“Thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine to thermodynamics”

This quote, or variants, are attributed to some Lawrence Joseph Henderson. I would love to understand the line of reasoning that led to this thought, but I can’t find the origin of the quote. Someone online places it in his work The Order of Nature, that is freely consultable on the Internet Archive, but I could not find it. The writers of the proudly vintage website Today in Science History also tried a similar quest, without success. They append their own interpretation:

“Then all the fundamental insights gained for science led to wider applications. Thus the steam engine served as a stimulus, but was only one beneficiary among many other developments in technology.”

I think this interpretation might miss the key point. Thermodynamics developed as a discourse about the power of machines during the industrial revolution. It was (and still is) a patchwork of general principles (first law, second law, etc.) and special cases (the ideal gas, the Fourier law, etc.). But it is not clear at all to me if and how all this speculation actually fed back to the technical applications: the general principles are sort of intuitive to anyone doing practical things, and special cases do not apply to, say, the Diesel engine etc.


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