Ritter, Johann Wilhelm

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(b. Samitz, near Haynow [now Chojnów, Poland], Silesia, 16 December 1776; d. Munich, Germany, 23 January 1810)

chemistry, physics, physiology.

Ritter was the son of Johann Wilhelm Ritter, a Protestant pastor, and Juliana Friderica, née Decovius. After attending Latin school until the age of fourteen, he was sent to Liegnitz (now Legnica) by his father to serve as an apothecary’s apprentice. During the next five years, while learning and practicing the trade, he found ample opportunity to pursue his own studies from chemical texts and independent experiments, often to the neglect of his professional assignments. His yearning for more intellectual stimulation and independence was satisfied in 1795 by a modest inheritance. Thus, at the age of nineteen, Ritter entered the University of Jena in April 1796. Encouraged by Alexander von Humboldt, he soon began independent galvanism studies.

During the period 1797–1804, Ritter engaged in empirical research and writing, mainly on electrochemistry and electrophysiology. In these years he attained recognition and respect throughout Europe. In 1801 the duke of Gotha and Altenburg, Ernst II, appointed him to his court in Gotha, where Ritter lived in early 1802; and in that year he carried out electrical experiments on a grand scale. During the winter semester of 1803–1804, he lectured on galvanism at the University of Jena. A disagreement, however, with university officials about the nature of his future appointment disrupted further association with that institution. Subsequently Ritter sought a new position, and in November 1804 he was called to serve as a full member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in Munich. He moved to the new location the following spring with his young wife and daughter. In June 1804 he had married Johanna Dorothea Munchgesang, with whom he had previously lived for some time; they had three more children in Munich.

Severe financial stress, heavy domestic responsebilities, and family illnesses, as well as disagreements with professional contemporaries, characterized the period in Bavaria from 1805 to 1810. Nevertheless Ritter continued to conduct a full program of research, although an increasing amount of his writing had philosophical overtones. The influence and reliability of his later empirical works were marred by a growing suspicion within the larger scientific community that Ritter’s conclusions and even facts were affected adversely by the Naturphilosophie then in vogue in several German intellectual centers, including Munich. Embittered, deeply in debt, and drawing solace only from his family and a few friends, Ritter died shortly after his thirty-third birthday from a pulmonary disease incurred in his impetuous, unregulated life style.

During his thirteen-year career of active research, Ritter wrote five scientific works (some multivolume) and two philosophical treatments of his views on science. These represent a total of thirteen separate volumes. In addition, he published some twenty journal articles not collected in the above volumes. Despite this prodigious outpouring, little knowledge of Ritter was to be found, particularly outside of Germany, even in the next generation. Many of his unique discoveries in electrophysiology and electrochemistry were of little influence; more often than not, they were independently rediscovered later by other men. To understand the lack of Ritter’s lasting influence, one must recognize something of his particular philosophical view of nature and its origin. Such a background also provides a basis for appreciating the wide and apparently disparate range of Ritter’s research interests.

The intellectual climate at Jena provided young Ritter with a receptive sounding board for his discoveries and speculations. In turn the philosophical views of Romanticism and Naturphilosophie prevalent in Jena reinforced Ritter in many of his own ideas about nature. One of the chief notions, widely held at the time, notably by Schelling, Goethe, Herber, and other Romantic writers whom he knew, was that of a basic unity in nature. The universe as a whole was believed to possess a world-soul and all natural processes within it were thought to be interrelated and interdependent. A second general principle was that of polarity. Examples of natural contrasting polarities abounded—frictional electricity (+ and –), magnets (N and S), decomposition of water (H2 and O2), and the composition of air (O2 and N2).

Contrary to the deductive-speculative system of Naturphilosaphie propounded by Schelling, with whom Ritter broke off association in 1799 because of a priority quarrel, Ritter was a firm advocate of the empirical approach in studying nature. Nonetheless, when he speculated about the interpretation of observed facts, as he often did in his papers, Ritter customarily referred to a conceptual framework of unity and polarity in nature.

In his first paper, read to a Jena natural history society in 1797 (although not published until 1806), Ritter argued for unity between organic and inorganic realms. His basis was galvanic studies of muscle contraction when a cell of two dissimilar metals is used to excite a muscle. In further researches he pursued both the chemical processes and the physiological responses aroused by the galvanic cell, but he always held to a clear recognition that a single principle was involved. Following the chemical approach, he used the cell in 1799 to produce electrolysis of water and thus demonstrated the identity between frictional electricity and the galvanicfluid. The production of electricity simultaneously with chemical phenomena, in itself showing interrelatedness, led Ritter to experiment with polarization in the cell. He built the first dry cell in 1802 and a secondary charging battery, or accumulator, in 1803. In various publications from 1800 to 1806 Ritter announced detailed investigations on the electrical potential series corresponding to affinity tables, the electrical conductibilities of metals, the generation of thermal currents, and the dependency of resistance on dimensions.

Besides these inorganic investigations, Ritter continued to seek results from the electrical excitation of muscle and sensory organs. In his attempt to reconcile the opposing voltaic and galvanic views of galvanism, Ritter used his concept of the “galvanic chain,” or cells within the organic body, to explain such discoveries as “creeping in” at low currents to desensitize muscles, the diminished sensitivity of nerve responses when various chemicals are used, and the electrophysiology of plants (electronastism). Much of the success of Ritter in his studies of the excitability of sensory perception by electrical impulses was due to his use of his own body, even at very high voltages.

Ritter was motivated to extend his investigations to other areas of nature largely because of his philosophical views. These efforts met with mixed success. In one case the electrical polarity of the voltaic cell suggested to him, in analogy with a bar magnet, that the cell might be magnetized. He announced in 1801 (without subsequent confirmation by his peers) that a two-part needle of zinc and silver always oriented itself like a compass needle in space. A second case arose from Herschel’s discovery in 1800 that invisible thermal rays are delectable beyond the red end of a prismatic spectrum. Ritter immediately hypothesized a possible polarity in the spectrum and looked for invisible radiation beyond the violet end. Using paper soaked with silver chloride in the spectral region, as Scheele had done earlier, he succeeded in 1801 in finding the greatest amount of blackening (reduction to silver) just beyond the visible violet. He called this effect a polarity between “deoxydizing rays” near the violet and “oxydizing rays” near the red, thus drawing an analogy to electrolysis produced by the voltaic cell.

Under the influence of the Munich mystic F. von Baader, and also along the lines of his own predispositions, Ritter spent much time from. 1806 to 1809 investigating occult practices like water divining, metal witching, and sword swinging. Imagining that there exists a subterranean electricity analogous to geomagnetism, Ritter believed that he had successfully uncovered a general principle governing the interdependencies of inorganic nature and human phenomena. He gave the general name of siderism to this subject and before his death edited the first and only issue of a newly founded periodical by that title. Except for a small circle of colleagues, scientists in general were skeptical of the authenticity of the research. A posthumous note in the Annales de chemie in 1810 asserted that Ritter himself repudiated his belief in siderism just before his death.

Ritter’s philosophical views were communicated to only a few scientists who were intimate friends, including Oersted and G. H. Schubert. The reception of his scientific work was damaged by his abtruse style, his tendency to mix philosophical implications with scientific observations, and a frequent delay of several years between a cryptic first announcement in some journal and the detailed account in a privately published collection.


I. Original Works. Ritter’s scientific style and philosophical views first appeared in Beweis, dass ein beständiger Galvanismus den Lebensprocess in dem thierreich begleite (Weimar, 1798). He also edited a series of collected articles, mostly written by himself, on the subject of galvanism: Beiträge zur nähern Kenntniss des Galvanismus unci tier Resultate seiner Untersuchung, 2 vols. (Jena, 1800–1805); Further electrical experiments primarily on inorganic bodies are described in great detail in Das Elektrische System der Korper, ein Versuch (Leipzig, 1805).

Ritter’s notes, articles, and letters, along with various unpublished papers and letters, were published in Physischchemische Abhandlungen in chronologischer Ordung, 3 vols. (Leipzig, 1806). Of particular historical interest are Ritter’s hitherto unpublished first paper on galvanism addressed to the Naturforschende Gesellschaft zu Jena in Oct. 1797 (vol. I); his paper on his thought process in the discovery of untraviolet radiation delivered to the same of his 1803–1804 lectures on galvanism given at Jena (vol. III). In all, 36 separate papers and letters are printed. His address at the founding ceremony of the Royal Bavarian Academy of Sciences was published as Die Physik als Kunst, ein Versuch die Tendenz der Physik aus ihrer Geschichte zu deuten (Munich, 1806; repr. Berlin, 1940).

Ritter founded the journal Der Siderismus, Neue Beiträge zur nähern Kenntnis des Galvanismus; only one volume appeared (1808). He also collected a series of aphorisms concerning his views on life and science in Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers; Ein Taschenbuch für Freunde der Natur, 2 vols. (Heidelberg, 1810).

The Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, V, 217–219, lists some twenty other journal articles.

II. Secondary Literature. Although Ritter has not received a full-length biographical treatment, various aspects of his scientific influence and work have been repeatedly analyzed since the mid-nineteenth century. In an influential work R. Haym, Die Romantische Schule (Berlin, 1870), 612–619, discredited the scientific merit of Ritter’s research, even though E. Du Bois-Reymond, Untersuchungen über die tierische Elektrizität, II (Berlin, 1849), 320 ff., had assessed clearly the empirical value of Ritter’s work in electrophysiology. More recently, D. Huffmeier, “Johann Wilhelm Ritter. Naturforscher oder Naturphilosoph ?” in Sudhoffs Archiv für Geschichte der Medizin und der Naturwissenschaften, 45 (1961), 225–234 has reinforced the latter view.

The scientific authenticity of Ritter’s research on electrochemistry has been established by W. Ostwald, Abhandlungen and Vorträge, (Leipzig, 1904), 359–383; and H. Schimank, “Johann Wilhelm Ritter; Der Begründer der wissenschaftlichen Elecktrochemie,” in Abhandlungen und Berichte des Deutschen Museums, 5 (1933), 175–203. C. von Klinckowstroem explored in detail the nature of Ritter’s association with the Jena circle: “Goethe und Ritter; mit Ritters Briefe an Goethe,” in Jahrbuch der Goethe Gesellschaft, 8 (1921), 135–151; “Drei Briefe von Johann W. Ritter,” in Der grundgescheute Antiquarius, 1 (1921), 120–130; “Johann Wilhelm Ritter and der Electromagnetismus,” in Archiv für die Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften und der Technik, 9 (1922), 68–85.

Three recent collections of writings by Ritter, with extensive historical commentary, provide the best historical material available: F. Klemm and A. Hermann, eds., Briefe Eines Romantischen Physikers; Johann Wilhem Ritter an Gotthilf Heinrich Schubert und an Karl von Hardenberg (Munich, 1966), contains not only an informative set of 8 hitherto unpublished letters with commentary but also an excellent bibliography of secondary works about Ritter; K. Poppe, ed., Johann Wilhelm Ritter: Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers (Stuttgart, 1968); and A. Hermann, ed., “Begründung der Elektrochemie und Entdeckung der ultravioletten Strahlen von Johann Wilhelm Ritter; eine Auswahl aus den Schriften des romantischen Physikers,” in Ostwalds Klassiker der exakten Wissenschaften, n.s. 2 (1968), provides an excellent introduction, commentary, and bibliography of primary source material.

The archives of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, Munich, contain much of Ritter’s personal notes and library. The Deutsches Museum, Munich, has a collection of experimental apparatus used by Ritter.

Robert J. McRae