James Prescott Joule Manuscripts

  • Reference
      GB 133 JPJ
  • Dates of Creation
  • Name of Creator
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      0.3 li.m.; 41 items several items have been subject to conservation work, including rebinding, and transfer to Melinex wallets.
  • Location
      Collection available at Special Collections, Main Library.

Scope and Content

A small collection of manuscripts, including notebooks and correspondence, of the physicist James Prescott Joule.

The most significant items are Joule's laboratory notebooks (JPJ/1-5), covering the 1840s and 1850s, formerly part of a larger collection, which provide important information on aspects of his experimental work.

The collection also includes some of Joule's writings in manuscript, for example, his notes on 'Aims of science...', compiled for his (undelivered) British Association address in 1873 (JPJ/36), and another on the scope of the physical sciences (JPJ/35), as well as a note on the advantages of scientific studies (JPJ/34).

The small body of correspondence includes mainly letters to Joule from leading scientists such as Lyon Playfair, William Hopkins, William Scoresby, Robert Angus Smith, George Stokes, John Tyndall, Edward Sabine, William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), Sir John Herschel, as well as the industrialists and engineers C. W. Siemens, Eaton Hodgkinson and William Fairbairn. The letters from Hopkins (JPJ/14-15), Playfair (JPJ/17), Scoresby (JPJ/19), Siemens (JPJ/20), Smith (JPJ/21) and Thomson (JPJ/29) refer to experimental work or publication of research. There are draft letters by Joule to the Times concerning a debate over electro-magnetism (JPJ/30-31). There are also several family letters, including fragments of letters from Joule to his cousin Frances ('Fanny') Charlotte Tappenden (JPJ/9-10), and letters to Frederick Tappenden (JPJ/26-28), and correspondence with his solicitor, Edward Binney (JPJ/6-8).

Other material in the collection includes a drawing of a Dip-Circle, a scientific instrument (JPJ/33), a receipt for the purchase of two thermometers (JPJ/38), a certificate for standard thermometers supplied from Kew Observatory (JPJ/39), and a Board of Trade certificate for a standard of measurement (JPJ/40).

Administrative / Biographical History

James Prescott Joule was born on Christmas Eve 1818, in Salford, the son of a wealthy brewer. Joule was educated at home, and was taught for a time by John Dalton. He did not attend university, in part because of his family's dissenting background.

Joule worked at the family brewery until it was sold in 1854, and his earliest researches were carried out in his spare time. In 1838, he published his first work in William Sturgeon's Annals of electricity. Sturgeon (1783-1850), an evangelist for electricity, was an important early influence on Joule. Joule followed Sturgeon in believing that electromagnetism might be the source of virtually limitless, cheap motive power. Joule's practical experiments with electromagnets however convinced him that this hope was unfounded.

Joule continued to experiment with electricity, examining the properties of heat generated in electrical circuits and in electro-chemical reactions. One of his earliest discoveries was that heat produced in an electric circuit was proportional to the square of the current, and the resistance that a given weight of fuel burnt in a battery generates was the same amount of heat as it would produce if burned in an atmosphere of oxygen. In January 1843, Joule delivered an important paper to the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society (to which he had recently been elected), 'On the heat evolved during the electrolysis of water’, where he noted direct equivalences between heat generated and energy expended [Joule did not use the term 'energy', but typically referred to 'work done' or vis viva], and concluded, "Electricity may be regarded as a grand agent for carrying, arranging, and converting chemical heat" (Joule, Scientific papers, vol. 1 p.120).

Joule followed up with experiments to determine a precise value for the relationship between work done and heat produced ('the mechanical equivalent of heat'). At the Cork meeting of the British Association in 1843, he delivered a paper, 'On the calorific effects of magneto-electricity and the mechanical value of heat' [later published in Philosophical Magazine 3.23, 1843]. Although this made little impact at the time, it was highly significant in its description of the interconvertibility of heat and work, and in containing a value for the mechanical equivalent of heat. Joule argued that heat was generated by mechanical or chemical action, not merely redistributed as the caloric theory of heat held, and he believed this was caused by the mechanical energy of constituent atoms as they vibrated during the reaction. Joule described experiments with electromagnets to measure electricity generated (using an accurate galvanometer) and the calorific effect of the coil (measured by the change of temperature in the water surrounding it). He contended that "heat is generated by the magneto-electrical machine, and that by means of the inductive power of magnetism we can diminish or increase at pleasure the heat due to chemical changes" (Joule, Scientific papers, vol.1, p.149). Joule held further that a constant ratio might exist between the heat and the mechanical power gained or lost, termed the 'mechanical value of heat’, and he offered a provisional finding for this: "The quantity of heat capable of increasing the temperature of a pound of water by one degree of Fahrenheit's scale is equal to, and may be converted into, a mechanical force capable of raising 838 lb. to the perpendicular height of one foot."

Between 1843-7 Joule attempted to demonstrate that a constant ratio existed between energy and heat, in a range of experiments involving the compression of air, the overcoming of friction between iron discs and the fluid friction between different liquids. Joule also refined his calculation for the mechanical value of heat. In 1845 at the British Association meeting in Cambridge, Joule first described an experiment using a paddle wheel and a cylindrical vessel fitted with baffles in which the wheel rotated. This vessel was filled with water and the wheel driven by falling weights. The energy expended by the wheel in overcoming the viscous drag of the water was converted to heat. The experiment was repeated with whale oil and mercury, yielding results of a similar value. Although this experiment again made little impact, when he expounded a revised version to the 1847 Oxford meeting of the British Association, it had a better reception. A young William Thomson [later Lord Kelvin] took up Joule's arguments, which were later developed into the concept of the conservation of energy, i.e. that energy can be transformed, but cannot be created nor destroyed. Thomson, rather than Joule, was to become a leading exponent of the new theories of thermodynamics, although Joule had played a major role in undermining the established science of heat, predicated on the idea of the conservation of heat.

In April 1847 Joule delivered a lecture 'On matter, living force and heat' at St Ann's Church reading room, Manchester, which outlined this concept of the conservation of energy. Professional recognition of Joule's work can came when "On the mechanical equivalent of heat", which reported a definitive value for the 'exchange rate' between heat and work, was communicated to the Royal Society in 1849 by Michael Faraday, and published in the Society's Philosophical Transactions.

After the 1850s Joule played a lesser role in the emerging subject of thermodynamics, but he continued to experiment. He established, with William Thomson, the Joule-Thomson effect, by which the temperature of a gas or liquid changes when it is forced through a valve while kept insulated so that no heat is exchanged with the environment. This was to be used in the liquefaction of gases. In one of his last papers 'New determination of the mechanical equivalent of heat' (1878) he repeated his 1849 experiments for the mechanical equivalent of heat, with his findings agreeing with his earlier experiments [the figures were later revised by others].

Joule was elected F.R.S. in 1850. He became a member of the Society's Council in 1857 and was recipient of its Gold Medal in 1852, and the Copley Medal in 1870. He was awarded of £200 civil list pension in 1878. Joule was an active member of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society; having first been elected in 1842, he served as the Society's librarian, honorary secretary, and vice-president, and was twice president (1860 and 1868).

Joule married Amelia Grimes in 1847, the daughter of the Liverpool Comptroller of Customs; they had a son and daughter. His wife died following the birth of a second son (who also died) in 1854. Joule died on 11 October 1889 at his home in Wardle Road, Sale, Cheshire.

In 1948 the ninth general conference on weights and measures introduced a new set of scientific units known as the Joule.


The collection has not been organized into series. Its small size, the lack of an obvious organizing principle, and its complex provenancial history, means that arrangement strictly by format or by provenance would not be appropriate.

The items are predominantly in chronological order.

Access Information

The collection is open to any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Transferred to the JRUL by Joe Marsh, formerly of UMIST department of history of science and technology, in 2006.

Other Finding Aids

Some of the items in this collection have been previously described; see H J Lowery, "The Joule collection in the College of Technology, Manchester", Journal of Scientific Instruments, VIII.1, January 1931, pp.1-7, for the original College of Technology collection. Allan Pate's unpublished "James Prescott Joule 1818-1889: a bibliography of works by and about him" (1981, revised 1998) describes nearly all the items in the current collection. The current listing is indebted to both these works, and the references used by Lowery and Pate are included with the item descriptions to facilitate identification.

Archivist's Note

Missing Items

Before the Joule manuscripts were transferred to the Library a number of items in the collection were identified as missing. These include the following items from the original (1900) collection:

  • 1) Notebook 138 pp. entitled "Papers in rough" includes a draft of Joule's papers "On a new method for ascertaining the specific heat of bodies", "On the changes of temperature produced by the rarefaction and condensation of air", "On the effects of magnetism upon the dimension of iron ans steel bars"; also parts of the paper published in 1850 as "On the mechanical equivalent of heat". The published versions of these papers are reproduced in Joule's Scientific papers. (Lowery ref. 1).
  • 2) Laboratory book 1858-1871, 158 pp., includes Joule's experimental data, first entry is dated 25 August 1858 and gives data used in Joule's paper "On the thermal effects of compressing liquids", published in 1859. Also "Experiments on condensing steam", "On the thermal effects of fluids in motion" and various magnetic and electrical experiments. The volume included several magnetized sewing needles, which were used in Joule's studies. (Lowery ref. 4).
  • 3) Laboratory book, 1839-1843. This was an unruled notebook containing general mathematical notes, exercises in book-keeping, and it is believed to have been compiled under the direction of private tutor. There was a note on electric heating dated from late August 1840. There were details of experiments conducted by Joule in the latter half of 1840 on electro-thermal properties of electrolytes and on current strength. (Lowery ref. 5a).
  • 4) A manuscript note showing a diagram "Rise of freezing point of my old sensitive thermometer for 311/3 years. observation date from April 1844 to August 1875. Joule's findings were published in "Observation on the alteration of the freezing-point in thermometers", Scientific papers vol. 1, p. 558. (Lowery ref. 7.)
  • 5) A newspaper cutting from the Manchester Courier, 12 May 1847, reporting Joule's lecture "On matter, living force, and heat." (Lowery ref. 8).
  • 6) A steel engraving of Joule from a painting by George Patten, 1863. Painting once hung in the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society.
These items were reported missing when Rosenfeld took over the collection in the 1940s. An extensive search was made for these items in the 1960s and 1970s by Donald Cardwell, but without success; the current location of the items is unknown.

Also reported missing are the following items:

  • A fragment in French [no further information];
  • A letter from N. J. Le Verrier to Joule, 19 June 1847, which acknowledges his election to honorary membership of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society [Pate ref. 687].

Separated Material

The Manchester Museum of Science and Industry holds several Joule items, which were formerly associated with this collection. These include:

  • "A rough note on the constitution of amalgams".
  • Two letters from Joule to Fanny Dancer, dated 5 Oct 1861 and 27 Nov 1870.
  • Letter from Thomas Graham 26 Jan 1856.
  • Letter from William Hallowes Miller to Joule, 1 Jun 1858.
  • A bill from J. B. Dancer, dated 1854.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies of material in the archive can be supplied for private study purposes only, depending on the condition of the documents.

A number of items within the archive remain within copyright under the terms of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988; it is the responsibility of users to obtain the copyright holder's permission for reproduction of copyright material for purposes other than research or private study.

Prior written permission must be obtained from the Library for publication or reproduction of any material within the archive. Please contact the Head of Special Collections, John Rylands Library, 150 Deansgate, Manchester, M3 3EH.

Custodial History

The Joule manuscripts are an artificial collection compiled from several sources. The core of the collection are documents purchased by the Manchester Municipal School of Technology from Joule's son, Benjamin, in 1900 for £100 (this collection included some of Joule's apparatus and books ) [ref. minutes of Manchester School of Technology sub-committee 3, 12 Dec 1900, pp. 92-93].

This collection appears to have been kept at the School's department of physics until the late 1940s. In 1930 H. J. Lowery, head of the department of physics, compiled a list of the Joule material, which was published in Journal of Scientific Instruments in 1930-1931. Some time after the Second World War, Leon Rosenfeld, a professor of physics at the University of Manchester, took over the collection.

In 1950, a Joule Museum was established at Joule House, Acton Square, Salford. The Museum looked after the so-called Tappenden Collection of Joule material. This is believed to have been presented by Dr J R Ashworth in 1945, although it is unclear if the recipient was the Manchester Municipal College of Technology, the University of Manchester, or another body. The Museum also displayed other Joule manuscripts including "On the constitution of amalgams", a gift from Mrs M H Monkhouse, Timperley, Cheshire. Following Rosenfeld's departure from Manchester, care of the original collection passed to a colleague Eric Mendoza, who in turn transferred it to Donald Cardwell of the Department of History of Science and Technology, UMIST [as the School of Technology was now called]. Following the closure of the Joule Museum, Joule's artefacts were transferred to the Science and Technology Museum at UMIST [which later evolved into the Museum of Science and Industry], while the bulk of the manuscript material was passed to Professor Cardwell. The 1900 collection and most of the subsequent deposits were thus brought together for the first time. Cardwell looked after the Joule collection until he retired in 1984, whereupon Joe Marsh, a member of the History of Science and Technology Group at UMIST, took charge of the collection. Around 1989 a further item, a certificate for measurement, was added to the collection. Following the establishment of the new University of Manchester in 2004, it was agreed that the Joule manuscripts should be transferred to the custody of the John Rylands University Library; this was completed on 8 August 2006.

Related Material

The uncatalogued papers of the chemist Edward Frankland, held by JRUL, include a couple of letters from Joule to Frankland.

The Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society has custody of 38 letters from Joule to Lyon Playfair, 1844-1848, which concern research on atomic volumes and specific gravity, as well as a manuscript copy of a letter from Joule to George Griffith.

Cambridge University Library has custody of 244 letters from Joule to William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in their Kelvin Collection. University of Glasgow holds 103 letters from Joule to Kelvin. Joule's correspondence with John Tyndall can be found in the Tyndall Papers, held by the Royal Institution. Seven letters from Joule to William Scoresby, are held by the Whitby Literary and Philosophical Society.

The Henry Augustus Rowland papers, held at the The Milton S. Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University includes four letters from Joule (Ms.6).


Published versions of several of Joule's draft manuscripts present in this collection can be found in J. P. Joule, The scientific papers of James Prescott Joule, 2 vols. (1884, 1887). A. G. Pate's unpublished "James Prescott Joule 1818-1889: a bibliography of works about him" (1981, revised 1998) is a comprehensive bibliography of works by and about Joule (A copy is kept with this collection).

D. S. L. Cardwell, James Joule: a biography (Manchester 1989) is the standard modern biography. Other information can be found in R. Fox, 'James Prescott Joule, 1818-1889', Mid-nineteenth century scientists, ed. J. North (1969), 72-103; H. O. Sibum, 'Reworking the mechanical value of heat: instruments of precision and gestures of accuracy in early Victorian England', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 26 (1994), 73-106; H. J. Steffens, James Prescott Joule and the concept of energy (1979); J. Forrester, 'Chemistry and the conservation of energy: the work of James Prescott Joule', Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 6 (1975), 273–313 .

Additional Information

Many of the items in this collection have previously been exhibited, both at UMIST and at the John Rylands Library.

Geographical Names