Today we meet the greatest scientist America has
produced. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Historians don't like
superlatives. It's too easy to be wrong when you
use words like first and best. Yet I shall
introduce you to the greatest American scientist,
and he's someone you may never even have heard of.
His name is
Josiah Willard Gibbs.
Gibbs was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1839.
He lived his entire life in the same house and died
there in 1903. He was the seventh in an unbroken
line of American academics stretching all the way
back to the 17th century. His father was a noted
professor of linguistics at Yale.
And what did Gibbs do? Well, he created the entire
subject of chemical thermodynamics. He wrote vector
analysis. He invented statistical mechanics and
developed it as far as it would go before quantum
mechanics could take it further. Other great
scientists contribute to fields. Gibbs created
three entire fields -- pulled them out of his
empyrean mind and gave them life.
He did nothing to invite fame -- hardly traveled,
didn't collaborate, never married, and published
most of his stuff in the obscure Transactions
of the Connecticut Philosophical Society.
Outwardly, he was dry and colorless.
Gibbs studied at Yale, where he took one of the
first doctorates offered in the United States --
America's very first PhD in mechanical engineering.
His thesis dealt with shaping gear teeth. After
that he taught at Yale and worked on the design of
railway equipment -- brake systems -- that sort of
thing. From 1866 to '69 he studied mathematics and
physics in Paris, Berlin, and Heidelberg. It was
the only real trip he ever took.
He was 34 years old by the time he published his
first paper, and it was still later that his
abilities started to become apparent. When his work
on thermodynamics attracted attention, Johns
Hopkins offered him a position. Up to then, Yale
hadn't been paying him. Now, at least, they put him
on the payroll.
Gibbs' work is spatial -- like good engineering
work. It moves in a surrealistic multidimensional
landscape. People who join him in his voyage of the
mind find it seductively beautiful. Since his
death, 20th-century scientists have peeled him like
an artichoke -- under each layer lies what they'd
missed the first time.
J. Willard Gibbs's life may have been wrapped in
plain gray -- faculty meetings, committees, classes
-- a quiet professor doing obscure things. He
received no major grants -- no Nobel prize. But it
was his edifice that Einstein and Fermi completed.
He rewrote science. He changed history. He was our
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
A remarkably rich account of Gibbs' seemingly gray
life was written by a noted American poet: Rukeyser,
M., Willard Gibbs. Garden City, N.J.:
Doubleday Duran and Co., Inc., 1942.
For more on Gibbs early work with gears and his
capacity for spatial visualization, see Episode 1483.
See also, Commentary on the Writings of J. W.
Gibbs. Volumes 1 snd II (Edited by F. G. Donnan
and A. Haas) New Haven: Yale University Press,
1936. [119, 1483]
For more on Gibbs, see the following website:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2018 by John H.
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