Modern engineering—the brainchild of Joseph Fourier (1822)



When I conceived the new engineering many years ago, I felt it was necessary to find answers to the following questions:


·  Who conceived modern engineering?


·  What did that person know about engineering phenomena?


·  Why did that person feel it was necessary to invent parameters that are not found in Nature?  Parameters such as electrical resistance and heat transfer coefficient.


American engineering texts published in the twentieth century were of no help in answering these questions, and it was necessary to search the scientific literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.


My search let to the definitive conclusion that Joseph Fourier conceived modern engineering.  It was presented in Fourier’s often praised, but seldom read, treatise entitled Analytical Theory of Heat (1822).  (It can be borrowed from many public libraries.  An inexpensive Dover edition published in 2003 can be purchased at any bookstore.)  Fourier’s treatise eloquently describes what he knew about engineering phenomena, and why he felt it necessary to invent “heat transfer coefficient” and “thermal conductivity”, parameters not found in Nature.


The evidence that modern engineering is Fourier’s brainchild is presented in my article “Fourier, the Father of Modern Engineering”.  An abridged version entitled “Fourier” was published in the August, 2005 issue of Mechanical Engineering.  The unabridged version is archived on the website of Mechanical Engineering, 




Newton’s contribution

American heat transfer texts generally claim that Newton conceived the heat transfer coefficient concept and Eq. (1)


                        q = h DT                                                                               (1)


where q is heat flux, h is heat transfer coefficient, and DT is difference in temperature between the surface temperature of an object and the temperature of the fluid in which the object is immersed.  Those texts that cite a specific reference for the first publication of Eq. (1) and the heat transfer coefficient concept generally cite Newton’s article, “A Scale of the Degrees of Heat” published anonymously, and in Latin, in 1701 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Volume 22, page 824.


When I obtained Newton’s article, I was dumbfounded to find that it had nothing to do with heat—nothing to do with heat transfer coefficient—nothing to do with Eq. (1)!  Newton’s article concerns temperature—not heat.  The word heat appears throughout Newton’s article, but to Newton and his contemporaries, “heat” meant what is now called “temperature”.  Note that the title of Newton’s article is “A Scale of the Degrees of Heat”.  Heat is an extensive property, and a “scale of degrees” cannot apply to an extensive property.  A scale of degrees can apply only to an intensive property such as temperature. 


In the article, Newton described his proposed “scale of the degrees of heat”, and reported the temperature of various phenomena based on his proposed scale, and data he reduced using the law of cooling presented in the article.  Newton’s law of cooling states that when an object cools, its rate of temperature change is proportional to the temperature difference between the object and its surroundings.  (Note that the law is based on the temperature of the object rather than the surface temperature of the object.)


Equation (1) is widely and inappropriately referred to as “Newton’s law of cooling”, but it should be referred to as “Fourier’s law of convective heat transfer”.  (See my article entitled "Origins of the Heat Transfer Coefficient in the August 1990 issue of Mechanical Engineering.  The article is an abridged version of the paper I presented at the 1989 Joint ASME/AIChE National Heat Transfer Conference, ASME-89-HT-3, "A New Look at the Origin of the Heat Transfer Coefficient Concept")


Since Newton’s article did not hold the answers I was looking for, I looked elsewhere.




Fourier’s contribution

American texts often credit Fourier with the concept of thermal conductivity, and cite his Analytical Theory of Heat published in 1822.  The book was easy to obtain (it is found in many public libraries), and it was a delight to read.  It answered all my questions about the genesis of modern engineering, and it clearly established that modern engineering was the brainchild of Fourier.


It explains what Fourier knew about conductive and convective heat transfer, and why he felt it was necessary to invent “thermal conductivity” and “heat transfer coefficient”—parameters not found in Nature.


(When I was in college, Jim Addis, a freshman roommate, posed a very thoughtful question: 


If great men write, why not read what great men write? 


It is a sad commentary on the education system in this country to note that, in my engineering courses, I was required to read many books written by educators, but I was never required to read even one paragraph written by a great man of science such as Aristotle or Galileo or Kepler or Newton or Fourier or Lavoisier or Maxwell or . . . .)


The great Von Humboldt once observed:


The popular reaction to any important discovery goes in three phases:


First, men deny its existence.


Then, they deny its importance.


And last, they give the credit to someone else.


It is my hope that “Fourier, the Father of Modern Engineering” will help ensure that Fourier is globally and appropriately given the credit for modern engineering.