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Reichenbach, Karl (or Carl) Ludwig


(b. Stuttgart, Germany, 12 February 1788; d. Leipzig, Germany, 19 January 1869)

chemistry, speculative science.

Reichenbach, whose father was librarian and archivist to the town of Stuttgart, was educated at the Stuttgart Gymnasium and at the University of Tubingen. While a student, he was arrested by the Napoleonic authorities and imprisoned in the fortress of Hohenasperg. After his release he received his doctorate (1811) with a thesis on a hydrostatic bellows.

Reichenbach worked for a time as a minor civil servant, but marriage made him financially independent; and he spent the years 1816–1818 touring industrial facilities, especially ironworks, in Germany, Austria, and France. At Hausach, in the grand duchy of Baden, he built charcoal ovens of a new type that produced more solid charcoal in less time and allowed the volatile products to be collected. In 1821, in partnership with Count Hugo zu Salm of Vienna, Reichenbach set up a group of metallurgical factories at Blansko in Moravia. They prospered and enabled him to purchase several estates, as well as interests in steelworks and blast furnaces at Terniz, Lower Austria, and Gaya, Moravia.

Shortly before Salm’s death in 1836, he and Reichenbach had started a beet-sugar factory at Blansko, which soon ran into difficulties. Sato’s sons quarreled bitterly with Reichenbach over the management of this enterprise; and the latter, already depressed by the death of his wife, was forced to engage in a long and exhausting lawsuit while coping with the problems of the factory. He eventually won the lawsuit; but in 1839, after the king of Württemberg had raised him to the rank of Freiherr. he disposed of most of his industrial interests and retired to his castle at Reisenberg, near Vienna, with the intention of devoting his time entirely to science.

During the 1830’s Reichenbach published several papers on compounds isolated from the beechwood tar produced by his charcoal ovens. He gave them fanciful names of his own invention; the only ones to survive are creosote (a mixture of phenols) and paraffin (a mixture of solid aliphatic hydrocarbons). A deeply colored substance ’pittacal” (later shown to be a triphenylmethane derivative) was sold as a dye stuff, but had little success. His other chemical interest was the analysis of meteorites. This work led to differences with Wilhelm Haidinger, head of the mineralogical section of the Natural History Museum in Vienna, who published on the same subject. Refused access to the museum’s large collection of meteorites, Reichenbach retaliated by using his own resources to amass an equally important collection, which he later gave to the University of Tübingen.

About 1844 Reichenbach believed that he had discovered that certain “sensitive” people (mostly women) could detect physical stimuli, such as light, under conditions in which they were not detectable to the normal sense. From this time chemistry occupied second place in his interests. He initiated a long series of experiments which confirmed him in his beliefs, and Liebig was with difficulty persuaded to publish an account of them as a supplement to the Annalen der Chemie. Reichenbach was quite unaware of the elaborate precautions (to guard against suggestion, collusion, or minute sensory cues) which are now known to be essential if valid results are to be obtained from such experiments; his results undoubtedly were worthless, as most of his contemporaries suspected.

Reichenbach’s experiments, however, led him to speculate about a universal force permeating all nature, differing from such known forces as gravitation and electricity. He called this “Od” and attempted to use it to explain the most diverse effects. He claimed to be able to photograph objects in total darkness by means of the “odic light” that they supposedly emitted; his results are difficult to explain—even on the assumption of fraud—unless the photographed objects were feebly radioactive. In 1862 Reichenbach thought he had demonstrated this effect to the satisfaction of seven professors at the University of Berlin, but they issued a statement to the press denying that they had been convinced. Meanwhile he continued to publish a stream of books and pamphlets elaborating his theories and refuting his numerous detractors.

Much of the wealth that Reichenbach had amassed during his industrial days was lost in unwise investment; his mode of life at Reisenberg gradually became one of seclusion and reduced circumstances. Locally he was regarded as an eccentric, if not a madman. His last months were spent on a visit to Leipzig with his elderly housekeeper, the only “sensitive” he could now rely on, in a pathetic effort to convince the psychologist Gustav Fechner, whom he regarded as his most fair-minded opponent; he died there, at the age of almost eighty-one.


I. Original Works. Besides his numerous short papers (the majority in Poggendorff’s Annalen der Physik ) on tar constituents and on meteorites, Reichenbach published a geological survey of part of Moravia, Geologische Mittheilungen aus Mahren (Vienna, 1834). He also wrote a very uncritical account of his work on beech-tar, Das Kreosot, in chemischer, physischer und medicinicher Beziehung (Leizpig, 1833: 2nd enlarged ed., 1835).

His first studies of “sensitives,” Undersuchung uber den Magnetismus und damit verwandte Gegenestände, were published as a supp. to Liebig’s Annalen der Chemie, 53 (1845), separately paginated 1–270, as the result of unspecified (probably financial) pressure on Liebig. This supp. is not always to be found in bound series of the journal. Liebig, however, refused to publish the whole of the material, which finally appeared as Physikalisch-physiologische Untersuchungen über die Dynamide des Magnetismus …, 2vols. (Brunswick, 1850). Two rival English translations soon appeared: William Gregory, Researches on magnetism… (London-Edinburgh, 1850); and John Ashburner, Physico-physiological Researches … (London, 1851). Much of the same material was reworked into Der sensitive Mensch und sein Verhalten zum Ode, 2vols. (Stuttgart, 1854).

Four papers on the photographic experiments were accepted by Poggendorff for publication in the Annalen der Physik, although only one actually appeared: “Zur Intensität der Lichterscheinungen,” 112 (1861), 459.

The following is a list, probably incomplete, of Reichenbach’s minor books or pamphlets on the “odic force”: Odisch-magnetische Briefe (Stuttgart, 1852); Köhlerlauble und Afterweisheit (Vienna, 1855); Odische Erwiderungen (Vienna, 1856); Wer ist sensitive, wer nicht? (Vienna, 1856); Die Pflanzenwelt in ihren Beziehungen… (Vienna, 1858); Odische Begebenheiten (Berlin, 1862); Aphorisme über Sensitivitat und Od (Vienna, 1866); Die odische Lohe… (Vienna, 1867).

Mention should also be made of the curious affair of the supposed love letters between the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) and Caroline von Linsingen, which were found among Reichenbach’s effects after his death and published as Ungedruckte Briefe und Abhandlungen … (Leipzig, 1880). Seldom seriously considered genuine, these letters must have been composed as fiction either by Reichenbach himself or by one of the persons named in the document which he left, purporting to describe how the letters had come into his possession.

II. Secondary Literature. The fullest account of Reichenbach’s life and work is an anonymous obituary notice in Almanach der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, 19 (1869), 326–369. The author, who can be identified as Johann Hoffer, professor of physics at Vienna, drew both on his own knowledge of Reichenbach,, with copious extracts from their correspondence, and on biographical material supplied by the family. A slightly different version of the “family” material is printed in Württembergische naturwissenchaftliche Jahreshefte, 26 (1870),62–75, and forms the basis of Ladenburg’s entry in Allgemeine deutsche Biographie, XXVII, 670–671.

A very uncritical biography is prefaced (ix-1xxi) to an English version, by F.D.O’byrne, of Odish-magnetische Briefe,, Reichenbach’s Letters on Od and Magnetism (London, 1926). There is a more recent short article by Moritz Kohn in Journal of Chemical Education, 32 (1955), 188–189, with portrait on 170.

The declaration by the seven Berlin professors (C.G. Ehrenberg, Heinrich Magnus, Rose, Mitscherlich, Poggendorff, P.T. Riess, K.H. Shellbach) was published in Allgemeine Zeitung (4 June 1862). Gustav Fechner wrote an account of Reichenbach’s last months in Leipzig in Erinnerungen der letzten Tage der Odlehre und ihres Urhebers (Leipzig, 1876. Fechner was not unsympathetic; he was clearly puzzled by some of the demonstrations, and could detect no fraud.

W. V. Farrar

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