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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg Edit Profile

physicist , satirical writer

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a German scientist, satirist, and Anglophile. As a physicist he is best known for his investigations in electricity, more especially as to the so-called Lichtenberg figures, which are fully described in two memoirs Super nova methodo motum ac naturam fluidi electrici investigandi (Gottingen, 1777 - 1778).


He was born on July 1, 1742, in Ober-Ramstadt, Germany. Lichtenberg was the seventeenth child— the fifth to survive— of a Protestant pastor. A permanent spinal deformity in his childhood perhaps enhanced his propensity for scholarly work.


From his father he received his early schooling, including mathematics and natural science, for which subjects he developed an early predilection.

Upon graduation from the secondary school at Darmstadt, Lichtenberg was accorded the patronage of his sovereign, Ludwig VIII the duke of Hesse-Darmstadt, and he continued his studies at the University of Göttingen from 1763. At the university Lichtenberg studied a wide range of subjects, particularly literature under Christian Gottlob Heyne, history under Johann Christoph Gatterer, and natural sciences under the witty Abraham Gotthelf Kiistner.


In geodesy Lichtenberg carried out a precise determination of the geodetic coordinates of Hannover, Stade, and Osnabrfick.

To all the areas he contributed respectably for his time, gaining the admiration and friendship of such contemporaries as Volta, F. W. Herschel, Kant, Goethe, Humboldt, and George III of England, with whom he became well acquainted during one of his visits to that country. The electrification of the plate is now tested by sifting over it a mixture of flowers of sulphur and red lead. The negatively electrified sulphur is seen to attach itself to the positively electrified parts of the plate, and the positively electrified red lead to the negatively electrified parts. In addition to the distribution of colour thereby produced, there is a marked difference in the form of the figure, according to the nature of the electricity originally communicated to the plate. If it be positive, a widely extending patch is seen on the plate, consisting of a dense nucleus, from which branches radiate in all directions; if negative the patch is much smaller find has a sharp circular boundary entirely devoid of branches. This electrification would favour the spread of a positive, but hinder that of a negative discharge.

Lichtenberg was particularly interested in volcanology.

Among his writings on the subject is a calculation of the volume of lava ejected from Vesuvius during its eruption of 1784.

Also concerned with meteorology, Lichtenberg in 1780 was the first to erect in Germany a correct version of Benjamin Franklin’s lightning rod.

(A year earlier a lightning rod had been installed at Hamburg by the physician J. A. H. Reimarus, but without the essential connection between rod and ground. )

His biting wit involved him in many controversies with well-known contemporaries, such as Lavater, whose science of physiognomy he ridiculed, and Voss, whose views on Greek pronunciation called forth a powerful satire, Uber die Pronunciation der Schopse des alten Gricchenlandes (1782).

Convinced in the end that Lavoisier was right, Lichtenberg capitulated by admitting that the new chemistry was a “magnificent structure. ”

He sided with the former but admitted that an element of paradox remained in the solution.

He also published in 1794-1799 an Ausfuhrliche Erkldrung der Hogarthschen Kupfersliche. . Lichtenberg's Vermischte Schriften were published by F. Kries in 9 vols. (1800 - 1805).

It was not until 1928 that an acceptable resolution of this paradox was suggested by Thornton C Fry.

In 1795 he published a biography of Copernicus.

Himself an active observer, Lichtenberg sighted and described a comet, studied the fall of meteorites, and observed the transit of Venus on 19 June 1769.

Later the selenographer J. H. Mädler reassigned the name of Lichtenberg to a much more prominent feature—a first-order ring plain north of the Ocean of Storms (–67° 5′3″’ long. ,+31° 25′20″ lat. )

Along with the scrupulous presentation of facts, Lichtenberg offered his students a view of physics which would not be out of tune with the attitudes of the twentieth century.

He combined bold imagining with radical scientific skepticism and left a legacy of maxims, many of which are as valid today as they were in his time.

He was among the first to question the validity of the postulates of Euclidean geometry, in particular the postulate that only one straight line can pass through two points.

He questioned the usefulness of the concept of ether because of the absence of any measurable effects that could be attributed to it.

At the same time he recognized the importance of “experimenting with ideas, ” provided they are based on fact and the resulting theory is verifiable experimentally.

He was contemptuous of dogmatists and scornful of those who confuse “facts” and “dreams. ”

Guided by the precept that “repeating an experiment with larger apparatus is tantamount to looking at the phenomenon through a microscope, ” Lichtenberg constructed a gigantic electrophorus and, while experimenting with it, discovered in 1777 the basic process of xerographic copying.

Lichtenberg must be considered the most significant early observer of the subconscious.

Concepts of repression, compensation, subconscious motivation, and sublimation are all in his writings.

Lichtenberg is quoted over a dozen times by Sigmund Freud.


  • He was given the title of royal British privy councillor in 1788.

    The first German university chair of experimental physics was established for him.

    In 1807 the astronomer Johann Hieronymus Schröter gave to a feature on the moon the “unforgettable name of the great naturalist Lichtenberg. ”


It is for his role as a “heretic” and an “antifaust, ” who in his superb satiric and aphoristic writings stood out strongly against “metaphysical and romantic excesses, ” that Lichtenberg is known best.


Lichtenberg saw as the purpose of his teaching the “coherent exposition of physical relationships as preparation for a future science of nature. ”

He used hypotheses very much as we use “models” in physics of the twentieth century.

The interconnectedness of things, the wholeness of nature, was a postulate that guided all his work.

In his quest for the “conception of the whole” Lichtenberg expressed some ideas which must have sounded rather farfetched to his contemporaries.

Quotations: He wrote: “Almost everything in physics must be investigated anew, even the bestknown things, because it is precisely here that one least suspects something new or incorrect. ”

He wrote, “I see such hypotheses in physics as nothing else but convenient pictures that facilitate the conception of the whole. ”


In 1793 he was elected to membership in the Royal Society (London) and in 1795 to membership in the Petersburg Academy of Sciences.


In particular, Lichtenberg examined the interrelation between moods and facial expressions and gestures.

His aphorisms and his commentaries on the engravings of Hogarth are unsurpassed.