I am asking about an English translation of a Helmholtz paper:

Ueber die physikalische Bedeutung des Princips der kleinsten Wirkung. Journal für die reine und angewandte Mathematik (Crelle's Journal), Volume 100, Issue 2, 1887, Pages 137-166, and Volume 100, Issue 3, 1887, Pages 213-222.

http://www.degruyter.com/view/j/crll.1887.issue-100/crll.1887.100.137/crll.1887.100.137.xml?format=INT. (Also see link and link.)

The title in English: On the Physical Significance of the Principle of Least Action.

Has it ever been translated (to English)?

  • $\begingroup$ I just took a quick look at the paper, and the notation is funny - the same letters are used, but with different meanings: the coordinates are $p$ instead of $q$, which in turn is used for the velocities $\dot q$; momenta are $c$ instead of $p$, potentials are $F$ instead of $V$, the Lagrangian is called $H$ and has the opposite sign, ie corresponds to $-L$; kinetic energy is called $L$ instead of $T$; the Hamiltonian is called $H'$ instead of $H$ $\endgroup$
    – Christoph
    Apr 29, 2013 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ Hi @Gugg. I think the German spelling mistakes (when compared to modern German) in the original German title will generate an endless edit war. Perhaps one should display both the original and a grammatically correct German title? (Also note that Helmholtz spells 'Prinicips' with 3 i's!) $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Apr 29, 2013 at 18:03
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Qmechanic Hmmm,... NO. :) I think there are no spelling mistakes in the original title. At the time, they were using both Ue's as well as u-umlauts (see the paper itself), but apparently only Ue's in titles. Also "Princips" had been converted to modern-day German (although my German is lousy). The current version proved to be much more useful in Internet search. That is, the misspelling/modernization made it more time-consuming. Also, I don't expect an edit war. Almost certainly, I won't participate. $\endgroup$
    – Řídící
    Apr 29, 2013 at 18:20
  • $\begingroup$ @Qmechanic To your edited comment. The 3 i's: Not in the title, he doesn't. Does he? $\endgroup$
    – Řídící
    Apr 29, 2013 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ @Glen The Udderboat: Ups, you're right. That's just a typo of the website. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Apr 29, 2013 at 18:30

3 Answers 3


In English, I've only found this very limited translation by Yourgrau and Mandelstam.

From these facts we may even now draw the conclusion that the domain of validity of the principle of least action has reached far beyond the boundaries of the mechanics of ponderable bodies. Maupertuis’ high hopes for the absolute general validity of his principle appear to be approaching their fulfilment, however slender the mechanical proofs and however contradictory the metaphysical speculations which the author himself could at the time adduce in support of his new principle. Even at this stage, it can be considered as highly probable that it is the universal law pertaining to all processes in nature. . . . In any case, the general validity of the principle of least action seems to me assured, since it may claim a higher place as a heuristic and guiding principle in our endeavour to formulate the laws governing new classes of phenomena.

Perhaps useful for other readers is the full Russian translation in Полак, Л.С. (ред.), Вариационные принципы механики: Сборник статей классиков науки, 1959. There's a djvu file here. The file can be converted to pdf at, e.g., http://www.djvu-pdf.com/. The Russian-translated paper is at page 430ff (pdf-page 434ff).


I know this thread's ancient, but I had the exact same question and it looks like there's currently an English translation of this paper by D. H. Delphenic available here:


Archived here in case the link expires:


  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for sharing this! $\endgroup$
    – Tarek
    Jan 24, 2022 at 8:39

In the book "Intellectual Mastery of Nature. Theoretical Physics from Ohm to Einstein, Volume 2: The Now Mighty Theoretical Physics, 1870 to 1925" you can find, on pages 131-134 some parts are translated.

  • $\begingroup$ Link-only answers aren't really loved here. The main problem is with them that the remote links can die. I would suggest to duplicate its essential content into your answer. $\endgroup$
    – peterh
    Jul 23, 2015 at 19:47

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