Although we are familiar with temperature as a measure of “hotness” or “coldness,” it is not easy to give an exact definition for it. Based on our physiological sensations, we express the level of temperature qualitatively with words like freezing cold, cold, warm, hot, and red-hot. However, we cannot assign numerical values to temperatures based on our sensations alone. Furthermore, our senses may be misleading. A metal chair, for example, will feel much colder than a wooden one even when both are at the same temperature.
Fortunately, several properties of materials change with temperature in a repeatable and predictable way, and this forms the basis for accurate temperature measurement. The commonly used mercury-in-glass thermometer, for example, is based on the expansion of mercury with temperature. Temperature is also measured by using several other temperature-dependent properties.
It is a common experience that a cup of hot coffee left on the table eventually cools off and a cold drink eventually warms up. That is, when a body is brought into contact with another body that is at a different temperature, heat is transferred from the body at higher temperature to the one at lower temperature until both bodies attain the same temperature (Fig. 1–31). At that point, the heat transfer stops, and the two bodies are said to have reached thermal equilibrium. The equality of temperature is the only requirement for thermal equilibrium.
The zeroth law of thermodynamics states that if two bodies are in thermal equilibrium with a third body, they are also in thermal equilibrium with each other. It may seem silly that such an obvious fact is called one of the basic laws of thermodynamics. However, it cannot be concluded from the other laws of thermodynamics, and it serves as a basis for the validity of temperature measurement. By replacing the third body with a thermometer, the zeroth law can be restated as two bodies are in thermal equilibrium if both have the same temperature reading even if they are not in contact.
The zeroth law was first formulated and labeled by R. H. Fowler in 1931. As the name suggests, its value as a fundamental physical principle was recognized more than half a century after the formulation of the first and the second laws of thermodynamics. It was named the zeroth law since it should have preceded the first and the second laws of thermodynamics.Reference: Thermodynamics – An Engineering Approach 5th Edition by: Yunus A. Cengel and Michale A. Boles