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Hans Christian ØrstedReading Nature's Mind$

Dan Ch. Christensen

Print publication date: 2013

Print ISBN-13: 9780199669264

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2013

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199669264.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use.  Subscriber: null; date: 19 October 2020

 | 1801–2  | 1801–2 Encountering Ritter and Winterl

 | 1801–2  | 1801–2 Encountering Ritter and Winterl

(p.108) 12 | 1801–2 Encountering Ritter and Winterl
Hans Christian Ørsted

Dan C. Christensen

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Ritter's character as the prototype of a Romantic self-made scientist is delineated and compared to Ørsted's. Similarities and differences are foregrounded. Goethe's patronage of Ritter and its discontinuation are described. The lifelong friendship between Ritter and Ørsted is founded and the reciprocal benefits are established.Ørsted stayed with Ritter at Oberweimar for forty days during which they talked, walked, and made physical and chemical experiments. Ørsted recommended Ritter to study the Hungarian Professor Winterl's Prolusiones, which expounded a theory of chemistry, in which both initially invested much hope. In Berlin Ørsted gained access to Hermbstaedt's newly established lab, where he tried to retrieve Winterl's alleged elements of ‘Andronia’ and ‘Thelycke’, while at the same time making Winterl's theory accessible in writing and lecturing. A German friend, Dr Mendel, publishes a German version of Ørsted's doctoral thesis under the title Ideen zu einer neuen Architektonik der Naturmetaphysik …

Keywords:   Ritter's character, Ørsted's friendship with Ritter, Winterl's Prolusiones, Ørsted's access to Hermbstaedt's lab, Ørsted working on Winterl, ideen zu einer neuen architektonik der naturmetaphyik

At night he took zinc and silver discs with him to

bed to make experiments on the effect of galvanism

upon the eye without being interrupted.1

WHAT FASCINATED Ørsted about Ritter above all was the originality of his experiments, which seemed capable of opening up the perspectives Kant had sketched in his metaphysics of nature. No wonder, then, that the urge to meet this pioneer of galvanism guided his itinerary directly towards Jena. No one else came close to meaning as much to Ørsted as Ritter. The first time they spent three days together, and they only had to size each other up briefly before mutual trust ensued. So shortly afterwards Ørsted returned to stay with him for two weeks. The following year they spent three whole weeks together. These three periods of being together laid the foundations of a friendship for life. Not long before his death (at the age of only thirty-three) Ritter described their friendship in these words: ‘Of all my friends you have always been the closest, the most faithful, and the most honest as far as science is concerned; moreover you have always been the person who has cared for me the most’.2 What had Ørsted done to deserve this praise? He had sent him books, letters, and money; he had promoted his scientific work in French journals; and made an attempt to win for him the Napoleon Prize for the most important galvanic discovery; finally, he had successfully recommended him to a post at the Bavarian Academy of Science.

In many ways Ritter's childhood and adolescence were reminiscent of the Ørsted brothers’. He came of provincial clergyman stock with many siblings, many of whom died young. He was apprenticed to his father, a pharmacist, at fourteen, and as a journeyman five years later he left home to matriculate at the University of Jena. For lack of capital it was out of the question for him to become a pharmacist himself, and his family was unable to support him as a student. (p.109) His parents had family and friends in the neighbourhood of Jena who would help him out with provisions. Most of them were affiliated to the Masonic order of the Evergetes, headed by I.A. Fessler (whom Ørsted was later to meet as master of the chair of the Royal York Lodge in Berlin). In addition, his father had a number of debtors in Jena, who had never settled their accounts for pharmaceuticals. Young Ritter was given a list of these bad debts and he regularly approached the debtors in the hope of squeezing some money out of them from time to time. Just as the Ørsted brothers had isolated themselves in their study, Ritter kept to himself in Jena, because his clothes were too shabby to appear in public. Ritter was a self-contained man experimenting and studying so hard that his eyes were fit to pop out of his head.3

But there were also significant differences between their social backgrounds and characters. The Dane was accommodated in a college; he had his daily meals in his aunt's kitchen. The German, on the other hand, often had to spend the night in damp and cold garden sheds, and he did not even have a kitchen of his own to experiment in, nor could he afford gold and platinum for experiments. If occasionally he was lucky enough to rake in a couple of silver rixdollars from his father's debts they were used as discs in his voltaic pile before they were spent on food and drink, unless, of course, this had permanently damaged them. Ritter suffered from malnutrition, and his teeth began to fall out when he was only twenty. For some time he received sums from Goethe in return for original experiments, and this money enabled him to build up a modest collection of scientific instruments. The well-to-do nobleman Novalis (pseudonym of Baron von Hardenberg) was a great admirer of Ritter's talent for experimentation and forced him to accept handouts. Behind Novalis's often cited judgement ‘Ritter ist Ritter und wir sind nur Knappen’, playing on a medieval saying that loses its meaning in literal translation [Ritter is a knight, and we are just squires], lay his fascination with an experimental genius, who (unlike many a Romantic daydreamer) knew what he was talking about. This neglected natural talent had settled a most complicated disagreement between leading international scientists Galvani and Volta and demonstrated the reality of polarity of natural forces—not by idle talk, but by scientific evidence (ch. 10).

To appreciate the admiration of the early Romanticists we must bear in mind that Ritter's experiments resolving the so-called galvanic dispute, not only in Italy but north of the Alps as well, had shown that the twitch of a frog's thigh was not due to biology as asserted by Galvani, nor to contact between two different metals as claimed by Volta, but was caused by a chemical process. Considering that the potential difference in Ritter's crucial experiment was hardly more than one volt it is impressive that he could detect any effect at all, and that in addition he could interpret this effect correctly, thus opening the door to an entirely new branch of science: electrochemistry. After two semesters of extramural studies at Jena he had explained the function of the voltaic pile before Volta had introduced his discovery to Napoleon. It was the report of this discovery, that with the support of Goethe, provided him with the peace to work at Belvedere, the Duke of Weimar's castle.

When the Duke died Ritter lost these princely research facilities. He was unable to return to Jena because his creditors there were only waiting to fleece him of his sole income, the royalties paid to him for his scientific manuscripts by C.F.E. Frommann, the publisher. Ritter had (p.110) become something of a kite flyer and he was publicly blacklisted as a defaulter. Frommann, an Evergete freemason too, had become his patron.

Goethe had been away when Ritter gave his paper at Die Naturforschende Gesellschaft, and as soon as he was back in Weimar he invited him to his home and described him to Schiller as ‘a sensational persona and a heavenly erudite on earth’.4 Later, when Goethe slammed the lid of his coffers, Ritter moved with his scientific instruments to J.G. Herder's vicarage in Oberweimar. Herder was more than old enough to be his father and treated him as a son of his house.

Ritter's character was as polar as his physical theory. His temperament was manic-depressive changing suddenly between euphoria and desperation, he was often ill, despondent, and lonely, and was permanently poor. He oscillated between humility and conceit. Whenever he was following up a clue that might lead to a breakthrough in his research his powers of concentration and ability to forget himself were enormous. When carrying out galvanic experiments on his own sense organs he would show no mercy to himself and put an eye at risk—because he had two! This recklessness cost him problems with his sight, sweat, headaches, diarrhoea, and pain in the joints. Under such circumstances he would live unconcerned about his needs of tomorrow, and he would callously exploit his friends’ offers to lend him more money. He would even take up a bet in a bar on whether his begging letters would be successful. If they were he would double his stake. He despised petty-bourgeois security advocates and followed the Brunonian prescription of taking opium. During his last years he would consume two to four bottles of wine a day, admitting that he ranked high on Brown's sthenic scale.

Ørsted lived for forty days with Ritter and no doubt he paid generously for his stay. They took long walks in the forest-clad hills surrounding Jena and visited beer gardens. Ørsted witnessed a situation where Ritter behaved like a madman in front of an annoying woman, putting her in a state of confusion. Ritter confided his many conquests to him, among others his relationship with a wealthy French emigrant, Mme de Gachet, who had indulged in chemical experiments on her own account, but having met Ritter took delight in their conducting experiments together. He also disclosed his intimate relationship with Dorothea Veit, Schlegel's wife, asserting that it did not harm the friendly feelings between the two men. Ørsted hinted that perhaps Ritter should watch his step concerning sexual affairs, but Ritter cursed all discretion and spoke openly about his women by name. Unfortunately, Ørsted noted, his many admirers learnt far less from his galvanic experiments than from his frivolous escapades.

The two friends discussed galvanism and did experiments together. Ørsted pumped Ritter for details of his experiments and promised to be secretive about them. He also initiated him into the Hungarian Professor Winterl's sensational chemical theories on the polar relationship between acid and base principles, which fitted nicely into their own dynamical system. Ritter soon became an enthusiast of Winterl's theories and encouraged Ørsted's plan to conduct experiments at Hermbstaedt's lab in Berlin. Ritter followed these experiments with great interest, and during the winter Ørsted kept him up to date by letter. They agreed that Ritter should come and live with Ørsted in Berlin and they also hatched plans to travel to visit Winterl in Budapest to clarify his theories. However both plans petered out as Duke Ernst of Gotha invited Ritter to his castle, Friedenstein, to polish the Duke's scientific halo. Ritter enthralled the court with his galvanic experiment and the Duke reciprocated with six louis d’or.


                        Fig. 33. Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810), the self-made scientist. A miniature now lost was used as a model to produce this woodcut. He wears the uniform of the Bavarian Academy of Science, Munich. Ostwald's Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften No. 271, Leipzig, 1986.

Fig. 33. Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810), the self-made scientist. A miniature now lost was used as a model to produce this woodcut. He wears the uniform of the Bavarian Academy of Science, Munich. Ostwald's Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften No. 271, Leipzig, 1986.

At Friedenstein Ritter lived what he described as ‘a life fit for the gods’—everything being free of charge. He had free access to the Duke's research library and he made seven galvanic batteries, each having three times six hundred discs as well as a still bigger one of three times one thousand discs. Ritter experimented with these batteries from early morning until late at night making notes on small slips of paper in numbers no human being could possibly manage to convert into a coherent scientific text let alone keep in order. In April 1802 the first volume of his Beiträge zur nähern Kenntnis des Galvanismus und der Resultate seiner Untersuchung [‘Contributions to a better Knowledge of Galvanism and the Results of his Investigations’] appeared. During the period he wrote it, Ritter's life and work were particularly distinguished. He experimented during the day when light was abundant and wrote during the night by candlelight while a profusion of ideas filled his mind so that it was unable to control the chaos.5 In addition, he had fallen in love again. Frommann, his publisher, reminded him that he had promised to have the last chapters of the second volume of his Beiträge ready by six in the evening of 25th July, but when the hands of the clock stood at five he had not even written a single line. Ritter wrote to Ørsted, ‘Thank you very much for your Metaphysics of Nature, and congratulations on the fine foreword Mendel has written’ (Ørsted 1802). And again ‘Let us cheer in champagne and embrace one another’.6

(p.112) After Ørsted's third visit in August/September 1802, Ritter wrote that for ten days after Ørsted's departure he had not left his house, because he had been constantly experimenting with galvanism and observing the stars, so he had not found time to wash. Three weeks of inspiring but confined conversation with Hans Christian cried out for immediate experimental satisfaction for both mind and body. Ørsted had been working on a lecture on Winterl's chemistry, and Ritter had aired his ideas that the classical astrological imagination of the governing of human physiology by cosmic forces was explicable by modern galvanism. To this end he sought numerical connections between the orbits of planets and comets and the pulse of earthly life, the four seasons, the phases of human life, the durability of pregnancy, and the rhythm of the circulation of the blood. He felt he was close to something sensational and would say more on the matter by return of post. However, he did not do so. Everything being in a muddle, he had mislaid Ørsted's address.

Ritter shared with other early Romanticists the state of mind in which there was a multitude of ideas and whims, more than he could carry to a conclusion and put on paper before new ideas emerged. Whereas Ørsted wrote calmly, thoughtfully, and thoroughly, Ritter like other early Romanticists was spontaneous, paradoxical, feverish, and erratic. His articles were reminiscent of Schlegel's essays and Novalis's novels in that they were fragmentary, or a brief series of telling sentences. Ritter left behind about seven hundred aphorisms. Here is one of them:

‘We say that the force of attraction is everywhere proportionate to the quantity of matter. But what is the quantity of matter? How do we determine it? By weight? What is weight but the result of the force of attraction? So, the expression: “the ordinary force of attraction is everywhere proportionate to the quantity of matter” ought to read: “the force of attraction is everywhere identical with the force of attraction”. But this is circular and explains nothing. So, how can we say “quantitative attraction”? Everything must be qualitative.’7

No wonder that Hans Christian allowed himself to be seduced by some of Ritter's aphorisms that in a flash of lightning brought paradoxical, but thought-provoking, formulations to bear on obscure matters. They were not ready-made solutions, but rather drew attention to problems in need of reflection.

Immediately on his arrival in Berlin in November 1801, Ørsted sought out Hermbstaedt, whom Manthey knew from his earlier visit and had recommended. Had money and letters arrived from home? At the post office he asked for mail from Copenhagen, letters from Anders and Adam, or good news from Manthey concerning his application for a royal grant, or what he wanted most of all, a love letter from Sophie. He also needed to find cheap accommodation. We do not know where he settled down for the winter, because the letter that informed Manthey about his address went missing, but at least he must have had a bed and a table and chairs for a study circle of three members.

He had not been able to afford new clothes for the tour, so in Hamburg he spent fifty rixdollars, the first portion of the Cappel grant, on new clothes, a set of mathematical instruments and (p.113)

                        Fig. 34. Map of Berlin, c. 1820. North is along the left.

Fig. 34. Map of Berlin, c. 1820. North is along the left.

1. Brandenburger Gate

2. Fichte, J.G.

139, Friedrichstrasse

3. Gesellschaft Naturforschender Freunde

Französische Strasse

4. Hermbstaedt, S.F.

43, Georgenstrasse

5. Herz, Henriette


6. The French Reformed Church

7. The Theatre


8. The German Lutheran Church

9. Humboldt, A.

67, Oranienburgerstrasse

10. The University

Unter den Linden

11. Niebuhr, B.G.


12. Schleiermacher, F.D.

Charité (to the north outside the city wall)

13. Schlegel, Fr.

Charité (shared with Schleiermacher)

14. Schlegel, A.W. lectured in Singakademie


15. The Royal Academy of Science and Letters, Unter den Linden

16. The Opera

Unter den Linden

17. Weiss, C.S.

Münze am Werderschen Markt/The University (10)

18. HCØ


LAB. Photo by Andreas Matschenz

(p.114) an English writing set.8 In Berlin he took part in many social events for which he needed better clothes and he had to take advantage of Manthey's offer of a short-term loan from Hermbstaedt. His old everyday clothes were so shabby that he could not wear them in public. Taking Manthey's advice, he had a suit made consisting of a dress coat and trousers of dark grey cloth, and a short silk waistcoat.9 This did not turn him into a dandy. What really impressed those around him was the portable galvanic battery he had invented which was illustrated in a German journal (fig. 29). This apparatus aroused a lot of curiosity and at Göttingen he had a small copy made with four u-tubes which would entertain several people on his journey. He had improved it in a number of respects so that the effect was powerful considering its small size.

There was no university in the capital of Prussia until 1810, a few years before Ørsted's next visit to Berlin. Still, in 1801/2 a good many of the early Romantic coryphaei from Jena had settled in Berlin with its public libraries and audiences, which enabled them to study and to manage on fees from private lectures. There was also Hermbstaedt's brand new chemical laboratory which he made available to Ørsted; during the winter he spent many days in Georgenstrasse where it was situated.10 S.F. Hermbstaedt was nine years older than Manthey and seventeen years older than Ørsted. He was an influential person in Prussia as a figure of transition between the old cameralist and the modern specialised technical chemist serving the needs of pharmacies, mines, china factories, breweries, and dye-works. Hermbstaedt had married into the Rose family who owned the biggest pharmacy in Berlin, Zum Weissen Schwan, in Spandauerstrasse. First M.H. Klaproth, his patron, had married Valentin Rose's (p.115)

                        Fig. 35.  The Chemical Institute of the Prussian Industrial College built for and approved on 06.11.1799 by Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstaedt (1760–1833) in 43, Georgenstrasse, Berlin. HCØ obtained access to this lab and here he worked to identify Winterl's ‘Andronia’ and ‘Thelycke’ in acids and bases. On top to the left the main building in profile and façade and to the right the wing in profile. In the basement is a washroom and a room for chemical preparations, firewood, and coal. On the first floor a 60 square metre lecture hall facing the street and two laboratories facing the courtyard. In the wing is a flat for a servant. The second floor has Hermbstaedt's private flat with a dining room, a bedroom and three small rooms, while the kitchen and the maid's room are situated in the wing. On the third floor is a study and rooms for collections for technology and physics, a collection of minerals, as well as a library and a room for an amanuensis. It was a stately building with far better research facilities than Klaproth's. HCØ was lucky to obtain access to it. LAB. Photo by Andreas Matschenz.

Fig. 35.  The Chemical Institute of the Prussian Industrial College built for and approved on 06.11.1799 by Sigismund Friedrich Hermbstaedt (1760–1833) in 43, Georgenstrasse, Berlin. HCØ obtained access to this lab and here he worked to identify Winterl's ‘Andronia’ and ‘Thelycke’ in acids and bases. On top to the left the main building in profile and façade and to the right the wing in profile. In the basement is a washroom and a room for chemical preparations, firewood, and coal. On the first floor a 60 square metre lecture hall facing the street and two laboratories facing the courtyard. In the wing is a flat for a servant. The second floor has Hermbstaedt's private flat with a dining room, a bedroom and three small rooms, while the kitchen and the maid's room are situated in the wing. On the third floor is a study and rooms for collections for technology and physics, a collection of minerals, as well as a library and a room for an amanuensis. It was a stately building with far better research facilities than Klaproth's. HCØ was lucky to obtain access to it. LAB. Photo by Andreas Matschenz.

(p.116) widow making him the guardian of her sons and her daughter Magdalena, whom Hermbstaedt then married. Ørsted became closely attached to the chemical community in Berlin professionally as well as socially.

Hermbstaedt had been appointed titular professor in 1791 and in the same year he translated and introduced Lavoisier's Traité élémentaire de chimie, containing the new terms ‘oxygen’ and ‘hydrogen’. In 1800 he had become a member of the physical section of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science, with its imposing building on Unter den Linden, and he obtained a post in the government's Industrial College. However, he had serious problems when it came to suitable premises for chemical experiments. His own flat in Spandauerstrasse was useless. Fortunately, the government decided to establish a 22-metre long L-shaped building of three storeys in Georgenstrasse for the benefit of the chemists of the Industrial College.11

Manthey had seen Hermbstaedt's new laboratory, certainly one of the best in the German states, and encouraged Ørsted to get to work there: ‘Recently the King of Prussia has ordered a magnificent building to be established and furnished with extraordinarily well equipped laboratories, a reading room, etc. to educate artisans in technical chemistry’.12 There was a risk, however, that it would be costly to rent facilities from Hermbstaedt, and as long as Ørsted did not know whether his application to the Foundation ad usus publicos for additional money would be met, he dared not take on further liabilities, so while he was waiting he took salaried employment at the laboratory. Unfortunately, Hermbstaedt had very limited spare time to spend with his young employee.

‘He has entrusted me with an investigation of five different kinds of alum sent to him by the Industrial College…I wish the same for Hermbstaedt that Meissner's Alcibiades wished for Phidias that he will become the idlest man in town in order to get time to work with me, because all the trust and friendship he shows me must be due to Professor Manthey's word since so far he has had no time for a scientific talk with me.’13

As might be expected, seeing the King's gift to Hermbstaedt soon sparked off in young Ørsted's mind a plan to establish a fully equipped chemical laboratory in Copenhagen (under his own leadership, of course). He soon had an application prepared for the Chancellor of the University. He sent it to Manthey and left it to him to decide if he should hand it in himself or let (p.117) Anders do it. The details of the application are unknown as the letter is lost, but Manthey instinctively conceived it as targeted towards technical chemistry and addressed to artisans (like Hermbstaedt's), in line with his own interests. He lifted the veil of the plan in a footnote to one of Ørsted's letters he made public.14 Ironically, benevolent Manthey misunderstood his protégé's intentions. Ørsted's private experiments in Berlin were not concerned with technical chemistry, but aimed at proving the existence of the ‘Andronia’, a still fictitious element of the Hungarian chemist Winterl's grand theory. Together with a research team consisting of Rose, the pharmacist, and Richter, the analytical chemist, Ørsted and Ritter dreamt of retrieving and identifying this otherwise unknown substance in Hermbstaedt's well-equipped laboratory.

It soon became obvious to Manthey that Ørsted's plan was not aimed at technical chemistry and artisans. What he had in mind was a research laboratory that would provide the foundation for lectures targeted at an educated audience for economic gain. ‘The core of the matter is’, he wrote to Manthey, ‘that I long to accomplish something worthy and to combine the useful with the agreeable in my own work that is to say scientifically. As long as I do not achieve this I do not consider myself a happy man.’15

Over Christmas, Hans Christian anticipated something of interest and paid a visit to Dr Aronson, a Jewish physician in Berlin, who had received a paraphrase of his dissertation for review. A certain Dr Mendel, who had picked up Danish in Copenhagen, had paraphrased it, and now it was going to be printed provided he could find a publisher. This proved difficult and Mendel had to pay for it himself. He dedicated the book to Lazarus Bendavid, a Jewish physicist, secretary of the Philomatic Society in Berlin, who had written on Kant's metaphysics of nature, and to another physicist, Pörschke by name, a colleague of Kant. In addition, Mendel wrote a foreword in which he described Ørsted as his famous and erudite friend, who deserved attention for his improvement of the ‘architecture’ of the Kantian system.16

Ørsted's dissertation, as we saw, had a structure different from Grundtrækkene, which invited comment. So in February he organised a small private study circle on Kant's Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science. Apart from Ørsted there were Dr C.S. Weiss, a mineralogist recently arrived in Berlin to study chemistry, and K.J.B. Karsten, a metallurgist; all three were comparatively young (25, 22, and 20 respectively). Weiss and Ørsted focused on ‘Ariadne's Clew’. They became close friends and continued their dynamical research programme for the rest of their lives.

Ørsted assumed that the study circle would have finished its work before Sophie Probsthein's birthday on 16th February (he thought) 1802, which, in the absence of his fiancée, he intended to celebrate in the company of his friends, and he informed his bride-to-be of their birthday party. The study circle lasted eight evenings, and half a year later the resulting book was published under the title of Dr Johann Christian Oersted's Ideen zu einer neuen Architektonik der Naturmetaphysik, nebst Bemerkungen über einzelne Theile derselben [‘Dr Johann Christian Oersted's Ideas of a new Architecture of the Metaphysics of Nature including Comments on some Details’]. This was Ørsted's first publication in one of the major European languages (leaving aside his thesis in Latin). Now he would reach a larger readership and become known in Europe. It was widely (p.118) reviewed in German journals; it was praised in Jena, but cut to pieces in Schelling's and Hegel's journal.17 Could he expect otherwise since he had hit out at German Naturphilosophie?

How did this third version of Ørsted's metaphysics of nature relate to the two previous ones? D. Oersted's Ideen is a shortened version of his Grundtrækkene, combined with an appendix dealing with a theory of ether remarkably close to the ideas the elderly Kant was working on in Königsberg at the same time, though they were never prepared for publication. In Mendel's small book it became crystal clear for the first time on what grounds Ørsted was criticising Kant. One problem was Kant's incomplete application of his scheme of the categories of the understanding to the concepts of ‘force’ and ‘motion’.18 Ørsted wanted to pursue ‘Ariadne's Clew’ totally. On reflection however, this problem disappears. Kant confined his analysis to the force of gravity, while Ørsted was in need of a method that might falsify the atomic theory and promote an alternative dynamical theory.

A second problem was a lack of clarity concerning Kant's concept of force. Ørsted now saw that it made sense to see the concept of force as both cause and effect, that is to say, as force and motion at the same time. The force itself was not phenomenal, it left no sense impression: it was only noumenal. The relationship between cause and effect, or between force and motion, ought to be made understandable not only in Newton's mathematical terms, but also in physical ones.

Already in his metaphysics of nature, Kant had been critical of the mathematical solution to the mechanics of gravity. The reason was that Newton declared himself unable to explain what gravity was. The mathematical solution was to equate gravity with mass, but this did not explain anything physically, as Newton readily admitted. What Newton did accomplish was a calculation of gravity, no more. According to Ørsted the title of his immortal treatise Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica was a contradiction in terms, for the natural science of physics ought to present physical explanations, not mathematical ones.

How did Ørsted defend his theory in the appendix? The problem was rooted in the motion of bodies in curved lines that logically had to be caused by some combined effect of several external, attractive forces. Again logically speaking these attractive forces had to be checked by a braking effect, since otherwise the bodies would crash into the central body of attraction. This braking effect could not be a repulsive force, because it operated on the surface, and the point was that the body did not collide with any other body. Consequently, there had to be a braking effect operating at a distance. According to Ørsted this effect had to be explained by the physical presence of a substance, which he, and Kant and many physicists after him, called ‘ether’. This a priori theory of ether had one advantage. Unlike Newton's law of gravity, it was physical.

Ørsted sent some copies of Mendel's book home to Anders, one of which was intended for Jørgensen, the meticulous bookkeeper in Cappel's Foundation, who was in perpetual need of appeasement by means of testimonials. Mendel's flattering foreword was most suitable in this respect. But facing the metaphysical contents of the book he felt less convinced that it would promote his career, so he asked Manthey for his opinion. Unfortunately, the answer proved his suspicions correct. (p.119)

‘You should not send your metaphysics of nature to anybody here for this would undeniably harm you; the rate of exchange of the newer philosophers has sunk so much in this country that everybody must make sure not to subscribe to their doctrine. Our friend Steffens is doing a great deal to aggravate matters; he elevates himself so much above other people that he is an insult to many and professes ridiculous ideas; very few people comprehend that others who, like him, talk about a priori knowledge are still looking for proof.’19

What Manthey was drawing attention to was a classic prejudice, common at the time and ever since. Only a few seemed to have taken the trouble to read Kant before they distorted his claim that metaphysics is an epistemological reflection necessary to understand experience. It is a misunderstanding to confuse metaphysics with speculation. The ether deduction is an a priori construction by our intellect, but whether it is real is still unresolved and must remain so as long as it its empirically beyond intuition. The classic blunder was and is to take an a priori deduction for a cognitive result when it is only meant to be a condition for one.

Oersted's Ideen was a metaphysics of nature dealing consciously with a priori cognition. To accuse him of ignoring empirical research was totally absurd.20 A calculation of the number of days he spent at Hermbstaedt's laboratory from December 1801 to April 1802 comes to 56 days of work. This was one of the best-equipped laboratories in northern Europe at the time. Ørsted also studied books and articles in his room and, as we shall soon see, he attended about 25 meetings of various scientific societies. Moreover, he learnt to blow glass tubes and made galvanic batteries for friends and colleagues. Ørsted was definitely one of Manthey's ‘others who…are still looking for proof’. *

On 15th August 1801 Ørsted had met the fifty-year-old J.F. Westrumb at Hamelin. He was a pharmacist and a mining advisor and also had private interests in the textile industry, in dye-works, and in bleaching works. In other words he was an all-round technical chemist and businessman, wealthy and hence envied, and, in Ørsted's opinion, greedy. From Manthey he had a letter of recommendation which procured for him the friendliest reception imaginable. They spent many hours in Westrumb's laboratory, where Ørsted was shown one of J.J. Winterl's experiments, and in his notebook Ørsted made a drawing and a description of how water and the gases ammonium and oxygen were obtained from a reduction of metal oxides, such as manganese oxide or mercury oxide.21

It was Westrumb who made Ørsted aware of Winterl's Prolusiones ad chemiam in saeculi decimi noni [‘Introduction to nineteenth-century Chemistry’], which proposed an entirely new chemical system that seemed more promising than Lavoisier's antiphlogistic theory, in so far as it touched upon a reduction of incoherent empirical observations into a few dynamical principles. According to Winterl, Lavoisier's theory was about to crumble away, first of all because it lacked a theory for bases, and secondly, because its assertion that oxygen was the decisive component of all acids had turned out to be a flawed generalization. Unlike Ritter, who had established the electrochemical series of metals, Lavoisier had no theory of metals and salts. Finally, in his table of the elements, Lavoisier made use of a substance he called ‘caloric’, (p.120) imponderable heat, which encountered increasing scepticism. When Ørsted left Hamelin, Westrumb accompanied him for two miles on foot and gave him almost thirty addresses of people belonging to his professional network.

Ørsted was attracted to Winterl's theory because it gave answers to questions Lavoisier left unsolved. Polar forces were its recurring principle. Acids and bases had polar properties, and salts, metals and earths were all basic. In addition, the acid and basic properties were linked with electricity, the bases being positive, the acids negative. Like Ørsted and Ritter he considered water a neutral element composed of positive and negative electrical forces making positively charged water basic and negatively charged water acidic. Furthermore, Winterl explained heat as a force analogous to electricity. It was a generally accepted fact that acids and bases neutralised one another and that this neutralising process increased the heat. Also in favour of Winterl's system was the fact that it had been developed independently, before the voltaic pile and Ritter's Beweis.

When Ørsted presented Winterl's system to his friend a month after his visit to Westrumb, Ritter immediately grasped its potential. He had discovered that the south pole of the magnet was more easily oxidized than its north pole. When a magnetised iron wire was placed in nitric acid

                        Fig. 36. Jacob Joseph Winterl (1732–1809), Hungarian chemist, whose rambling thesis in Latin, Prolusiones, kept a large proportion of European chemists busy identifying the otherwise unknown elements of ‘Andronia’ and ‘Thelycke’ in the beginning of the nineteenth century. HCØ and JWR believed they had found an ally in their struggle against the corpuscular theorists. Anonymous drawing after a lost portrait in oils. Österreichische Nationalbibliotek, Vienna.

Fig. 36. Jacob Joseph Winterl (1732–1809), Hungarian chemist, whose rambling thesis in Latin, Prolusiones, kept a large proportion of European chemists busy identifying the otherwise unknown elements of ‘Andronia’ and ‘Thelycke’ in the beginning of the nineteenth century. HCØ and JWR believed they had found an ally in their struggle against the corpuscular theorists. Anonymous drawing after a lost portrait in oils. Österreichische Nationalbibliotek, Vienna.

(p.121) metal oxides were generated on the south pole, and litmus paper was coloured red. In other words there were three polarities, a magnetic, a chemical and a galvanic.22 Prolusiones was not a book available from a bookshop. Winterl had sent copies on his own initiative to scholars in Europe as a free gift, hoping to receive constructive criticism in return. Most scholars had probably shelved Prolusiones uncut. Generally, they revealed a sceptical attitude (according to Ørsted due to prejudice) as they were simply unable to understand Winterl's Latin text. Latin no longer held a monopoly among German-speaking scholars. However Bendavid, the physicist, asked Ørsted to give a written paper to the Philomatic Society in Berlin, and a committee was established to test Winterl's several hundred experiments. Valentin Rose took on the task of identifying ‘Andronia’, J.B. Richter was to examine ‘whether it is true that alkalis can be dimmed’, that is, could the basic property be weakened vis-à-vis the acidic one, while Ørsted agreed to analyse the acids. P.L. Simon was to be persuaded to examine ‘deoxidised air’.23 From the end of February to mid-March, Ørsted scrutinised Winterl's book alongside his test experiments, on deoxidised sulphuric acid among other things. Sadly, Rose had no luck in retrieving ‘Andronia’.

Encouraged by Ørsted Manthey started to study Prolusiones and remained unimpressed.24 Meanwhile in Jena Ritter and Ørsted were working hard to complete their manuscript for Materialien zu einer Chemie des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts [‘Materials for a Chemistry for the Nineteenth Century’]. Ørsted wanted to write a preface for the book expressing reservations, lest he be embarrassed if the examinations in progress turned out unsuccessfully.25 Chemistry is beginning to cohere as a theoretical entity, Ørsted told his patron. Because heat and electricity appeared to be chemical effects, something dynamical, it might soon be understood how two branches of natural science were interrelated into one system.26 But more experiments were needed. ‘Everything seems to encourage the most energetic participation, ne vitam silentio praeteriamus’ [lest we pass through our lives in silence], he wrote to Manthey.27

At this stage both Ørsted and Ritter corresponded with Winterl regarding their exposition of his theory. A portrait of Winterl was intended to embellish the front page of Ørsted's book, but Winterl was too modest to send him a copperplate print.28 The manuscript concluded with a summary stating the main results in the form of a letter to a sceptical friend. This letter was a slightly revised version of Ørsted's letter to Manthey, with the language corrected by Ritter.29 On 20th September Ørsted entered the Montag & Weiss bookstore at Regensburg to buy a couple of books as they happened to discuss Winterl's chemistry. By the end of the day the bookseller had bought Ørsted's manuscript for sixty guilders.30 It was common knowledge that it was very difficult for an unknown, non-native speaker to find a publisher in Germany. And yet, he had now succeeded in having works published twice without having to be his own publisher, as Ritter had been obliged to do with his Beweis. Luckily, Ørsted could take advantage of Mendel's flattering preface while negotiating with bookseller Weiss.31 The plan was that Ritter would publish a second volume containing experimental results, but that never appeared. Instead an abbreviated translation of Prolusiones saw the light of day; it was dedicated to Ørsted and had a critical preface by Ritter criticising the book for its many woolly hypotheses.32


(1.) HCØ〉SP 13.08.-04.09.02, ØC 80, TL 103

(2.) JWR〉HCØ 26.07.09, C II 247

(3.) K.Richter 1988, 13–84. W. Benjamin 1979, 42. W. Wetzels 1973

(4.) C.v. Klinchowstroem 1921, 135–51

(5.) JWR〉HCØ 21.02.02, C II 10

(6.) M.H Mendel 1802

(7.) JWR 1984, 67

(8.) HCØ〉LM 14.08.01, ØC 1–2

(9.) HCØ〉LM 04.12.01, ØC 1–2. TL 29

(10.) I. Mieck 1965, 345

(11.) Landesarchiv Berlin, Pr. Br. Rep. 42, Neue Folge vol. 2, Plankammer V, No. 3

(12.) Nyt Bibliothek vol. 3, 241–55, NS III, 77 (not in SSW)

(13.) HCØ〉SP 03.12.01, ØC 80. TL 28–9

(14.) Nyt Bibliothek vol. 3, 241–55, NS III, 71–7 (not in SSW)

(15.) HCØ〉LM 06.09.02, TL 113. My emphasis.

(16.) HCØ〉SP 27.12.01, ØC 80

(17.) A.S Jacobsen 2000, 43–4

(18.) M.H Mendel 1802, 12

(19.) HCØ〉LM 23.06.02 and LM〉HCØ 17.07.02, TL 94

(20.) NS I, xvi–xviii

(21.) ØC 88, 6–9

(22.) ØC 88, 15–16

(23.) HCØ〉LM 08.02.02, ØC 1–2, TL 52–4

(24.) LM〉HCØ 17.07.02, ØC 1–2, MØ I 75

(25.) HCØ〉LM 19.08.02, ØC 1–2, TL 99–102

(26.) HCØ 1803, NS I, 205–10

(27.) HCØ〉LM 06.09.02, ØC 1–2, TL 107–12

(28.) J.J. Winterl〉HCØ 18.09.02, C II 602

(29.) JWR〉HCØ 28.10.02, C II 26

(30.) HCØ〉SP 20.09.02, ØC 80, TL 120

(31.) M.H Mendel 1802, 7

(32.) K. Richter 1988, 66