Krōnig, August Karl

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Krōnig, August Karl

(b. Schildesche, Westphalia, Germany, 20 September 1822; d. Berlin, Germany, 5 June 1879)


Remarkably little is known about Krönig, who is commonly recognized as the orginator of the kinetic theory of gases. The sixth of the seven children of a country pastor, he entered the University of Bonn in 1839. He chose to study the physical sciences only after transferring to Berlin where he completed his doctoral dissertation (De acidi chromici salibus crystallinus) in 1845. One of the fifty-three original members gathered by Gustav Magnus to form the Berlin Physikalische Gesellschaft in 1845, Krönig served as secretary in 1848. He edited the three-volume Journal für Physik und physikalische Chemie des Auslandes, which appeared in 1851 and introduced significant foreign scientific work in German translation. He also was editor of the annual literature survey, Die Fortschritte der Physik, between 1855 and 1859. declining health caused him to relinquish the editorship and led to his early retirement in 1861 from his position as professor at the Berlin Königliche Realschule. Krönig soon became a forgotten man, and only a brief obituary notice by his wife and son in Die National-Zeitung marked his passing.

Krönig was not a significant figure in the Berlin scientific community. His books, Neue Methode zur Vermeidung and Auffindung von Rechenfehlern (1855) and Die Chemie bearbeitet als Bildungsmittel, were elementary treatises addressed to students and the general reader. The former presented techniques for testing the accuracy of various calculations, using the numbers 9, 11, 37, and 101; the latter was an overly simplified and somewhat unorthodox version of chemistry which became the target for polemical reviews, Apart from the well-known “Grundzüge einer Theorie der gase” (1856), his first paper, none of his papers was of great import. Most of them appeared in 1864—some being only a few pages in length—and ranged over a variety of topics from how to locate the position of real images using a pinpoint to the explanation of the Davy safety lamp in terms of radiation rather than conduction of heat by the metal screen.

In the absence of any other significant theoretical work, the paper on the kinetic theory of gases seems strangely anomalous. His approach was an exceedingly simple one; he assumed that atoms move unhindered between the walls of a container, with exactly one-third of them moving in each of the three Cartesian coordinate directions. From this minimal model, however, he reached a number of significant conclusions. After first demonstrating the usual relations for ideal gas behavior, Krönig went on to establish the proposition that different gases should contain equal numbers of atoms in equal volumes at the same temperature and pressure. He also suggested that lighter gases should diffuse more rapidly, if temperature is a measure of molecular vis viva and explained why gases are warmed by compression—the moving piston imparts additional velocity to the rebounding atoms.

It is likely that Krönig’s theory was not altogether original with him. During his years as editor of Die Fortschrit te der Physik, an abstract of Waterston’s ideas came under review in which every one of these conclusions was succinctly stated, and Krönig may well have inadvertently received the general guidelines of his theory from reading that brief résumé.

Crippled by blindness and paralysis during his last years, Krönig published in 18974 a collection of theological and philosophical fragments written over the years, Das Dasein Gottes und das Glück der Menschen. While recognizing that the teleological behavior of organic nature suggests a personal God of incomparable intelligence, Krönig could noit accept the Christian image of God. He posited a God who structured the universe intelligently but was little involved in what ensued. The world, he said, would have toi be somewhat different were God omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.


The only complete biographical source is Grete Ronge, “Biographische Notizen zu Augustg Karl Krönig,” in Gesnerus, 18 (1961), 67–70; see also Poggendorff, I, 1320–1321, and II, 752.

On the roles of Waterston, Krönig, and Clausius in the development of the kinetic theory of gase, see Stephen Brush, “The Development of the Kinetic Theory of Gases, II. Waterston,” in Annals of Science, 13 (1957), 273–282; “III. Clausius,” ibid., 14 (1958), 185–196; E. E. Daub, “Waterston’s Influence on Krönig’s Kinetic Theory of Gases,” in Isis, 62 (1971), 512–515; Grete Ronge, “Zur Geschichte der kinetischen Wärmetheorie,” in Gesnerus, 18 (1961), 45–67.

Edward E. Daub