Poggendorff, Johann Christian

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(b. Hamburg, Germany, 29 December 1796; d. Berlin, Germany, 24 January 1877)

physics, biography, bibliography.

Poggendorff worked in three areas of physics. He was an excellent experimenter and devised various measuring devices that were appropriate to his research; he skillfully edited the Annalen der Physik wul Chemie for more than half a century; and he took an intense interest in the history of physics. Most notably, he produced an indispensable biographical-bibliographical reference work in the history of the exact sciences that is now called simply “Poggendorff.”

Poggendorff was born into a well-to-do family, but his father lost nearly the entric fortune during the French occupation of Hamburg (1806–1811). He was educated first at the Johanneum in Hamburg and then, from 1807, at a boarding school in Schiffbeck, near Hamburg. At age fifteen he became an apprentice in a Hamburg apothecary shop. Later he worked as an apothecary’s assistant in Itzehoe. Because of his poor financial situation, he had scarcely any prospect of ever owning his own apothecary shop. Moreover, he was strongly drawn to the study of chemistry and physics. Consequently, in 1820 he followed the advice of a former schoolmate at Schiffbeck F.F. Runge, to study science in Berlin. He shared lodgings with Runge, who later became a distinguished chemist. Poggendorff eagerly devoted himself to science and carried out many experiments. Already by 1820 he had invented, independently of Schweigger, a galvanoscope (multiplier). the sensitivity of which he increased in 1826 through an arrangement that enabled him to take readings by reflection. This device was used by Gauss in his observations on magnetism. In 1823 Poggendorff was commissioned for a small salary by the Berlin Academy to make meteorological observations.

In 1824, at age twenty-eight, Poggendorff took over the editorship of the renowned Annalen der Physik und Chemie.In 1830 he received, as a provatgelehrter, the title Königlicher Professor. He married in 1831 and by 1838 had three children from his happy marriage. In 1834 he became extraordinary professor at the University of Berlin and in 1839 was named a member of the Prussian Academy of Sciences. He received offers of full professorships from other universities but rejected them; for he considered Berlin to be the right place for his historical, biographical, of the Annalen and for hid historical, biographical, and bibliographical research. Until 1875, he gave lectures at the university, primarily on the history of physics at the university, Poggendorff was sociable and a generous host. In the spring of 1876 he began to suffer from a painful neuralgia, and he died the following year at the age of eighty.

Poggendorff’s achievements in the field of experimental physics—in addition to the invention of the multiplier—included the compensating circuit for determining the electromotive force of constant and inconstant circuits; research on induction; experiments with A. W. Holtz’s electrical influence machine (electric power transmission); determination of the electromotive series in dilute sulfuric acid and in potassium cyanide; construction of a silver voltameter, of a rheocord (for the study of polarization Phenomena), of an improved sine galvanometer, of thermopile, of a mercurial air pump, and of an Atwood’s machine; and, finally, the demonstration of the existence of the Peltier effect in magnetoelectric currents.

It might seem astonishing that Poggendorff, who was only twenty-seven at the time, was chosen to edit the Annalen der physik und Chemie (founded in 1790)upon the death, in 1824, of the previous editor, L. W. Gilbert. Yet we know that Poggendorff was very resolute in his dealings with the publisher, J. A. Barth, and even hinted that if turned down he would found his own journal, especially as he has already obtained the support of many prominent scientists. In the course of his fifty-two years of editotial activity, Poggendorff brough out 160 volumes of the Annalen, for which he procured first-rate original contributions and in which he also presented translations of important foreign papers. In addition, the journal published supplementary volumes and pamphlets. Eventually Poggendorff gave up personal supervision of the articles on chemistry and confined himself to physics. Thoroughly imbued with the values of empiricism, he rejected manuscripts that were speculative in nature and placed the greatest stress on articles with an experimental basis. Following Poggendorff’ death he was succeeded as editor by Gustav Wiedemann.

Poggendorff’s historical interests, expressed in his lectures and in a book on the history of physics, issued in a project to which he wholeheartedly devoted himself: the Biographisch-Literarische Handwörterbuch zur Geschichte der exakten Wissenschaften. The original two-volume work first appeared in 1863. He included dates and bibliographical references for 8,400 researchers in the exact sciences of all periods and countries up to the year 1858 This useful publication attests its compiler’ immense capacity for work. The work has continued to be published and by 1974 comprised some eighteen individual volumes.


I. Original Works Poggendorff’s works include Lebenslinien zur Geschichte der exakten Wissenschaften (Berlin,1853); Biographisch-Literarisches Handwörterbuch zur Geschichte der exakten Wissenschaften, 2 vols. (Leipzig, 1863); and W. Barentin, ed., Geschichte der Physik (Berlin, 1879). Articles by Poggendorff are listed in Poggendorff, Biographisch-Literarisches Handwörterbuch, II (1863), 480–482; III (1898), 1052–1053.

Poggendorff edited the following works:Annalen der physik und Chemie1 (77 of the entire sers.)(1824) through 160 (236 of the entire sers.) (1877); and Handwörterbuchden reinen und angewandten Chemie, I (Brunswick, 1842), edited with J. Liebig. Further vols. of this last work were published, but Poggendorff withdrew from the project after the first vol. appeared.

II. Secondary Literature. On Poggendorff and his work, see W. Baretin, “Ein Rückblick,” in W. Baretin, ed., Jubelband der Annalen der Physik und Chemie dem Herausgeber J. C. Poggendorff zur Feier fünfzigjährigen Wirkens gewidmet (Leipzig, 1874), ix–xiv; W. Baretin, “J. C. Poggendorff,” in Annalen der Physik, 160 (1877), v–xxiv; E. Frommel, J. C. Poggendorff, Leichenrede, nebst eigenhandigen Lebensnachrichten, Reden und Briefen (Berlin, 1877); Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, 26 (1888), 364–366; J. Volhard, Justus Von Liebig, I (Leipzig, 1909), 371–373, on the Handworterbuch der Chemie; H . Salie, “Ein Standardwerk zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften. Hundert Jahre ‘Poggcndorf’” in Forschungen und Fortschritte, 37 (1963), 202 205; H. Salie, “Poggendorff and Poggendorff,” in Isis, 57 , pt. 3, no. 189 (1966). 389 392.

Friedrich Klemm

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