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Hermann von Helmholtz

Hermann von HelmholtzAKA Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz

Born: 31-Aug-1821
Birthplace: Potsdam, Germany
Died: 8-Sep-1894
Location of death: Charlottenburg, Berlin, Germany
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist

Nationality: Germany
Executive summary: Law of Conservation of Energy

German philosopher and man of science, born on the 31st of August 1821 at Potsdam, near Berlin. His father, Ferdinand, was a teacher of philology and philosophy in the gymnasium, while his mother was a Hanoverian lady, a lineal descendant of the great Quaker William Penn. Delicate in early life, Helmholtz became by habit a student, and his father at the same time directed his thoughts to natural phenomena. He soon showed mathematical powers, but these were not fostered by the careful training mathematicians usually receive, and it may be said that in after years his attention was directed to the higher mathematics mainly by force of circumstances.

As his parents were poor, and could not afford to allow him to follow a purely scientific career, he became a surgeon of the Prussian army. In 1842 he wrote a thesis in which he announced the discovery of nerve-cells in ganglia. This was his first work, and from 1842 to 1894, the year of his death, scarcely a year passed without several important, and in some cases epoch-making, papers on scientific subjects coming from his pen. He lived in Berlin from 1842 to 1849, when he became professor of physiology in Königsberg. There he remained from 1849 to 1855, when he removed to the chair of physiology in Bonn. In 1858 he became professor of physiology in Heidelberg, and in 1871 he was called to occupy the chair of physics in Berlin. To this professorship was added in 1887 the post of director of the physico-technical institute at Charlottenburg, near Berlin, and he held the two positions together until his death on the 8th of September 1894.

His investigations occupied almost the whole field of science, including physiology, physiological optics, physiological acoustics, chemistry, mathematics, electricity and magnetism, meteorology and theoretical mechanics. At an early age he contributed to our knowledge of the causes of putrefaction and fermentation. In physiological science he investigated quantitatively the phenomena of animal heat, and he was one of the earliest in the field of animal electricity. He studied the nature of muscular contraction, causing a muscle to record its movements on a smoked glass plate, and he worked out the problem of the velocity of the nervous impulse both in the motor nerves of the frog and in the sensory nerves of man.

In 1847 Helmholtz read to the Physical Society of Berlin a famous paper, Über die Erhaltung der Kraft (on the conservation of force), which became one of the epoch-making papers of the century; indeed, along with Julius Robert Mayer, James Prescott Joule and Lord Kelvin, he may be regarded as one of the founders of the now universally received law of the conservation of energy. The year 1851, while he was lecturing on physiology at Königsberg, saw the brilliant invention of the ophthalmoscope, an instrument which has been of inestimable value to medicine. It arose from an attempt to demonstrate to his class the nature of the glow of reflected light sometimes seen in the eyes of animals such as the cat. When the great ophthalmologist, A. von Gräfe, first saw the fundus of the living human eye, with its optic disc and blood-vessels, his face flushed with excitement, and he cried, "Helmholtz has unfolded to us a new world!"

Helmholtz's contributions to physiological optics are of great importance. He investigated the optical constants of the eye, measured by his invention, the ophthalmometer, the radii of curvature of the crystalline lens for near and far vision, explained the mechanism of accommodation by which the eye can focus within certain limits, discussed the phenomena of color vision, and gave a luminous account of the movements of the eyeballs so as to secure single vision with two eyes. In particular he revived and gave new force to the theory of color vision associated with the name of Thomas Young, showing the three primary colors to be red, green and violet, and he applied the theory to the explanation of color blindness. His great work on Physiological Optics (1856-66) is by far the most important book that has appeared on the physiology and physics of vision.

Equally distinguished were his labors in physiological acoustics. He explained accurately the mechanism of the bones of the ear, and he discussed the physiological action of the cochlea on the principles of sympathetic vibration. Perhaps his greatest contribution, however, was his attempt to account for our perception of quality of tone. He showed, both by analysis and by synthesis, that quality depends on the order, number and intensity of the overtones or harmonics that may, and usually do, enter into the structure of a musical tone. He also developed the theory of differential and of summational tones. His work on Sensations of Tone (1862) may well be termed the principia of physiological acoustics. He may also be said to be the founder of the fixed-pitch theory of vowel tones, according to which it is asserted that the pitch of a vowel depends on the resonance of the mouth, according to the form of the cavity while singing it, and this independently of the pitch of the note on which the vowel is sung.

For the later years of his life his labors may be summed up under the following heads: (1) on the conservation of energy; (2) on hydrodynamics; (3) on electrodynamics and theories of electricity; (4) on meteorological physics; (5) on optics; and (6) on the abstract principles of dynamics. In all these fields of labor he made important contributions to science, and showed himself to be equally great as a mathematician and a physicist. He studied the phenomena of electrical oscillations from 1869 to 1871, and in the latter year he announced that the velocity of the propagation of electromagnetic induction was about 314,000 meters per second. Michael Faraday had shown that the passage of electrical action involved time, and he also asserted that electrical phenomena are brought about by changes in intervening non-conductors or dielectric substances. This led James Clerk Maxwell to frame his theory of electrodynamics, in which electrical impulses were assumed to be transmitted through the ether by waves.

G. F. Fitzgerald was the first to attempt to measure the length of electric waves; Helmholtz put the problem into the hands of his favorite pupil, Heinrich Hertz, and the latter finally gave an experimental demonstration of electromagnetic waves, the "Hertzian waves", on which wireless telegraphy depends, and the velocity of which is the same as that of light. The last investigations of Helmholtz related to problems in theoretical mechanics, more especially as to the relations of matter to the ether, and as to the distribution of energy in mechanical systems. In particular he explained the principle of least action, first advanced by Pierre-Louis Moreau de Maupertuis, and developed by Sir W. R. Hamilton, of quaternion fame. Helmholtz also wrote on philosophical and aesthetic problems. His position was that of an empiricist, denying the doctrine of innate ideas and holding that all knowledge is founded on experience, hereditarily transmitted or acquired.

The life of Helmholtz was uneventful in the usual sense. He was twice married,, first, in 1849, to Olga von Velten (by whom he had two children, a son and daughter), and secondly, in 1861, to Anna von Mohl, of a Würtemberg family of high social position. Two children were born of this marriage, a son, Robert, who died in 1889, after showing in experimental physics indications of his father's genius, and a daughter, who married a son of Werner von Siemens. Helmholtz was a man of simple but refined tastes, of noble carriage and somewhat austere manner. His life from first to last was one of devotion to science, and he must be accounted, on intellectual grounds, one of the foremost men of the 19th century.

Father: August Ferdinand Julius Helmholtz (headmaster, Potsdam Gymnasium, d. 1858)
Mother: Caroline Penn
Wife: Olga von Velten (m. 26-Aug-1849, d. 1859, two children)
Wife: Anna von Mohl (m. 16-May-1861)

    High School: Potsdam Gymnasium
    Medical School: MD, Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute of Medicine and Surgery, Berlin (1837-43)
    University: University of Königsberg (-1855)
    University: Professor of Anatomy, University of Bonn (1855-58)
    University: University of Heidelberg (1858-71)
    University: University of Berlin (1871-)

    American Philosophical Society 1873
    Matteucci Medal 1868
    Copley Medal 1873

Author of books:
Handbuch der Physiologischen Optik (1856)


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