John Henry Poynting

British physicist (1852-1914)

John Henry Poynting FRS (9 September 1852 – 30 March 1914) was an English physicist, known for the Poynting vector and Poynting's theorem.


  • A space containing electric currents may be regarded as a field where energy is transformed at certain points into the electric and magnetic kinds by means of batteries, dynamos, thermoelectric actions, and so on, while in other parts of the field this energy is again transformed into heat, work done by electromagnetic forces, or any form of energy yielded by currents. Formerly a current was regarded as something travelling along a conductor, attention being chiefly directed to the conductor, and the energy which appeared at any part of the circuit, if considered at all, was supposed to be conveyed thither through the conductor by the current. But the existence of induced currents and of electromagnetic actions at a distance from a primary circuit from which they draw their energy, has led us, under the guidance of Faraday and Maxwell, to look upon the medium surrounding the conductor as playing a very important part in the development of the phenomena. If we believe in the continuity of the motion of energy, that is, if we believe that when it disappears at one point and reappears at another it must have passed through the intervening space, we are forced to conclude that the surrounding medium contains at least a part of the energy, and that it is capable of transferring it from point to point.
  • A very simple experiment shows that a black surface is a better radiator, or pours out more energy when hot, than a surface which does not absorb fully, but reflects much of the radiation which falls upon it. If a platinum foil with some black marks on it be heated to redness, the marks, black when cold, are much brighter than the surrounding metal when hot; they are, in fact, pouring out much more visible radiation than the metal.
  • When we see the havoc wrought on a sea-wall by a storm, it is easy to believe that ocean waves exert a pressure against the shore on which they beat. But it is not easy to think that the tiny ripples of light also press against every body on which they fall, to think that when a lamp is lighted waves of pressure are sent out from it—pressing against the source from which they start, pressing against every surface which they illuminate. It is a very minute pressure, far too small, even when it is strongest, to be felt by our bodies, and only to be detected by exceeding sensitive apparatus.
  • The Earth, then, is very round. If an exact model were made the size of a two-inch billiard ball, we should just be able to see that it was flatter at the poles, and, no doubt, in rolling it would exhibit its want of roundness. The highest mountains would be represented by elevations of  th inch, say by the thinnest smear of grease, the deepest oceans by the spreading of a drop into a film but  th inch thick.

Quotes about PoyntingEdit

  • The main influence on all of the activity in electromagnetic theory during the later years of the nineteenth century came from Maxwell's famous treatise (Maxwell 1873). Poynting was a member of the group of young physicists led by Heaviside, Fitzgerald, Lodge and Hertz who developed Maxwell's electromagnetic theory in the years following his death in 1879. They transformed his 1873 presentation into the formalism recognizable today as Maxwell's equations. The detailed historical accounts by Hunt (1991) and Warwick (2003) describe Poynting's contributions to electromagnetism, mainly during the 1880s. His name is more familiar to students of electromagnetic theory than those of other important members of the group on account of the widespread use of his eponymous energy-conservation theorem and energy-flow vector.
    • R. Loudon and C. Baxter: (2012). "Contributions of John Henry Poynting to the understanding of radiation pressure". Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 468 (2143): 1825-1838. DOI:10.1098/rspa.2011.0573.

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