3D scanning the famous Maxwell – Gibbs thermodynamic model

I am very pleased to share with you the first of what will hopefully be many 3D scans of objects from our History of Science and Technology collection at the Peabody Museum! This is one of our historical copies of James Clerk Maxwell’s famous thermodynamic (energy entropy surface) model based on research by Josiah Willard Gibbs.


You can download the open-access files from the scans here under “Assets” and play with them yourselves. If you have never dealt with 3D scans before, you can look at any of the exported meshes (PLY, OBJ or STL files) with a free program like meshlab which is available either as a web version or to download. You can also currently see a rendered video of the model spinning around in all three dimensions on my Twitter account and in the Facebook group which I set up for this collection.


Video still
Professor Frederick E. Beach’s historical copy from 1909 of the Maxwell-Gibbs thermodynamic surface model. Object HST.290012, Division of the History of Science and Technology, Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.


The original model was extremely important in the development of thermodynamics and materials science and also represents a bridge between two influential Victorian scientists, James Clerk Maxwell at Cambridge and Josiah Willard Gibbs at Yale. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) was a globally-famous Scottish physicist who made major contributions to a variety of different areas of physics, engineering, astronomy, and technology.


For example, Maxwell developed the classical theory of electromagnetic radiation which identified electricity, magnetism, and light as manifestations of the same phenomenon. He analyzed the behavior of different types of natural and manmade materials and structures. He also created the first durable light-fast color photograph. Albert Einstein once commented that he “stood on the shoulders” of Maxwell, and not of Isaac Newton.


James with wife Katherine Maxwell, who also worked in his laboratory and conducted experiments on viscosity and color vision, in 1869.

Maxwell created his famous plaster thermodynamic model in 1874, while he was the first Cavendish Professor of Physics at Cambridge University, in charge of the new Cavendish Laboratory. It is a three-dimensional graphical visualization of the phase transitions between solid, liquid, and gas. Its inventor first sculpted it in clay and then replicated it in plaster, drawing different-colored lines on the surface to represent for example constant temperature (red) and constant pressure (blue).


Maxwell’s revolutionary model was based on graphical thermodynamics papers published by Josiah Willard Gibbs (1839-1903). Yale had awarded Gibbs the very first doctorate in engineering in the United States in 1863, and he was a professor of mathematical physics at the university from 1871 until his death.


JWGibbs-tutor 1860s
Josiah Willard Gibbs during the 1860s, when he was working at Yale as a tutor.


Like Maxwell, Gibbs was highly esteemed worldwide, and his largely-theoretical work had major impacts on a variety of areas including physics, chemistry, mathematics, and industry. He and Maxwell – as well as other scientists such as the Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) – conducted important complementary work in thermodynamics and other areas of science. Gibbs also invented modern vector calculus, the Royal Society of London awarded him their prestigious Copley Medal, and Albert Einstein called him the greatest mind in American history.


The thermodynamic model which Maxwell originally sent to Gibbs is currently with the Yale Physics Department, which is why these amazing 3D scans are instead of one of our historical copies. Professor Frederick E. Beach made this specific copy in 1909. However, Physics has kindly agreed to allow the Peabody Museum to display the original Maxwell-Gibbs model when it reopens after its major renovation in late 2023 – alongside other Gibbs-related artifacts including his towering Victorian desk!


Many thanks to Chelsea Graham previously of the digitization lab at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage for creating these 3D scans, to Nelson Rios from the Peabody Museum for creating the rendered video and to Nelson and Larry Gall for further technical assistance, and to Professor Wenhao Sun of the University of Michigan for originally requesting the scans for use in his research and publications.

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