Reichenbach, Baron Karl von (1788-1869)

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Reichenbach, Baron Karl von (1788-1869)

Nineteenth-century German chemist, expert on meteorites, and discoverer of kerosene, parrafin, and creosote. He also spent over two decades experimenting with the mysterious force which he named "od" (also known as odic force or odyle in various translations). This claimed force, which has its intellectual roots in mesmerism, had particular relevance to concepts of the human aura.

Reichenbach was born on February 12, 1788, at Württemberg and died at Leipzig on January 22, 1869. He was educated at the gymnasium (high school) in Württemberg and afterward at the State University of Tübingen, where he studied natural science, political economy, and law. During Reichenbach's student days, Germany was under the military control of Napoleon's France, and at the age of sixteen Reichenbach founded a secret society to set up a German state in the South Sea Islands. However, he was arrested by the Napoleonic police and detained for some months as a political prisoner. After his release he continued his studies and obtained his Ph.D.

He later traveled in France and Germany investigating the construction and operation of ironworks, and in 1815 he set up his own plant at Villigen in Baden. He later built a large charcoal furnace at Hausach in Baden. He established a beet-sugar factory, steelworks, and blast furnaces and devoted much time to experimental research. He discovered paraffin in 1830 and other coal-tar products such as eupion, creosote, and pittacal (pitch) in the following years. Between 1835 and 1860, he also published a long series of scientific papers on meteorites. His many contributions earned him a well-deserved reputation as a brilliant scientist and industrialist.

Meanwhile his experiments in human sensitivity from 1839 onward were not as well received by his colleagues; in fact, he was harshly criticized. These experiments involved attempts to demonstrate a mysterious vital force which he named "od," for the Norse deity Odin, indicating a power, like the animal magnetism conceived by Franz A. Mesmer, which permeates the whole of nature.

Detection and demonstration of this force depended upon sensitivesspecially gifted individuals rather like psychics, although Reichenbach's sensitives were ordinary people from all walks of life. These individuals experienced specific reactions to the proximity of other peoplefeelings of pleasant coolness and drowsiness or, on the other hand, disagreeable, numbing, or exciting feelings. They also manifested a special right-hand/ left-hand polarity, which affected their reactions to other people standing or sitting near to their right or left sides, and particularly to sleeping positions with partners. They were also sympathetic to the color blue, and antipathetic to yellow; they had particular food fetishes; were sensitive to certain metals; and unpleasantly affected by mirrors.

In a long series of experiments with some two hundred individuals, Reichenbach documented the reports of sensitives to seeing emanations from crystals and magnets in total darkness and detecting alternations of electric current. They could also perceive an aura surrounding the human body.

Reichenbach studied the various manifestations of this vital force in its relationship to electricity, magnetism, and chemistry. He experimented with its connection to water-witching (or dowsing ), mesmerism, and similar psychic subjects. He tried to show that the force could move objects without conscious effort, as in the table-turning of the Spiritualists.

However, Reichenbach was neither a Spiritualist nor a mesmerist. His interest was purely scientific, his hundreds of experiments were conducted with empirid precision. Unfortunately, his experiments ran both against the dominant mechanistic view of the universe held by most mid-nineteenth-century scientists and had a significant methodological flaw. While he could and did produce a wide range of positive results, he was never able to demonstrate his major causative agent, the od. He was never able to eliminate a variety of possible causes, both paranormal and mundane, for the effects.

Reichenbach's researches were published in Germany in 1850. There were two English translations, one by William Gregory in 1850 and another by John Ashburner the following year. Both translations are good, but Gregory's was the official translation and is generally regarded as the best. Gregory translated Reichenbach's "od" as "odyle," perhaps feeling that this term would sound more acceptable to scientists. Gregory also translated Reichenbach's essays Letters on Od and Magnetism (1926), which are a simpler general introduction to Reichenbach's experiments and concepts than his main work.

Reichenbach died on January 22, 1869, at the age of eighty, and as Gustav Fechner, another scientist, commented: "Up to the last days of his life, he grieved at the thought of having to die without obtaining recognition for his system, and such was the tragic fate that actually befell him."

Some years after Reichenbach's death, there was a belated revival of interest in his work by the Society for Psychical Research in Britain, which formed a Reichenbach Committee that included William F. Barrett, Edmund Gurney, and F. W. H. Myers. In this case, it was precisely the possible connection with psychic phenomena that inspired this renewal of interest in a subject pointedly ignored by orthodox science. The committee made careful investigations, but was less fortunate than Reichenbach in obtaining suitable sensitives. Only three out of the forty-five individuals tested possessed the sensitivity postulated by Reichenbach, but these three provided interesting confirmation of Reichenbach's observations.

In 1908, Walter J. Kilner, who was familiar with the work of Reichenbach, developed a technique for making the human aura visible. In this century, Wilhelm Reich 's theories of "or-gone energy" seem to be about the same energy Reichenbach explored under the label "od."


Bagnall, Oscar. The Origin and Properties of The Human Aura. London, 1937. Rev. ed. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1970.

Gopi Krishna. Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man. New Delhi, 1967. Reprint, Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 1970.

Kilner, Walter J. The Human Atmosphere. London, 1911. Reprinted as The Human Aura. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1965.

Reich, Wilhelm. The Function of the Orgasm. New York: Or-gone Institute Press, 1948. Reprint, New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1973.

Reichenbach, Karl von. Letters on Od and Magnetism. London, 1926. Reprinted as The Odic Force; Letters on Od and Magnetism. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1968.

. Physico-Physiological Researches on the Dynamics of Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization, and Chemism, in their Relations to Vital Force. Translated by H. John Ashburner. London: H. Baillière, 1851.

. Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization and Chemical Attraction in relation to the Vital Force. Translated by William Gregory. 1850. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

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Reichenbach, Baron Karl von (1788-1869)

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