Gierke, Otto Von

views updated May 18 2018

Gierke, Otto Von



The German jurist Otto von Gierke (1841–1921) was born in Stettin, the son of a Prussian official. He was reared in a highly respectable, patriotic, and Prussian atmosphere. As a student at the University of Berlin, he was influenced by Georg Beseler, a jurist of the Germanist school, who had already sketched and was teaching the idea of a purely German theory of associations (Genossen-schaftstheorie). After professorships at Breslau (1872–1884) and Heidelberg (1884–1887) Gierke succeeded to Beseler’s chair at Berlin, which he occupied until his death.

At the beginning of Gierke’s career, German legal scholarship was dominated by the Romanist school of Savigny; but Gierke began and remained a staunch Germanist. The Germanists, like the Romanists, were historically minded; their research, however, did not take them back to the Roman Empire, Justinian’s Code, and the Reception, but followed the path marked out by Jacob Grimm to the law of the ancient German Mark and the Gemeinde (local community), to feudal records, town charters, and the rules of guilds, in search of “truly German” legal principles. The first volume of Gierke’s Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht (1868–1913), dedicated to Beseler, was the first product of his self-imposed task of broadening the foundation for a German theory of associations by a detailed study of successive types of organizations in German history. This task, diligently pursued through much of his life, was not quite completed when, in 1913, he published the fourth and last volume of his most famous work.

He temporarily abandoned historical research for more immediate problems in 1888, when the first draft of the new civil law code disappointed and challenged the Germanists. Gierke wrote a series of critical articles and, when he and his fellow Germanists failed to obtain substantial modifications of the code, settled down to his second major task. Convinced that the materials of a common German law existed and that legal progress could come only through developing deep-rooted German traditions and weeding out Romanist imports, he felt a solemn obligation “to penetrate the new code with a Germanistic spirit; to develop its Germanic content upon an historical basis; to foster the growth of its Germanism in the future” (1868-1913, vol. 4, p. xii). The first volume of his Deutsches Privatrecht (“German Private Law,” 1895-1917), on Personenrecht (“Law of Persons,” 1895), was followed by a second on Sachenrecht (“Law of Things,” 1905) and a third on Schuldrecht (“Law of Obligatory Relations,” 1917). Their important impact on German civil law is generally acknowledged.

Gierke’s influence on legal and political theory derived from his historical and systematic analyses of associations. The four volumes of Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht trace the changing forms of groups through four periods of history. In the earliest period of German law the free association (freie Genossenschaft) was predominant; it was based on natural coherence; all rights remained with the members collectively and no corporate existence of the Genossenschaft was postulated. In the second period (800–1200) the lordly union (herrschaftlicher Verband) was predominant; in this, rights attached to a single individual (e.g., a king or feudal lord) who represented the legal unity of the group. In the third period (1200–1525), which interested Gierke most, a new type of association, the free union (freie Vereinigung or Einung), became predominant. Growing out of the free will of its associates, the free union neverthe less resembled the old Germanic association in that the law, rights, and duties of the association were attributed to the collective membership. The guild was the purest example of this type, but it also appeared in towns, leagues of towns, and many other associations of varying importance, permanence, and respectability. The principle of free union, plus that of the federal organization of associations into larger unions, as illustrated by the Hanse, at one time gave promise, Gierke thought, that the feudalized Empire would be reconstituted as a federation. But rural areas continued to be dominated by feudal relationships; once-free as sociations became privileged corporations; finally, a new authoritarian principle triumphed, exempli fied in the sovereign state, conceived as separate from and above the people and as the exclusive embodiment of the common interest. By the end of the fourth period (1525–1806), the absorption or dissolution of privileged corporations by the state and the establishment of individual liberty and equality before the law had opened the way for a rich development of free associations with all the varied and complex characteristics that modern associations have.

The old German association, Gierke explained, had had no clearly defined theory; Germanic conceptions implicit in the legal characteristics of the manifold associations of the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries failed to reach explicit formulation. The competition, in legal theory, of German and Romanist ideas was paralleled by the competition, in publicistic thought, of “truly medi eval” and “antique-modern” tendencies. In the development of medieval association law, Gierke discerned manifestations of a German tendency to construe each group as a purposive entity that acted as a whole and, as a whole, was the subject of rights and obligations. This tendency, however, never reached its logical conclusion, a concept of the group as a real person. As association law was finally formulated by canonists and postglossators, German views were submerged by Romanist influences: the association was construed as an institution (Anstalt), whose legal existence derived from a grant of powers by superior authority and whose Rechtssubjektivitat was located in an artificial personality (persona ficta) constructed by positive law. Similarly, “truly medieval” political thought, which conceived society as a complex structure of mutually articulated group-entities, each with its own purpose, group-law, and organic unity, was defeated by “antique-modern” tendencies which, progressively eroding the autonomous claims of intermediate groups, issued in an irreconcilable dichotomy between theories of the all-embracing sovereignty of an organic state and unsatisfactory attempts to explain the state itself as contractually constructed by the human atoms who alone had natural existence and natural rights.

Gierke’s historical and systematic theses meet in his assertion of the Germanic doctrine that should be applied to modern associations. Attacking the prevailing doctrine of Savigny, which construed them as creations of positive law on the ground that “originally and from a naturalistic point of view” (1868-1913, vol. 2, p. 25) true legal personality belongs only to individual men, he propounded a doctrine which seemed to him not only more German, but also superior in scientific realism and philosophical validity. When law treats groups as persons, he insisted, it does not distort reality. Joint-stock companies, churches, trade unions are—like the state itself—real collective persons. They exist whether the state recognizes them or not; the role of the state is declaratory, not creative. The Genossenschaft is an organic unity, composed of individuals or other associations, with its own original purpose; it organizes itself through its own system of “social law” it is autonomously capable of willing and acting; it has thus a real personality, which is the proper subject of rights and obligations. Appreciation of the actual nature of associations opens the way to the only sort of legal theory that corresponds with fact and the only sort of social organization that can be ethically satisfactory, one that resolves the conflicts inherent in human strivings toward unity and liberty.

Gierke repeatedly emphasized that his position lay between that of the extreme individualists, who would reduce human relationships to contracts among sovereign individuals, and that of the organicists, who would absorb the individual and all society into the state. A man is born “as a member of a family, a race, a community, in short, as a member of a whole” (1868-1913, vol. 2, p. 47) and “what man is, he owes to the association of man with man” (1868-1913, vol. 1, p. 1). The system of human associations, natural and voluntary, presents a complex pattern of rich and fluid variety. To primitive natural associations based upon “purely physical” ties are added a complex and fluid variety of associations more deliberately created—some highly specialized in purpose and membership, others more generalized and comprehensive. The process of differentiation and special ization is balanced by a process of generalization. But, as an expression of man’s socialnature, the lowliest and narrowest association has some of the same dignity and value as the highest and most comprehensive one.

The state is the product of the same sort of process as that which produces all other associations. But it is distinguished from other associations in that it is the highest and most comprehensive; thus its purposes include the forceful carrying out of “the general will” and the coercive conciliation of the wills of all individual and collective persons. Accordingly, although it is “not generically different,” the state differs qualitatively as well as quantitatively from other associations. Moreover, its function requires both Genossenschaft and Herrschaft. The history of the German state, Gierke believed, had culminated in an integration of Genossenschaft and Herrschaft, organically uniting the state’s associational basis with the inherent authority of the monarchy at its apex.

Gierke’s theory of law corresponded to his theory of associations. In “Die Grundbegriffe des Staatsrechts” (1874) he attacked the formalist conception of law as a creation of the state. “The final source of all law” is “the social consciousness of any social institution whatever” (Gierke in Lewis 1935, p. 176); the declaration that transforms social convictions of right into law is made by other associations besides the state. In the terminology he used in Das Wesen der menschlichen Verbande (“The Nature of Human Associations,” 1902), the two basic categories of law are not private and public law, but “individual law,” through which the state regulates the external relations of individual and collective persons, and the various bodies of “social law,” which treat individuals only as members of groups. Social law is the law produced by the collective persons themselves to regulate their internal life, the relations of the whole with its parts, and the integration of narrower into more inclusive entities. The public law that organizes the structure of the state, and those of narrower associations (e.g., local communities, provinces) insofar as they are a part of the state structure, is simply one among many systems of autonomously developed “social law,” differing from other systems only in the specific characteristics appropriate to the specific nature and purpose of the state. Gierke’s concept of “social law” enables him to construe the internal rules of churches, trade unions, business corporations, etc., as independent of state determination and to put such bodies on an equal basis with human persons in claiming areas of freedom into which the state cannot intrude.

Gierke’s conception of the nature of associations could suggest a highly decentralized federal political structure, which might include as constituent members both functional and territorial units. Morris R. Cohen once referred to Gierke as “a sort of patron saint of political pluralists.” But Gierke himself was not a political pluralist, nor did he develop the ideal of a functional federalism. The pluralistic elements of his theory were always carefully balanced by the organic and authoritarian, and by the dominant role he assigned to the state and to its law. His devotion to Prussia and the monarchy and his concern for the assured unity of the German people tipped the balance steadily toward authority. He became increasingly convinced that the constitution of the Bismarckian Reich achieved an almost perfect harmony of associational and authoritarian principles. Earlier in his career he had demanded decentralizing reforms, but in 1919 his fear of the disruption that would follow the abolition of the monarchy made him a vigorous critic of the Weimar constitution.

Gierke’s theory of social law influenced such writers as Léon Duguit and Hugo Krabbe; his insistence on the autonomous origins of associations influenced, directly or indirectly, the thought of S. G. Hobson, G. D. H. Cole, Harold J. Laski, and others. His influence on English pluralism owed much to Frederic William Maitland, who introduced Gierke to English-speaking academic circles in 1900. With a lawyer’s interest in the legal interpretation of corporations and other groups, Maitland emphasized Gierke’s legal doctrine of the real personality of associations but paid less attention to his view of their organic nature and to the very special role he attributed to the state. J. N. Figgis contributed to Gierke’s reputation as a pluralist when in Churches in the Modern State he drew heavily from Gierke in vindicating the “real life and personality” of churches and other associations against the “Leviathan state” and the Austinian concept of sovereignty. In Germany, Gierke’s student and follower Hugo Preuss argued in his early writings for a transformation of the authoritarian, Prussia-dominated Reich into a decentralized democratic state whose articulation would be unhampered by the outworn dogma of sovereignty; but Preuss did not minimize his divergence from Gierke. In the Weimar period he moved to an uncompromising assertion of the sovereignty of the united German state.

Gierke’s historical interpretations have been criticized as generalizing beyond the evidence, as tending to transform social movements into ideological or spiritual movements, as reading his own categories into past thought. But Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht, with its massive erudition and often perceptive statement, remains a classic which no historian of its topics can ignore. Gierke’s systematic theses have also been criticized, even by generally sympathetic writers, for example, in the penetrating analysis by Ernest Barker (1934). Interest in Gierke’s theory has declined with the decline of the pluralist school. The normative and juristic conclusions that he drew from recognition of the spontaneous self-assertion of groups have little in common with more recent descriptive analyses of group action in politics.

John D. Lewis

[For the historical context and subsequent development of Gierke’s ideas, seeNatural Law; Pluralism; Political Group Analysis; Voluntary Associations; and the biographies ofDuguit; Figgis; Laski; Maitland.]


1868-1913 Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. 4 vols. Berlin: Weldmann. → Volume 1: Rechtsgeschichte der deutschen Genossenschaft, 1868. Volume 2: Geschichte des deutschen Körperschaftsbegriffs, 1873. Volume 3: Die Staats- und Korporationslehre des Altertums und des Mittelalters und ihre Aufnahme in Deutschland, 1881. Volume 4: Die Staats- und Korporationslehre der Neuzeit, 1913. Reprinted in 1954 by Akademlsche Druck- und Verlagsanstalt, Graz (Austria). Translations of extracts provided by J. D. Lewis.

(1874) 1915 Die Grundbegriffe des Staatsrechts und die neuesten Staatsrechtstheorien. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr. → First published in Volume 30 of Zeitschrift für die gesamte Staatsuiissenschaft.

(1880) 1939 The Development of Political Theory. Translated by Bernard Freyd. New York: Norton. → First published in 1880 as Johannes Althusius und die Entwicklung der naturrechtlichen Staatstheorien by Koebner, Breslau.

(1881) 1958 Political Theories of the Middle Age. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A translation of “Die publicistischen Lehren des Mittelalters,” a section of Volume 3 of Gierke’s Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. Translated with a famous introduction by Frederic William Maitland.

1883 Labands Staatsrecht und die deutsche Rechtswissen-schaft. Schmollers Jahrbuch fur Gesetzgebung, Ver-waltung und Volkswirtschaft im Deutschen Reich 7: 1097–1195.

1887 Die Genossenschaftstheorie und die deutsche Recht-sprechung. Berlin: Weidmann.

1895-1917 Deutsches Privatrecht. 3 vols. Munich and Leipzig: Duncker 8c Humblot. → Volume 1: Allgemeiner Teil und Personenrecht, 1895. Volume 2: Sachenrecht, 1905. Volume 3: Schuldrecht, 1917.

1902 (1954) Das Wesen der menschlichen Verbande. Darmstadt (Germany): Wissenschaftliche Buchge-meinschaft. → Extracts from this work have been translated as “The Nature of Human Associations” and published on pages 139-157 of Lewis 1935.

(1913) 1934 Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 1500 to 1800. 2 vols. Translated with an introduction by Ernest Barker. Cambridge Univ. Press. → A 1934 translation of five subsections of Volume 4 of Gierke’s Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht. A paperback edition was published in 1957 by Beacon Press.


Barker, Ernest (1934)1950 Translator’s Introduction. Pages ix-xci in Otto von Gierke, Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 1500 to 1800. Cambridge Univ. Press. → An important work about Gierke.

Emerson, Rupert 1928 State and Sovereignty in Mod ern Germany. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → See Chapter 4, pages 126-154 on “The School of the Genossenschaft.”

Gurvitch, Georges 1922 Otto von Gierke als Rechts-philosoph. Logos: Internationale Zeitschrift fur Philosophie der Kultur 11:86–132.

Lewis, John D. 1935 The Genossenschaft-theory of Otto von Gierke: A Study in Political Thought. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin. → An appendix contains translated extracts from Gierke’s Das deutsche Genossen schaftsrecht; Johannes Althusius …; Das Wesen der menschlichen Verbande; and Die Grundbegriffe des Staatsrechts.

Maitland, Frederic William (1900) 1958 Introduction. In Otto von Gierke, Political Theories of the Middle Age. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Preuss, Hugo 1910 Die Lehre Gierkes und das Problem der preussischen Verwaltungsreform. Volume 1, pages 245-304 in Berlin Universitat, Juristische Fakultat, Festgabe der Berliner juristischen Fakultat fur Otto Gierke zum Doktor-Jubilaum 22 august 1910. Breslau (then Germany): Marcus.

Schultze, Alfred 1923 Otto von Gierke als Dogmatiker des biirgerlichen Rechts. Jherings Jahrbiicher fur die Dogmatik des biirgerlichen Rechts 73:i-xlvi.

Stutz, Ulrich 1922 Zur Erinnerung an Otto von Gierke. Zeitschrift der Savigny-Stiftung fur Rechtsgeschichte (Germanistische Abteilung) 43:vii-lxiii. → Contains a bibliography.

Tierney, Brian 1955 Foundations of the Conciliar The ory: The Contribution of the Medieval Canonists From Gratian to the Great Schism. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Pages 98-105 discuss, with references, some criticism of Gierke’s interpretations of medieval political theory and canon law.

Guericke (Gericke), Otto von

views updated May 17 2018

Guericke (Gericke), Otto von

(b. Magdeburg, Germany, 20 November 1602; d. Hamburg, Germany, 11 May 1686.)

engineering, physics.

Guericke was the son of Hans Gericke and Anna von Zweidorff. As the scion of a patrician family long established in Magdeburg he was destined to participate in political life. He was registered in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Leipzig from 1617 to 1620; attended the University of Helmstedt in 1620; and studied law at Jena in 1621 and 1622. Guericke then went to Leiden, where in addition to studying law he also attended lectures on mathematics and engineering, especially fortification.

Upon his return to Germany Guericke was elected an alderman of the city of Magdeburg in 1626; in the same year he married Margarethe Alemann, who died in 1645 (his second wife was Dorothea Lentke, whom he married in 1652). In 1630 he assumed the additional duties of city contractor. After the destruction of the city in 1631, Guericke worked in Brunswick and Erfurt as an engineer for the Swedish government; from 1635 he performed the same duties for the electorate of Saxony. This dual position allowed Guericke to serve Magdeburg throughout the Thirty Years’ War, during which time he acted as envoy to the changing occupation powers. He further represented Magdeburg at the subsequent peace conferences and later at the Imperial Diet in Regensburg.

Diplomacy consumed much of Guericke’s time from 1642 to 1666. He was also mayor of Magdeburg (1646–1676). He devoted his brief leisure to scientific experimentation, however, and his attendance at international congresses and princely courts allowed him to take part in the exchange of scientific ideas. Guericke presented some of his own experiments on several occasions at Regensburg in 1653–1654 and again in 1663 at the court of the Great Elector in Berlin. He also learned of new scientific developments in such circumstances; at Osnabrück in 1646 he first heard of Descartes’s new physics and at Regensburg he was introduced to the experiments of Torricelli, who was working on the problem of the vacuum, as was Guericke himself, but from another point of view.

Indeed, Guericke had been preoccupied ever since his student days at Leiden with the question of the definition of space. A convinced Copernican, he was particularly concerned with three fundamental questions: (1) What is the nature of space? Can empty space exist, or is space always filled and empty space only a spatium imaginarium, a logical abstraction? (2) How can individual heavenly bodies affect each other across space, and how are they moved? (3) Is space, and therefore the heavenly bodies enclosed in it, bounded or unbounded?

Descartes’s conception of space and matter as equivalent and his denial of a vacuum led Guericke to propose an experiment designed to resolve the old conflict between plenists and vacuists. Guericke posited that if the air were pumped out of a strong container and no other new material allowed to take its place the vessel would implode if Descartes’s assertions were true. Soon after he returned from Osnabrück in 1647 Guericke made a suction pump using a cylinder and piston to which he added two flap valves; he then used this apparatus to pump water out of a well-caulked beer cask. Air entered the cask, however, as was evidenced by whistling noises. When Guericke repeated the experiment with the beer cask sealed within a second larger one that he had also filled with water, the water that he pumped out was replaced by water seeping in from the larger vessel.

In an attempt to solve the sealing problem Guericke ordered the construction of a hollow copper sphere with an outlet at the bottom. He pumped the air directly out of this apparatus which thereupon imploded. This result would seem to indicate that Descartes was right; but Guericke still thought otherwise on the basis of his earlier experiments. He had a new apparatus made, and with this his experiment succeeded. Guericke thus invented the air pump, or, rather, discovered the pumping capacity of air. He had thought that the air within the vessel would sink, as had the water in his previous devices, and that it would be evacuated from the bottom; later experiments, however, in which the outlet was placed at arbitrary points on the copper sphere proved that the air left in the container during the process of evacuation was distributed evenly throughout the interior space.

This discovery of the elasticity of the air represents perhaps the most important result of Guericke’s experiments. From it he was led to investigate the decrease of the density of the air with height and to theorize concerning empty space beyond the atmosphere of heavenly bodies; to study variations of air pressure corresponding to changes in the weather (taking mean air pressure to correspond to a water column twenty Magdeburg ells high, he succeeded in 1660 in making barometric weather forecasts); to propose systematic weather reporting through a network of observation stations; to come to know the ponderability of air within air; and finally, to draw further conclusions about a variety of phenomena connected with vacuums, most of which he demonstrated experimentally, especially the work capacity of air, by which he refuted the theory of horror vacui.

The most famous of Guericke’s public experiments is the one of the Magdeburg hemispheres, in which he placed together two copper hemispheres, milled so that the edges fit together snugly. He then evacuated the air from the resulting sphere and showed that a most heavy weight could not pull them apart. Contrary to legend, the demonstration was performed with a team of horses for the first time in Magdeburg in 1657 (not Regensburg in 1654) and repeated at court in Berlin in 1663. Guericke also made other, less dramatic, public demonstrations of the effectiveness of air pressure on several occasions in Regensburg; these Regensburg experiments were reported by Gaspar Schott in Mechanica hydraulico-pneunmaica (1657) and Technica curiosa (1664), and were supplemented with additional information that Guericke communicated by letter.

Schott’s books as well as other foreign publications of Guericke’s experiments (for example, works of M. Cornaeus and S. Lubieniecky) stimulated Huygens and Boyle, among others, to repeat and extend the experiments and to set to work upon an improved air pump. Guericke himself was occupied with the same project; he improved his pump with hydraulic sealing and devised a stationary installation for it (it occupied two floors of his house). In 1663 Guericke developed a portable pump modeled on one of Boyle’s and constructed one especially for his visit to Berlin in that year. (Three examples of this type of pump survive, one each in Munich, Lund, and Brunswick.)

Guericke’s experimental work, however, represents only one facet of his attempt to reach a complete physical world view. He drew upon his Copernicanism to construct the foundations for such a system. Guericke’s celestial physics were further based upon the notion that the heavenly bodies interacted with each other across empty space through magnetic force; here he turned to the earlier work of Gilbert and Kepler. Their magnetic hypotheses had been refuted by Athanasius Kircher (in Magnes sive De arte magnetica, 1641); joining the argument, Guericke sought to modify Gilbert’s magnetism experiments by making use of materials mimicking the actual composition of the earth. To this end Guericke cast a sphere composed of a variety of minerals with a large proportion of sulfur—in later experiments he used pure sulfur—and showed that it possessed the virtutes mundanae, that is, such powers as attraction and the ability to move other bodies. By rubbing the sphere of sulfur, Guericke had actually produced static electricity; but since he did not recognize these electrical effects as special phenomena, but as demonstrations of the virtutes of a celestial body, he cannot properly be credited with the invention of the first electrical machine.

Having dealt with the problems of empty space and the movement of heavenly bodies, Guericke concerned himself further with the question of the boundedness of space and the number of worlds therein. He conceived of fixed stars as suns with planetary systems, each of which exerts a sphere of force (orbis virtutis, sphaera activitatis); these systems border on each other and do not interact—each heavenly body rather possesses a specific center of gravity for a specific virtus conservativa, which he interpreted as its source of cohesion. Thus, in opposition to Aristotelian cosmography, an immaterial boundary of space becomes inconceivable. Giordano Bruno had already speculated about an infinite universe containing an infinite number of worlds, but his ideas had been unacceptable because only God was considered infinite—all of God’s creation must be finite. Guericke overcame this objection by redefining the notion of nothingness. By his reasoning, empty space as a mere receptacle for God’s creations is nothingness and is not created. Empty space is therefore independent of God and the created universe—indeed, it precedes the latter. Therefore empty space cannot be bounded. Neither can the number of worlds be bounded, although such a number is not infinite (since there are no infinite numbers). Likewise it is not limited, since there is no greatest number and no end to the series of numbers. Infinite space is thus a conceptual possibility.

Such speculations about the heavenly bodies quite naturally led Guericke to the study of astronomy. He explained planetary orbits as exactly circular and concentric, effected by the rotating orbis virtutis of the sun, and interpreted the apparent eccentricities as a result of the different densities of the atmosphere.

In 1666 Guericke was made a noble and his family name became von Guericke. In 1681 he retired from his public offices and went to live in Hamburg with his son, a magistrate of Brandenburg. He spent the rest of his life there.


I. Original Works. Guericke’s most important published work is Experimenta nova, ut vocantur, de vacuo spatio…(Amsterdam, 1672; repr. Aalen, 1962).

His letters to Schott, Lubieniecky, Leibniz, and others may be found in Hans Schimank, trans, and ed., with the collaboration of Hans Gossen, Gregor Maurach, and Fritz Krafft, Otto von Guerickes Neue (sogenannte) Magdeburger Versuche über den leeren Raum, nebst Briefen, Urkunden and anderen Zeugnissen seiner Lebens- and Schaffensgeschichte Düsseldorf, 1968), which also contains a full bibliography by Krafft current through 1967.

II. Secondary Literature. In addition to Schimank, above, see Alfons Kauffeld, Otto von Guericke: Philosophisches über den leeren Raum (Berlin, 1968); Fritz Krafft, “Experimenta nova. Untersuchungen zur Geschichte eines wissenschaftlichen Buches, I,” in Eberhard Schmauderer, ed., Buch and Wissenschaft, (Düsseldorf, 1969), XVII, 103–129, in the series Technikgeschichte in Einzeldarstellungen; and “Sphaera activitatis—orbis virtutis,” in Sudhoffs Archiv : Zeitschrift für Wissenschaftgeschichte, 54 (1970), 113–140.

Fritz Krafft

Guericke, Otto von (1602-1686)

views updated May 23 2018

Guericke, Otto von (1602-1686)

German politician and physicist

Otto von Guericke, born in Magdeburg, Germany, was a scientific showman during the seventeenth century. He studied mathematics, law, and engineering. Following travels to England and France, Guericke returned to Magdeburg in 1627 and became a politician. Unfortunately, this was during the Thirty Years' War; Guericke and his family had to flee the city in 1631. Following the war, he returned and helped rebuild the city, becoming mayor in 1646. Twenty years later he became a noble and added "von" to his name.

Otto von Guericke spent his leisure time dabbling in science, and he became involved in discussions surrounding the possibility of the existence of a vacuum. Most scientists were inclined to disavow that a vacuum could exist, primarily because of the teachings of Aristotle. Aristotle's theory was a masterpiece of reverse logic; he believed that if the air became less dense, an object would be able to move faster. If there was a vacuum, he erroneously added, an object could move with infinite speed, but because infinite speed was not possible, a vacuum was not possible either.

Unlike scientists who blindly accepted the ancient teachings, Guericke attempted to get a definite answer by experimentation. In 1650, he built the first air pump and proceeded to put on his production.

Guericke's first vacuum experiment was with a bell. Placing it in a vessel from which he had removed the air, thereby creating a vacuum, he showed that the bell could not be heard. This proved one of Aristotle's theories, which stated that sound would not travel through a vacuum. In addition, Guericke showed that lit candles would go out, and animals could not live in a vacuum.

For added drama, Guericke tied a rope to a piston in a cylinder and had fifty men pulling on it as he created a vacuum on the other side of the piston. The piston was drawn down into the cylinder in spite of the men trying to pull it the other direction.

For his next trick, in 1657, Guericke fitted two 12ft (3.6m) diameter metal hemispheres together, removed the air and created a vacuum that held the halves in place. Sixteen horses were unable to pull the hemispheres apart, yet when air was returned to the sphere, the halves fell apart. Emperor Ferdinand III, in the audience, was impressed. Guericke had placed the air valve in the bottom of his sphere because he was under the impression that air, like water , would seek the lowest level. He discovered that air could be removed no matter where the valve was located. Obviously the air was evenly distributed throughout the sphere. This led him to speculate that air decreased in density as one's altitude above the earth increased. He used this knowledge to build a water barometer in 1672, and used it to forecast the weather .

In addition to his experiments with the vacuum, Guericke built a device that created static electricity , similar to Robert Van de Graaff's (19011967) generator. A sphere of sulfur was rotated on a shaft. When it was rubbed, it built up a static charge that caused sizeable electric sparks to discharge. Guericke did not realize the electrical effect was a special phenomenon, but he was responsible for instigating a century of investigation by others.

Guericke also was interested in astronomy , suggesting that comets were members of the solar system and made regular returns as they orbited around the sun . Edmond Halley jumped on this idea and became famous when his observed comet returned precisely when he predicted. Guericke also believed that a magnetic force caused celestial objects to interact with each other across empty space . Isaac Newton would show that interaction did occur, but not because of magnetism .

After holding the position of mayor of Magdeburg for 35 years, Guericke retired. He died in Hamburg, Germany at the age of 83.

See also Atmospheric pressure; Electricity and magnetism; Gravity and the gravitational field

Otto Von Guericke

views updated May 29 2018

Otto Von Guericke

The German physicist Otto von Guericke (1602-1686), known for his invention of the vacuum pump, also investigated the properties of air and the atmosphere.

Otto von Guericke was born on Nov. 20, 1602, in Magdeburg (then in Prussian Saxony and now Germany). At the age of 15 he entered the University of Leipzig, where he studied jurisprudence, and continued his study of law at Jena and Helmstedt. In 1623 he went on to the University of Leiden, where he pursued mathematics, mechanics, and military engineering.

After traveling in France and England, Guericke returned to Magdeburg, where he married the daughter of a prominent local politician in 1626. He became active in politics and was elected to the city council in 1627. In 1631 the city was sacked and burned by the invading imperial armies; Guericke and his family barely escaped with their lives. Upon Magdeburg's liberation the following year Guericke returned as a military engineer and once again became actively involved in politics. He was reelected to the city council. In 1646 he became one of the four burgomasters of Magdeburg and served in that capacity for the next 35 years. He retired to Hamburg and there died on May 11, 1686.

Scientific Investigations

In spite of his active political life Guericke managed to pursue his scientific interests as well. He had become increasingly interested in the current debates concerning the possible existence of a vacuum and set out to experimentally investigate the problem. When he actually invented his vacuum pump is uncertain, though it was apparently about 1650. He had begun his experimental researches much earlier, and the instrument underwent a gradual evolution, having begun simply as a modified water pump. Attempting to create a vacuum by pumping out the contents of a sealed container, Guericke sealed a wooden barrel, filled it with water, and then, using a pump, withdrew the water, believing that as the water was removed from below, a vacuum would be produced above it. As the water was withdrawn, however, air could be heard rushing into the barrel through the pores in the wood.

After several failures and modifications Guericke succeeded in evacuating a large, specially constructed sphere made of metal and connected with carefully fitted parts to a pump. Utilizing his first vacuum pump Guericke was able to obtain fairly high vacuums in the metal spheres. His most dramatic demonstration of the effects of this vacuum took place before Emperor Ferdinand III and the assembled Reichstag in Regensburg in May 1654. Two bronze hemispheres—known ever since as the Magdeburg hemispheres—were carefully fitted edge to edge and evacuated. Two teams of eight horses each were attached to this globe, one to each side, but they were unable to separate the hemispheres. When the air was allowed to reenter, however, the two hemispheres fell apart of their own accord.

Guericke has traditionally been credited with important contributions to electricity and is generally cited as having constructed the first frictional electrical machine. This device consisted of a large globe of sulfur mounted on an axis in such a manner that it could be rotated rapidly. When Guericke rubbed the rotating globe with a dry hand, he observed the attraction and repulsion of feathers near it, as well as other effects which are today recognized as electrical in origin. It should be emphasized, however, that Guericke's sulfur globe was not devised to investigate the properties of electricity but to illustrate what he saw as certain innate virtues (such as attraction) which existed in all matter. Nowhere does he refer to the effects of his globe as electrical, and not until the following century was their electrical nature recognized.

Most of Guericke's researches were described and published for the first time in his New Magdeburg Experiments on Empty Space (1672), a Latin work devoted largely to cosmology. However, he had completed his researches much earlier, and his experiments with the vacuum pump were described in 1657 in an appendix to a work by Kaspar Schott, a professor of physics and mathematics at Würzburg.

Further Reading

There is no major work on Guericke in English and no English translation of the New Magdeburg Experiments. Information on Guericke is in Ernst Mach, The Science of Mechanics:A Critical and Historical Account of Its Development (trans. 1893; 5th ed. 1942), which includes a discussion of Guericke's experiments, and Lynn Thorndike, A History of Magic and Experimental Science, vols. 6 and 7 (1958). □

Otto von Gierke

views updated May 18 2018

Otto von Gierke

The German jurist Otto von Gierke (1841-1921) was a leader of the Germanistic school of legal historians and is best known for his theory of the nature and role of associations, called the Genossenschaft theory.

Otto von Gierke, born on Jan. 11, 1841, in Stettin, was the son of a Prussian official. He spent his early years in a family atmosphere that was highly respectable, cultured, and intensely Prussian. The latter part of his university training was at Berlin, where he was strongly influenced by George Beseler, a Germanist in juristic theory. Gierke's early career was interrupted by wartime service in the army. After holding professorships at the universities of Breslau (1872-1884) and Heidelberg (1884-1887), he succeeded to Beseler's chair at the University of Berlin in 1887. He remained in that post until his death on Oct. 10, 1921.

In Gierke's early years the dominant influence in German legal history and jurisprudence was that of the Romanists, led by Friedrich Karl von Savigny. Writers of this school looked back to the Justinian Code and to later students of Roman law for guidance in interpreting the development and meaning of German law. As an ardent Germanist, Gierke tried to seek out those legal principles that were "truly German." In the first of his famous four volumes on the German law of association (Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht, (1868-1913), he began his painstaking study of the development of the German concept of association. This study occupied much of the rest of his life. The massive research and perceptive analysis that went into the four volumes made the study an acknowledged classic in the literature of legal and political theory.

In his historical study Gierke found support for his conception of associations as having a real personality of their own, rather than a fictitious personality that is merely attributed to them by law. He argued that modern law, when it deals with such groups as joint-stock companies, trade unions, or churches, should recognize that such associations, like medieval guilds or local communes, organize themselves for their own purposes, have their own system of social law, and are capable of collective willing and acting. In the complex pattern of associations, which includes the state itself, the humblest and most narrow of them has some of the same dignity and value as the highest and most comprehensive.

Gierke's Germanism appeared also in a series of articles criticizing the first draft of a new civil law code for its neglect of Germanic principles, and in three books (1895-1917) on German civil law in which he undertook "to penetrate the new code with a Germanistic spirit."

The American philosopher Morris R. Cohen called Gierke "a sort of patron saint of political pluralists." The British legal historian Frederic Maitland did much to cultivate this view when he introduced Gierke to British academic circles in 1900 and emphasized Gierke's legal doctrine of the autonomous real personality of associations. But Gierke was definitely not a political pluralist. He never questioned the need for a sovereign state. The pluralistic elements of his theory were always balanced by the dominant role that he assigned to the state and its law. Nor was he an advocate of any sort of functional federalism for Germany. His devotion to Prussia and the monarchy and his concern for assured unity of the German people moved him steadily toward centralized authority and made him a vigorous critic of the Weimar Constitution of post-World War I Germany.

Further Reading

A section of Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht by Gierke was translated with an introduction by Frederic W. Maitland as Political Theories of the Middle Age (1900). Other sections were translated with an introduction by Sir Ernest Barker as Natural Law and the Theory of Society, 1500-1800 (2 vols., 1934). A study of Gierke, which includes translations of several portions of his books and articles, is John D. Lewis, The Genossenschaft-Theory of Otto von Gierke: A Study in Political Thought (1935). □

Otto von Guericke

views updated May 09 2018

Otto von Guericke


German Physicist

Otto von Guericke, a German aristocrat and politician, made important contributions to two of the liveliest areas of physical investigation in the seventeenth century. He is credited with the invention of the air pump, a device that facilitated the study of the phenomena of vacuums. Von Guericke also constructed one of the earliest machines to produce static electricity.

Von Guericke was born in Magdeburg, a prosperous city in central Germany, into a wealthy and politically influential family. He studied law, science, and engineering at the universities of Leipzig, Helmstedt, Jena, and Leiden. Upon the completion of his studies in 1625, Guericke returned to Magdeburg where he was made an alderman, the start of a long period of public service to his native city.

Catholic troops in the service of the Hapsburg emperor set siege to Lutheran Magdeburg in 1631. Magdeburg was decimated by the attack, and Guericke left there to work for the governments of Sweden and Saxony as an engineer. He worked on behalf of Magdeburg as he traveled, serving as a foreign envoy and representative for his city. Guericke became the mayor of Magdeburg in 1646.

Settled once again in his hometown, Guericke used his leisure time to perform some remarkable scientific investigations. Like many others in the mid-seventeenth century, Guericke was interested in the philosophical problem—posed by Aristotle (384-322 b.c.) but made newly fascinating by the work of René Descartes (1596-1650) and Evangelista Torricelli (1608-1647)—of whether a vacuum could exist in nature. While Torricelli had investigated the behavior of mercury in glass to determine if a vacuum might exist there, Guericke sought to construct a device that could remove the air from a hollow vessel to test Descartes' idea that a container from which all the air was removed would collapse.

Guericke's first pump did eventually succeed in imploding a copper vessel made of two hemispheres (known later as Magdeburg hemispheres), but problems he encountered left him even more curious about the phenomena of pressure. He continued to design better equipment for more and more dramatic experiments. Guericke's most famous demonstration used a well-sealed pair of copper hemispheres that, when evacuated, could not be pulled apart even by powerful workhorses. Once air was admitted to the spheres, however, they immediately came apart—a memorable illustration of the power of the vacuum. Guericke eventually showed that sound could not travel in a vacuum (although light could) and that neither combustion nor respiration could take place. Guericke took advantage of his political position to gain attention for his scientific work. He announced his invention of the air pump at the Imperial Diet in 1654, and his fellow delegates helped circulate word of Guericke's invention throughout Europe.

Guericke also investigated other areas of science. Related to his work on the vacuum were a series of experiments with barometers to study atmospheric pressure and meteorological conditions performed in 1660. A project that sought to simulate the magnetic properties of Earth by constructing a model of it out of sulphur led to another important, if unexpected, discovery. Guericke noticed that his model globe produced static electricity when rubbed, and he went on to make a primitive machine for the production of static electricity. This device fascinated onlookers as it attracted and repulsed feathers and other light objects. Christiaan Huygens (1629-1695), among others, was very interested in Guericke's sulphur globe, but they all had difficulty reproducing the effects Guericke had reported. Because of these difficulties—the sulfur globe requires very particular humidity conditions to perform—Guericke's discoveries had to be repeated in new contexts before their results were accepted as reliable electrical phenomena.

Von Guericke was made a nobleman in 1666. He retained his post as mayor of Magdeburg until 1676. He retired to Hamburg in 1681, and died there in 1686.


Otto von Guericke

views updated Jun 08 2018

Otto von Guericke


German physicist and engineer who invented the air pump, which he used to study how air was used in respiration and combustion. Guericke completed his university education with degrees in law, mathematics, and mechanics. In 1631, he was hired as an engineer in the army of Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden. From 1646-1681, he served as mayor of Magdeburg. In 1650, Guericke invented the air pump, which revealed that air travels through a vacuum, while sound does not. Through several experiments, he also discovered the force exerted by air pressure. In 1663 he invented the first electrical generating machine, creating static electricity by briskly rubbing a revolving ball of sulfur.