During the Nineteenth Century, advances in technology, a changed economic picture, new political structures, and an evolution in the attitude toward morals affected the way science was practiced and evaluated. Since the historian of science places emphasis on scientific accomplishments, these anecdotes must reflect the underlying activity responsible for these gains in optics. A brief overview of some of the general scientific activity will thus enable us to better appreciate how optical advances were achieved during this period.
The study of heat and its transformation was one of great intellectual, as well as technical and economic, importance. The principle of the conservation of energy was possibly the greatest physical discovery of the mid-nineteenth century. It showed that mechanical work, electricity, and heat are different forms of energy, and thus brought together several facets of science. The laws of thermodynamics indicated that not only the quantity of energy, but its availability, are what matter. The knowledge of thermodynamics also began to play a larger part in such fields as chemistry and biology in the nineteenth century. It was also to make its mark on optics.
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