specific heat, ratio of the heat capacity of a substance to the heat capacity of a reference substance, usually water. Heat capacity is the amount of heat needed to change the temperature of a unit mass 1°. The heat capacity of water is 1 calorie per gram per degree Celsius (1 cal/g-°C) or 1 British thermal unit per pound per degree Fahrenheit (1 Btu/lb-°F). Thus, the specific heat of some other substance relative to water will be numerically equal to its heat capacity; for this reason, "specific heat" is often used when the heat capacity actually is meant. Because the heat capacities of most substances vary with changes in temperature, the temperatures of both the specified substance and the reference substance must be known in order to give a precise value for the specific heat. The heat capacity of water at 15°C is a frequently used value. Like specific gravity, specific heat is a dimensionless quantity, i.e., a pure number having no unit of measurement associated with it.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.