Reichenbach, Georg Friedrich Von

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(b Durlach [now part of Karlsruhe], Germany, 24 August 1771: d. Munich, Germany, 21 May 1826) instrument making, mechanical engineering.

Reichenbach was probably the greatest of the generation of engineers who initiated the industrialization of Germany. An original and versatile inventor, he contributed to many areas of technology and permanently shaped the design of scientific instruments and the construction of large hydraulic machinery.

Reichenbach grew up in Mannheim. His father, Johann Christoph Reichenbach, was a distinguished cannon borer and military engineer in the service of the elector palatine, who was later king of Bavaria; his mother was Helene Pfetsch. His education began in public school and in his father’s workshop. From 1786 to 1790 Reichenbach attended the new School of Army Engineers at Mannheim, where he received a sound introduction into science. His free time was spent at the elector’s observatory, where he learned a good deal of practical astronomy and perfected his skill in instrument making. After his graduation the elector, on Count Rumford’s recommendation, sent young Reichenbach to England to study modern engineering (1791–1793). He met Matthew Boulton, Watt, and Ramsden; made secret sketches of Watt’s latest engine; and supervised the construction of some large blast-furnace machinery. Upon his return Reichenbach was commissioned an engineering officer in the Bavarian army. In this function he improved ordnance design, installed cannon-boring facilities and musket factories, invented a rilled cannon, and occasionally served as assistant to Rumford. These duties did not prevent him, however, from engaging in a variety of other activities as well.

Reichenbach had recognized an acute demand for scientific instruments of high quality. Even the best German instruments, those of G. F. Brander and C. C. Höschel, were decidedly inferior to English-built ones. Since the precision of astronomical and geodetic instruments depended upon the exactness with which their scales were graduated, Reichenbach set out to invent a dividing machine that would be superior to the best existing one, that of Jesse Ramsden. Having succeeded in making that crucial invention (1800), he and a partner established a small instrument shop in Munich, which in 1804 was expanded into the Mathematisch-Meehanisches Institut von Reichenbach, Utzschneider, und Liebherr; the third partner, Joseph von Utzschneider, was a prominent Bavarian statesman and entrepRenéur. Here Reichenbach built astronomical and surveying instruments that rapidly became famous for their precision and mechanical perfection, and were coveted and praised by such astronomers as Bessch Gauss, and Laplace. Aware of the limitations of their optical systems, Utzschneider and Reichenbach searched for a competent optician; in 1806 they found young Joseph Fraunhofer. In 1809 Utzschneider, Reichenbach, and Fraunhofer founded a separate “optical institute” which was to supplement the older mechanical institute. Reichenbach and Fraunhofer’s collaboration resulted in the design of astronomical instruments of unprecedented power and precision which, in turn, led to spectacular advances in observational astronomy. The two institutes also assumed the role of a national training center for instrument makers; the excellence of German scientific instruments in the nineteenth century is thus directly related to Reichenbach’s initiative.

Reichenbach always had more than one project in hand at a time. While he was still building his most remarkable telescopes, he embarked on a venture that promised to fulfill an old ambition: the construction of large power machinery. In 1806 the Bavarian state, in order to increase the revenue from its saltworks, had decided to build a 108-kilometer pipeline to conduct brine from its Alpine origins to regions where fuel was more abundant. For the first stage of the project (the line from Bad Reichenhall to Traunstein) Reichen-bach’s institute had to build four water-powered pumping stations. Reichenbach solved the problem with “water pressure engines” (reciprocating piston engines similar to steam engines) of new design which were running smoothly in 1808, a year after he had received the order. In 1810 he completed the continuation of the line to Rosenheim. His crowning achievement was the third and final stage of the project, the line from Berehlesgaden to Bad Reichenhall. One of the two machines employed here had to overcome, in a single stage, a rise of over 1,200 feet. This machine, at the time considered the largest in the world, remained in continuous service from 1817 to 1958. Rcichenbach had designed his water-pressure engines on the basis of mathematical calculation. During their construction, which presented some unfamiliar problems, he improvised various new machining and iron-casting techniques.

In 1811 Reichenbach resigned from the Bavarian army with the rank of captain and was appointed Salinenrat (councillor of saltworks). In 1814 he dissolved his association with Utzschneider and Fraunhofer and formed another partnership. In 1820 Reichenbach left instrument making entirely, to become director of the Bavarian Central Bureau of Highways and Bridges. In this capacity he was engaged in the construction of high-pressure steam engines, cast-iron bridges, city water supplies, and gas lighting systems, and in the establishment of a polytechnical institute; most of these projects were interrupted by his death.

Reiehenbach’s contributions were fully recognized during his lifetime. He was knighted, received numerous medals, and was elected to the Academy of Sciences of Paris and also to that of Munich.


I. Original Works. Reichenbach’s few published writings are cataloged by Dyck (see below). His papers, as well as most of his surviving machines and instruments, are in the Deutsches Museum, Munich.

II. Secondary Literature. Walther von Dyck, Georg von Reichenbach (Munich, 1912), is a definitive scientific biography with exhaustive documentation. In some biographical details it is supplemented in Ernst Kohler. Georg von Reichenbach: Das Leben eines dcutschen Erfunders (Munich, 1933).

Otto Mayr

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Reichenbach, Georg Friedrich Von

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