Excerpt from the section on Work.
The SI unit of work is the joule.
[ J = Nm = kg m2/s2 ]
Work and energy can be expressed in the same units. Unfortunately, there are a lot of units for energy beside the joule. (This is discussed in another section of this book.) The ones most commonly seen in the US in the early Twenty-first Century are probably calorie (diet and nutrition), Btu (heating and cooling), kilowatt hour (electric bills), therm (natural gas bills), quad (macroeconomics), ton of TNT (nuclear weapons), erg (older scientists), and foot pound (older engineers). The first two in this list, the calorie and the Btu, were first introduced by Nineteenth Century scientists studying calorimetry. (The French gave us the calorie and the English gave us the British thermal unit or Btu.) The last one in the list, the foot pound, was introduced by Nineteenth Century scientists studying mechanics. In the Nineteenth Century, calorimetry and mechanics were separate disciplines. Calorimetry is the study of heat. Mechanics is the study of motion and forces. A learned gentleman (and they usually were men at this time) might study both, but he probably didn’t link them in any significant way. That is, unless his name was Joule.
James Prescott Joule (1818–1889) was a wealthy English brewer who dabbled in various aspects of science and economics. Sometimes these endeavors overlapped. He invented the foot pound as a unit of work. (Foot being the unit of displacement and pound being the unit of force.) This enabled him to quantitatively compare the "economical duty" of different mechanical systems. Coal-fired steam engines were the primary source of industrial might at the time, but electricity was emerging on the high tech horizon. Joule realized that mechanical work, heat, and electric energy were all somehow interconvertible. Heat can do work. Work can make heat. Work can make electricity, Electricity can do work, Electricity can make heat. Heat can make electricity. Energy was something that could take on multiple forms.
Joule’s most famous experiment is probably the determination of the mechanical equivalent of heat (to be discussed in more detail elsewhere in this book, I hope). Heat was measured in British thermal units (by the British at least) and work was measured in foot pounds (which Joule invented). Joule established that one British thermal unit of heat was equivalent to approximately 770 foot pounds of mechanical work. (Very close to today’s value of 778 ft lb/Btu.) This result was essential in the realization that, despite appearing in multiple forms, energy was one thing.
The International System of Units which began to dominate the scientific world in the mid-Twentieth Century was French in origin. Foot pounds and British thermal units had no place in this much more logical and consistent system. 12 inches in a foot. 16 ounces in a pound. 128 ounces in a gallon in the US and who knows how many in the UK. The math was much too difficult. Parlez-vous les unités métriques? The SI was French in origin, but international in nature. When the call went out to name the unit of energy, the answer was Joule! Absolument!