions of William Rowan Hamilton and the exterior algebra of Hermann Grassmann to obtain vector analysis (independently formulated by the British mathematical physicist and engineer Oliver Heaviside). Gibbs designed vector analysis to clarify and advance mathematical physics.
From 1882 to 1889, Gibbs refined his vector analysis, wrote on optics, and developed a new electrical theory of light. He deliberately avoided theorizing about the structure of matter, a wise decision in view of the revolutionary developments in subatomic particles and quantum mechanics that began around the time of his death. His chemical thermodynamics was a theory of greater generality than any other theory of matter extant in his day.
After 1889, he worked on statistical mechanics, laying a foundation and "providing a mathematical framework for quantum theory and for Maxwell's theories" He wrote classic textbooks on statistical mechanics, which Yale published in 1902. Gibbs also contributed to crystallography and applied his vector methods to the determination of planetary and comet orbits.
Not much is known about the names and careers of Gibbs's students.
Gibbs never married, living all his life in his childhood home with a sister and his brother-in-law, the Yale librarian. His focus on science was such that he was generally unavailable personally. His protégé E.B. Wilson explains: "Except in the classroom I saw very little of Gibbs. He had a way, toward the end of the afternoon, of taking a stroll about the streets between his study in the old Sloane Laboratory and his home -- a little exercise between work and dinner -- and one might occasionally come across him at that time." Gibbs died in New Haven and is buried in Grove Street Cemetery.
Recognition was slow in coming, in part because Gibbs published mainly in the Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Sciences, a journal edited by his librarian brother-in-law, little read in the USA and even less so in Europe. At first, only a few European theoretical physicists and chemists, such as the Scot James Clerk Maxwell, paid any attention to his work. Only when Gibbs's papers were translated into German (then the leading language for chemistry) by Wilhelm Ostwald in 1892, and into French by Henri Louis le Chatelier in 1899, did his ideas receive wide currency in Europe. His theory of the phase rule was experimentally validated by the works of H. W. Bakhuis Roozeboom, who showed how to apply it in a variety of situations, thereby assuring it of widespread use.
Gibbs was even less appreciated in his native America. Nevertheless, he was recognised as follows:
During his lifetime, American colleges and secondary schools emphasized classics rather than science, and students took little interest in his Yale lectures. (That scientific teaching and research are a fundamental part of the modern university emerged in Germany during the 19th century and only gradually spread from there to the USA.) Gibbs's position at Yale and in American science generally has been described as follows:
"In his later years he was a tall, dignified gentleman, with a healthy stride and ruddy complexion, performing his share of household chores, approachable and kind (if unintelligible) to students. Gibbs was highly esteemed by his friends, but American science was too preoccupied with practical questions to make much use of his profound theoretical work during his lifetime. He lived out his quiet life at Yale, deeply admired by a few able students but making no immediate impress on American science commensurate with his genius." (Crowther 1969: nnn)
This is not to say that Gibbs was unknown in his day. For example, the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota, while casually browsing the mathematical stacks of Sterling Library, stumbled on a handwritten mailing list attached to some of Gibbs's course notes. It listed over two hundred notable scientists of his day, including Poincaré, Hilbert, Boltzmann, and Mach. One can conclude that Gibbs's work was better known among the scientific elite of his day than published material suggests.
Gibbs' contributions, however, were not fully recognized until some time after the 1923 publication of Gilbert N. Lewis and Merle Randall's Thermodynamics and the Free Energy of Chemical Substances, which introduced Gibbs's methods to chemists worldwide. These methods also became much of the foundation for chemical engineering.
According to the American Mathematical Society, which established the Josiah Willard Gibbs Lectureship in 1923 to increase public awareness of the aspects of mathematics and its applications, Gibbs is one of the greatest scientists America has ever produced.
In 1945, Yale University created the J. Willard Gibbs Professorship in Theoretical Chemistry, held until 1973 by Lars Onsager, who won the 1968 Nobel Prize in chemistry. This appointment was a very fitting one, as Onsager, like Gibbs, was primarily involved in the application of new mathematical ideas to problems in physical chemistry, especially statistical mechanics. Yale's J. W. Gibbs Laboratory and J. Willard Gibbs Assistant Professorship in Mathematics are also named in his honor. On February 28, 2003, Yale held a symposium on the centennial of his death.
In 1950, Gibbs was elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
The following individuals won a Nobel Prize in whole or in part by building on Gibbs's work: