Josiah Willard Gibbs


Josiah Willard Gibbs : biography

February 11, 1839 – April 28, 1903

The elder Gibbs was generally known to his family and colleagues as "Josiah", while the son was called "Willard".Cropper 2001, p. 121 Josiah Gibbs was a linguist and theologian who served as professor of sacred literature at Yale Divinity School from 1824 until his death in 1861. He is chiefly remembered today as the abolitionist who found an interpreter for the African passengers of the ship Amistad, allowing them to testify during the trial that followed their rebellion against being sold as slaves.

Early years

Willard Gibbs was educated at the Hopkins School and entered Yale College in 1854, aged 15. He graduated in 1858 near the top of his class, and was awarded prizes for excellence in mathematics and Latin. He remained at Yale as a graduate student at the Sheffield Scientific School. At the age of 19, soon after his graduation from college, Gibbs was inducted into the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, a scholarly institution composed primarily of members of the Yale faculty.Rukeyser 1988, p. 104

Relatively few documents from the period survive and it is impossible to reconstruct the details of Gibbs’s early career with precision.Wheeler 1998, pp. 23–24 In the opinion of biographers, Gibbs’s principal mentor and champion, both at Yale and in the Connecticut Academy, was probably the astronomer and mathematician Hubert Anson Newton, a leading authority on meteors, who remained Gibbs’s lifelong friend and confidant. After the death of his father in 1861, Gibbs inherited enough money to make him financially independent.Rukeyser 1998, pp. 120, 142 He suffered from recurrent pulmonary trouble as a young man and his doctors were concerned that he might be susceptible to tuberculosis, which had killed his mother. These problems and a defect in his eyesight probably explain why he did not volunteer to fight in the Civil War of 1861–65.Wheeler 1998, p. 30 He was not conscripted and he remained at Yale for the duration of the war.Rukeyser 1998, p. 134

In 1863, Gibbs received the first Ph.D. degree in engineering granted in the US, for a thesis entitled "On the Form of the Teeth of Wheels in Spur Gearing", in which he used geometrical techniques to investigate the optimum design for gears.Wheeler 1998, p. 32 This was also the fifth Ph.D. granted in the US in any subject. After graduation, Gibbs was appointed as tutor at the College for a term of three years. During the first two years he taught Latin and during the third Natural Philosophy (i.e., physics). In 1866 he patented a design for a railway brakeUS Patent No. 53,971, "Car Brake", Apr. 17, 1866. See The Early Work of Willard Gibbs in Applied Mechanics, (New York: Henry Schuman, 1947), pp. 51–62. and read a paper before the Connecticut Academy, entitled "The Proper Magnitude of the Units of Length", in which he proposed a scheme for rationalizing the system of units of measurement used in mechanics.Wheeler 1998, appendix II

After his term as tutor ended, Gibbs traveled to Europe with his sisters. They spent the winter of 1866–67 in Paris, where Gibbs attended lectures at the Sorbonne and the Collège de France, dictated by such distinguished mathematical scientists as Joseph Liouville and Michel Chasles.Wheeler 1998, p. 40 Having undertaken a punishing regime of study, Gibbs caught a serious cold and a doctor, fearing tuberculosis, advised him to rest in the Riviera, where he and his sisters spent several months and where he made a full recovery.Wheeler 1998, p. 41

Moving to Berlin, Gibbs attended the lectures taught by mathematicians Karl Weierstrass and Leopold Kronecker, as well as by chemist Heinrich Gustav Magnus.Wheeler 1998, p. 42 In August 1867, Gibbs’s sister Julia was married in Berlin to Addison Van Name, who had been Gibbs’s classmate at Yale. The newly married couple returned to New Haven, leaving Gibbs and his sister Anna in Germany.Rukeyser 1988, p. 151 In Heidelberg, Gibbs was exposed to the work of physicists Gustav Kirchhoff and Hermann von Helmholtz, and chemist Robert Bunsen. At the time, German academics were the leading authorities in the natural sciences, especially chemistry and thermodynamics.Rukeyser 1988, pp. 158–161