Raspe, Rudolf Erich

views updated


(b. Hannover. Germany, 1737; d. Muckross, Ireland, 1794)

literature, geology.

Raspe was the son of an accountant in the department of mines and forests in Hannover. His interest in geology began early when he came in contact, in the Harz, with some of the oldest mining communities of Europe. But at age eighteen, he was studying law at Göttingen in order to qualify for a position in the bureaucracy. A year later Raspe left Göttingen for Leipzig where his interests ranged from science to literature. Following a three-year stay in Leipzig, he took a master’s degree at Göttingen: and in 1760 he became a clerk in the Royal Library of Hannover, where he remained until 1767.

The impact of the great Lisbon earthquake of 1 November 1755 sent Raspe in search of an explanation for this catastrophic event. In the library he “discovered” the almost completely forgotten “Lectures and Discourses of Earthquakes and Subterraneous Eruptions” of Hooke, written in 1668 and published posthumously in 1705.

Instantly Raspe became convinced that Hooke’s system was the best explanation for volcanoes and earthquakes and also for the origin of islands and continents in general. Thus he decided to write a theory of the earth that would defend Hooke’s ideas and also present historically proven data on new islands and mountains. These documents were supposed to demonstrate that nonvolcanic islands and continents together with their fossiliferous beds could be explained, as Hooke maintained, by the uplifting of the sea bottom that resulted from the forces of earthquakes and subterranean fires. This theory of the earth, entitled Specimen Historiae Naruralis Globi Terraquei . . ., was printed in 1763 and met with great success. Raspe, in spite of his lack of formal geological training, had been able to discuss cleverly the major geological issues of his time and even to present some original theoretical ideas in structural geology. He ended his book with a plea to naturalists to investigate the islands that rose in 1707 in the Grecian Archipelago and in 1720 in the Azores.

As suggested by its title, the Specimen was presented as the introductory part of a supposedly complete system of the earth that Raspe was preparing. He dreamed of this major work for his entire life and repeatedly stated its impending completion, modifying its emphasis, in his typical opportunistic fashion, according to his everchanging needs. This great work was never published, and apparently never written. An analysis of Raspes later writings shows that he actually considered the Specimen as a completed system, having realized his own limitations. Indeed, he had successfully taken advantage of Hooke’s system and of the current popular interest in earthquakes and could not possibly have proceeded scientifically any further.

His Specimen was pompously dedicated to the Royal Society of London. Raspe thus hoped that the society would subsidize an expedition under his direction to newly born islands to prove Hooke’s theory. This hope was not realized, but the Specimen eventually led to Raspe’s election as a fellow in 1769.

Had his complete theory of the earth been more than a dream, Raspe would have continued his geological activity. Instead, having discovered in the library several of Leibniz’ unpublished manuscripts, in 1765 he undertook their publication. This work ’as also received with great enthusiasm and had a strong influence on Kant. Meanwhile Raspe had written a poetic comedy (or Lustspiel), Die Verlohrene Bäuerin, followed by Hermin und Gunilde, eine Geschichte aus den Ritterzeiten, the first German ballad of high romance.

By 1767 Raspe had obtained success in the unusual combination of fields of science, philosophy, and literature. He was also corresponding with some of the outstanding men of his age, including Franklin. In the same year (I 767) he accepted the curatorship of the collections owned by the Landgrave of Hesse Kassel, the chair of antiquity at the Collegium Carolinum in Kassel, and a seat on the Hessian Privy Council. His academic post brought him a rather high salary, which temporarily eased his chronic financial difficulties. It coincided with a renewal of his interest in geology, particularly in the origin of basalt. Indeed, Raspe was among the few who read Desmarest’s first written statement (1768) demonstrating the volcanic origin of columnar basalt in Auvergne. Raspe immediately understood the significance of the numerous occurrences of basalt around Kassel, which until that time had defied interpretation. On 24 October 1769 he wrote a paper entitled “Nachricht von einigen niederhessischen Basalten…” (published in 1771) in which he described the basalt occurrences in the vicinity of Kassel and interpreted the Habichtswald as the remains of an ancient volcano in which massive basalt could be seen overlying prismatic basalt.

Goethe considered this work epochal because it introduced in Germany the volcanic origin of basalt. On 31 October of the same year Raspe wrote an important letter to Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples and a keen observer of many eruptions of Vesuvius, asking him if any of the cooled lava flows of that volcano displayed structures similar to prismatic basalt. Hamilton answered that they did not, and Raspe hastily concluded that Desmarest’s example of Auvergne was a unique and accidental occurrence from which generalizations could not be drawn. Indeed, Raspe felt that since the subaerial lava flows of both Vesuvius and Etna did not show any prismatic structure, columnar basalt (although volcanic) could not represent subaerial flows as interpreted by Desmarest.

Two years of fieldwork (1767–1769) had convinced Raspe that he could demonstrate, in the vicinity of Kassel, that the outcrops of prismatic basalt, such as those of the lower part of the Habichtswald, were always located below what he considered an ancient sea level; while those of massive basalt (for example, at the top of the Habichtswald) were located above that level. He concluded that prismatic basalt represented rapidly cooled submarine lava flows and that massive basalt represented slowly cooled subaerial flows. This erroneous interpretation, which Raspe later called his “bold hypothesis,” was published in the fall of 1774 in his Beytrag zur allerältesten und natürlichen Historie von Hessen . . ..

This volume appeared just before Raspe, newly married, was accused of having pawned for several years medals and coins from the landgrave’s collection in order to pay his creditors. The uncovering of the scandal led to Rasp’s arrest. He soon escaped. By mid-April 1775 he had left Germany forever, going first to Holland and then to Great Britain, while his wife and two children took refuge in Berlin pending a divorce. The Royal Society of London expelled him in December 1775.

A fugitive, Raspe managed to survive and maintain his self-respect. His resourcefulness may even deserve admiration. He submitted to Lockyer Davis, the printer for the Royal Society, a proposal to give British scientists the benefit of new German works in geology in a series of annotated translations. The project was accepted and provided Raspe with a modest income. The first volume of the series, a new-version of Raspe’s own natural history of Hesse, appeared as An Account of Some German Volcanoes and Their Productions With a Sew Hypothesis of the Prismatical Basaltes Established Upon Facts ... (1776). This work is of great interest when compared with the Specimen because it shows Raspe’s conviction that he had not only found the physical evidence of the volcanoes postulated by Hooke for the uplifting of the sea bottom but also the prismatic basalts of their submarine eruptions. Although he still recommended investigating the newly born islands of the Grecian Archipelago, this time it was not to prove his idea, expressed in the Specimen, that they consisted of fossiliferous beds, but to demonstrate that they were of volcanic origin. Having postulated his own original concept, Raspe was no longer interested in defending Hooke’s ideas. He sought to establish a new reputation in England, where he planned to stay and publicize his new theory of the origin of prismatic basalt in a country where the controversial origin of that rock had not as yet generated much interest.

Raspe’s first translation was well received and his style praised. He next translated the Swedish geologist Johann Jacob Ferbers letters to Baron Inigo von Born, written during Ferbefs travels through Italy in 1771 and 1772. This translation became important in the history of geology because it introduced Arduino’s classification of Primary, Secondary, Tertiary, and Volcanic rocks to English-speaking naturalists. Raspe wrote a long preface in which, thirteen years after the publication of the Specimen, he again described an improved edition of his theory of the earth, allegedly being prepared for publication. This new version, which he called his “System of the Earth” and his “Natural History of the Earth.” would emphasize volcanism as one of the most important geological processes. According to Raspes extravagant ideas, volcanoes were responsible not only for the formation of islands and continents but also for the deposition of fossiiiferous shales and limestones—interpreted as subaqueous volcanic productions—and even for the salty character of seawater.

Toward the end of 1776 Raspe began to realize that only mining and prospecting rather than translating scientific works would allow his financial survival. Thus the lengthy preface to his translation of Born’s travels through the Banat of Timisoara, Transylvania, and Hungary (1777) contains an interesting discussion of the history of mining since antiquity, as well as a detailed presentation of the theoretical and practical aspects of mineralogy and mining at the end of the eighteenth century. The last mention of his elusive dream occurs in the preface as a discussion of a new-version of the Specimen, now called “System of the Earth and Mountains.“It was supposed to emphasize the origin of mountains and metallic veins; to present a general discussion of mining; and to advance a new system of mineralogy for miners, one combining geology, chemistry, and metallurgy.

The last eighteen years of Raspe’s life, although eventful, were a period of scientific decline. He was still occasionally admitted to the best circles of London society, mainly under the sponsorship of Horace Walpole, who encouraged him to write an essay on oil painting (1781). He also became acquainted with Matthew Boulton. The latter realized that Raspe’s technical knowledge could be useful in his expanding tin mines of North Cornwall and consequently offered him the post of assay-master at the Dolcoath mine; he held this post from 1783 to 1786. Raspe was also an industrial spy and in many other ways actively served Boulton’s interests. It was apparently during this period that Raspe wrote Baron Münchausen s Narrative of His Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, his most famous work, which however brought him little remuneration. It was published anonymously in 1786. He wanted to be remembered for his serious work, and thought fiction unworthy of a scholar.

In 1787, when the mining industry in Cornwall deteriorated, Raspe moved to Edinburgh, where Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, who was greatly interested in mineralogy, introduced him to high society, which included James Hutton and Joseph Black.

Between I789 and 1792 the Highland Society of Scotland and a number of English patrons hired Raspe to undertake a mineralogical survey of the Highlands. Although he hinted that he had found quicksilver deposits, no commercial ores were ever discovered. During this period Raspe published (1791) an impressive catalog of the 15,833 ancient and modern gems from famous collections throughout Europe, of which his friend James Tassie had produced replicas. He also wrote his last major work, a translation of Baron Boris’s treatise on amalgamation of gold and silver ores. Yet Raspe remained penniless; and in 1793 he transferred his prospecting to Ireland, where, at the copper mine of Muckross, in a remote part of Kerry, he died of scarlet fever.


I. Original Works. Raspc’s writings include Specimen Historiae Naturalis Ghhi Terraquei, praecipue de novis e mart nan’s insults, et ex his exactius descriptis ct obscrvatis ulferius confirmanda Hook tana telluris hypothesi, de origine montium et corporum petrefactorum (Amsterdam-Leipzig, 1763), trans, by Audrey N. Iversen and Albert V. Carozzi as An Introduction to the Natural History of the Terrestrial Sphere… (New York, 1970); Die Verlohrene Bäuerin, ein Lustspiel in einem Aufzuge, auf das Geburtsfest der Königin Sophia Charlotta von Grossbritt. auf dem deutschen Theater der Ackermannische Gesellschaft...vorgestellt (Hannover, 1764), published anonymously; Oeuvres philo-sophiques latines et françoises du feu Mr. de Leibniz, tirées de ses manuscrits qui se conservent dans la Bibliothèque Royale à Hanovre et publiées par Mr. Rud. Eric Raspe, Avec une Préface de Mr. Kaestner… (Amsterdam-Leipzig, 1765); and Hermin und Gunilde, eine Geschichte aus den Ritterzeiten, die sich zwischen Adelepsen und Usslar am Schäferberg zugetragen, nebst einem Vorbericht über die Ritterzeiten in einer Allegorie (Leipzig, 1766).

Subsequent works are “Nachricht von einigen nieder-hessischen Basalten, besonders aber einem Säulen-basaltstein Gebürge bei Felsberg und den Spuren eines verlöschten brennenden Berges am Habichtswalde über Weissenstein nahe bei Cassel,” in Deutschen Schriften der Kgl. Societät der Wissenschaften in Göttingen, 1 (1771), 72-83; “Anhang eines Schreibens an den Königl. Grosbritt. Gesandten Herrn William Hamilton, zu Neapolis,” ibid., 84–89; Beytrag zur allerältesten und natürlichen Historie von Hessen oder Beschreibung des Habichswaldes und verschiedner andern Niederhessischen alten Vulcanein der Nachbarschaft von Cassel (Kassel, 1774); and An Account of Some German Volcanos and Their Productions With a New Hypothesis of the Prismatical Basaltes Established Upon Facts; Being an Essay of Physical Geography for Philosophers and Miners, Published as Supplementary to Sir William Hamilton’s Observations on the Italian Volcanos (London, 1776).

Raspe’s trans, are Travels Through Italy in the Years 1771 and 1772 Described in a Series of Letters to Baron Born on the Natural History, Particularly of the Mountains and Vokanos of Thai Country, by John James Ferber (London, 1776), from the German; and Travels Through the Bannat of Temeswar, Transylvania and Hungary in the Year 1770; Described in a Series of Letters to Professor Ferber, on the Mines and Mountains of These Different Countries by Baron Inigo Born; to Which Is Added John James Ferber Minerabgical History of Bohemia (London, 1777).

See also A Critical Essay on Oil Painting, Proving That the Art of Painting in Oil Was Known Before the Pretended Discovery of John and Hubert van Eyck; to Which Are Added Theophitus de Arte Pingendi, Eraclius de Artibus Romanorum, and a Review of Farinator’s Lumen Animae (London, 1781); Baron Münchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia (Oxford, 1786), published anonymously, with a recent ed. by John Carswell, Singular Travels, Campaigns and Adventures of Baron Münchausen (London, 1948); A Descriptive Catalogue of a General Collection of Ancient and Modern Engraved Gems… Taken From the Most Celebrated Cabinets in Europe and Cast… by J. Tassie… Arranged unci Described by R. E. Raspe… to Which Is Prefixed an Introduction on the… Use of the Collection, the Origin of the Art of Engraving on Hard Stones, and the Progress of Pastes 2 vols. (London, 1791); and Baron Inigo Bom’s New Process of Amalgamation of Gold and Silver Ores, and Other Metallic Mixtures… From the Baron’s Own Account in German; to Which Are Added, a Supplement on a Comparative View of the Former Method of Melting and Refining; and an Address to the Subscribers, Giving an Account of Its Latest Improvements, and of the Quicksilver Trade (London, 1791).

II. Secondary Literature. On Raspe and his work, see J. Carswell, The Prospector, Being the Life and Times of Rudolf Erich Raspe (1737–1794) (London, 1950), with complete bibliography; R. Hallo, Rudolf Erich Raspe, ein Wegbereiter von deutscher Art und Kunst, Gottinger Forschungen no. 5 (Stuttgart-Berlin, 1934); and Thomas Seecombe’s notice in Dictionary of National Biography, XVI, 744–746.

Albert V. Carozzi

About this article

Raspe, Rudolf Erich

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article