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Energy seems to me to be a very abstract thing, and while it clearly works out very nicely, I don't understand how anyone would have thought to come up with it. Where does the concept of energy find it's roots, and how was it settled down on as a 'useful' quantity as opposed to something else?

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A basic answer is that energy is a conserved quantity corresponding to a the invariance of physics laws by a time translation operation. –  Trimok Jun 13 '13 at 18:43
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Aren't there others? And that surely can't be the reason it was originally used. –  Anthony Jun 13 '13 at 18:47
    
    
While this is apparently the way things went, isn't there some larger driving force that should have brought physicists to look for some non-physical quantity? Was it just found by guessing on things? Leibnetz got lucky with kinetic energy, but what if it was something worse-like velocity to the 15.43 power? Was there no stronger notion that pulled physicists towards energy? –  Anthony Jun 15 '13 at 5:53

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energy (n.)
1590s, "force of expression," from Middle French énergie (16c.), from Late Latin energia, from Greek energeia "activity, operation," from energos "active, working," from en "at" (see en- (2)) + ergon "work, that which is wrought; business; action" (see urge (v.)).

Used by Aristotle with a sense of "force of expression;" broader meaning of "power" is first recorded in English 1660s. Scientific use is from 1807. Energy crisis first attested 1970.

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=energy


Huygens (1650's) was the first to develop the terminology, stating that:

  • energy is not like matter
  • energy does not have size, shape or occupy space
  • energy does not have inertia

Instead, it was defined that energy is a measure of the ability of a physical system to perform work

http://abyss.uoregon.edu/~js/ast122/lectures/lec03.html

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