Sadi Carnot reflecting on the success of the steam engines asked and proceeded to answer the question “How can maximum amount of work be obtained from a given amount of heat?” and in the process inaugurated the field of thermodynamics.
Here is the seminal 1825 paper “Reflections on the Motive Power of Heat” by Sadi Carnot. It is a superb example of a first rate scientific mind grappling with a new problem for the first time.
Click here for an introduction and biography of Sadi Carnot.
“The study of these engines is of the greatest interest, their importance is enormous, their use is continually increasing, and they seem destined to produce a great revolution in the civilized world.”
“Already the steam-engine works our mines, impels our ships, excavates our ports and our rivers, forges iron, fashions wood, grinds grain, spins and weaves our cloths, transports the heaviest burdens, etc. It appears that it must some day serve as a universal motor, and be substituted for animal power, water-falls, and air currents…
“Notwithstanding the work of all kinds done by steam-engines, notwithstanding the satisfactory condition to which they have been brought to-day, their theory is very little understood, and the attempts to improve them are still directed almost by chance.
“The question has often been raised whether the motive power of heat* is unbounded, whether the possible improvements in steam-engines have an assignable limit,-a limit which the nature of things will not allow to be passed by any means whatever; or whether, on the contrary, these improvements may be carried on indefinitely. We have long sought, and are seeking to-day, to ascertain whether there are in existence agents preferable to the vapor of water for developing the motive power of heat; whether atmospheric air, for example, would not present in this respect great advantages. We propose now to submit these questions to a deliberate examination.”