Physics in Perspective

, Volume 4, Issue 2, pp 127–169 | Cite as

Rumford and the Reflection of Radiant Cold: Historical Reflections and Metaphysical Reflexes

  • Hasok Chang


In this paper I examine the debate regarding the positive reality of cold: whether it is merely an absence of heat, or a quality or entity in its own right. Marc-Auguste Pictet stimulated this debate by showing that radiation from a cold object apparently could be focused by concave mirrors to cool another object some distance away from it. Pictet and other believers in material theories of heat, most notably Pierre Prevost, sought to understand this phenomenon as a result of the radiation of caloric in a peculiar arrangement. By contrast, Count Rumford saw in Pictet's experiment a genuine action of “frigorific rays,” and performed striking new experiments to support his view. For Rumford heat and cold radiation consisted in sound-like undulations in the ether, a mechanism compatible with his own vibration theory of heat, and discordant with the caloric theory. Rumford's strong arguments were overruled only because of the general dominance of the caloric theory of heat. However, Rumford did push the caloric theory to develop in a direction that eventually led to its downfall. I revisit this debate without preconceived notions of the metaphysical nature of cold and heat.

Key words. Cold, frigorific, caloric, radiant heat, Count Rumford, Marc-Auguste Pictet, Pierre Prevost. 


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Copyright information

© Birkhäuser Verlag Basel 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Hasok Chang
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Science and Technology Studies, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, United Kingdom, e-mail:

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