Today, a glimpse into the mind of J. Willard Gibbs.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
When I spoke at Yale
University a while back, I met a blind student
doing his doctorate in genetics -- a field that
depends heavily on pictures and patterns. What he
and I talked about was visualization.
At first that may seem contradictory, but ask
yourself: Who does more mental visualization: we
sighted people or that student who didn't have the
use of his eyes? He was obviously very good at
recreating the three-dimensional world around him
in his head. I ask you to try an experiment. Close
your eyes and walk around your house or apartment,
guiding yourself by recollection and mental
reconstruction. Either you'll manage to recreate
your material world in your mind, or you'll end up
hopelessly lost in your own house.
Now meet another Yale student, J. Willard
Gibbs. The year is 1863, and he's just
completed the first mechanical engineering Ph.D. in
America. His thesis deals with shaping the teeth of
Gibbs went on to become America's greatest
scientist. He didn't just contribute to fields. The
entire subjects of chemical thermodynamics, vector
analysis, and pre-quantum statistical
thermodynamics sprang full-blown from his
remarkable mind. Gibbs came from a long line of
scholars. If you saw the movie Amistad, you briefly met his
father, a noted linguist who worked with the
stranded Africans, deciphering their language.
So it seems strange that the young Gibbs began in
the seemingly earthbound arena of engineering --
that he held significant patents for railroad
brakes and couplings, and for a steam-engine
governor. We'd better look at that thesis on gear
Not one of the twenty-five illustrations in it
actually depicts the complex shape of a gear tooth.
These are the austere constructions of an advanced
Euclidian geometry text. Gibbs writes the math that
generates the shape of gear teeth, but he leaves
the result to the mind's eye, his and
A biographer writes, The reader with a good
mental grasp of spatial relations, who can picture
... three coincident planes ... all moving at the
same time, and a point in one ... tracing curves in
the other two, will have much easier going than the
expert in algebraic manipulation.
There lies, not
just the secret of Gibbs's brilliance, but the link
between his practical engineering and abstract
science as well. For Gibbs could see without
mechanical aids, and he assumed as much of his
readers. I strongly suspect that he'd have been
bored by the lush images flowing from a modern
computer. It was all there in his mind -- a richer
tapestry of images than anything gracing our
two-dimensional screens today.
Gibbs leaves us with a nagging question: Could he
have been what he was if he'd been raised in our
world, with machines doing so much of his mental
work for him? Perhaps that blind student at Yale
was blessed in the same way Gibbs himself was
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Gibbs, J. W., The Early Work of Willard Gibbs in
Applied Mechanics: Comprising the Text of his
Hitherto Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis and Accounts of his
Mechanical Inventions (with commentary by Lynde
P. Wheeler, Everett O. Waters, Samuel W. Dudley, and
John F. Fulton). New York: Henry Schuman, 1947.
A remarkably rich account of Gibbs's seemingly gray
life was written by noted American poet Muriel
Rukeyser: Willard Gibbs. Garden City, N.J.:
Doubleday Duran and Co., Inc., 1942.
See also, Commentary on the Writings of J. W.
Gibbs. Volumes 1 snd II (Edited by F. G. Donnan
and A. Haas) New Haven: Yale University Press,
1936. [119, 1483]
For more on Gibbs, see Episode
The blind graduate student, who was so influential
in my developing this episode, is Matthew A. Weed,
Genetics Department, Yale University.
As a matter of interest, the final version of
Gibbs's thesis didn't survive. What we have is the
handwritten semifinal draft which turned up in
Gibbs's personal effects.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1999 by John H.