Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg2.jpg
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Born (1742-07-01)1 July 1742
Ober-Ramstadt near Darmstadt, Hesse-Darmstadt
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Nationality German
Fields Scientist, satirist and aphorist
Doctoral advisor Abraham Gotthelf Kästner
Doctoral students Heinrich Wilhelm Brandes
Johann Tobias Mayer

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1 July 1742 – 24 February 1799) was a German scientist, satirist, and Anglophile. As a scientist, he was the first to hold a professorship explicitly dedicated to experimental physics in Germany. Today, he is remembered for his posthumously published notebooks, which he himself called Sudelbücher, a description modelled on the English bookkeeping term "scrapbooks",[1] and for his discovery of the strange tree-like patterns now called Lichtenberg figures.


Lichtenberg was the youngest of 17 children of pastor Johann Conrad Lichtenberg. His father, ascending through the ranks of the church hierarchy, eventually became superintendent for Darmstadt. Unusually for a clergyman in those times, he seems to have possessed a fair amount of scientific knowledge. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was educated at his parents' house until 10 years old, when he joined the Lateinschule in Darmstadt. His intelligence and wit became obvious at a very early age. He wanted to study mathematics, but his family could not afford to pay for lessons. In 1762, his mother applied to Ludwig VIII, Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, who granted sufficient funds. In 1763, Lichtenberg entered Göttingen University, where in 1769 he became extraordinary professor of physics, and six years later ordinary professor. He held this post till his death.

Lichtenberg became a hunchback owing to a malformation of his spine. This left him unusually short, even by 18th-century standards. Over time, this malformation grew worse, ultimately affecting even his breathing.

One of the first scientists to introduce experiments with apparatus in their lectures, Lichtenberg was a most popular and respected figure in the European intellectual circles of his time. He maintained good relations with most of the great figures of that era, including Goethe and Kant. In 1784, Alessandro Volta visited Göttingen especially to see the man and his experiments. The eminent mathematician Karl Friedrich Gauss sat in on his lectures. In 1793, he was elected a member of the Royal Society.

As a physicist, today he is remembered for his investigations in electricity, for discovering branching discharge patterns on dielectrics, now called Lichtenberg figures. In 1777, he built a large electrophorus to generate static electricity through induction.[2] One of the largest made, it was 2 m in diameter and could produce 38-cm sparks. With it, he discovered the basic principle of modern xerography copy machine technology. By discharging a high voltage point near an insulator, he was able to record strange, tree-like patterns in fixed dust. These Lichtenberg figures are considered today to be examples of fractals.

He was one of the first to introduce Benjamin Franklin's lightning rod to Germany by installing such devices to his house in Göttingen and his garden sheds. He also proposed the standardized paper size system used all over the world today (except in Canada and the US, defined by ISO 216, which has A4 as the most commonly used size.[3]

Invited by his students, he visited England twice, from Easter to early summer 1770 and from August 1774 to Christmas 1775, where he was received cordially by George III and Queen Charlotte. He led the King through the royal observatory in Richmond, upon which the king proposed that he become professor of philosophy. He also met with participants of Cook's voyages. Great Britain impressed him, and he became a well-known Anglophile after the visits.

He had many romances. Most of the women were from poor families. In 1777, he met Maria Stechard, then aged 13, who lived with the professor permanently after 1780. She died in 1782.[4] In the following year, he met Margarethe Kellner (1768–1848). He married her in 1789, to give her a pension, as he thought he was to die soon. She gave him six children, and outlived him by 49 years.

Lichtenberg was prone to procrastination. He failed to launch the first ever hydrogen balloon, and although he always dreamed of writing a novel à la Fielding's Tom Jones, he never finished more than a few pages. He died at the age of 56, after a short illness.

Lichtenberg's monument at the marketplace in Göttingen

Scrap books

The "scrapbooks" (Sudelbücher in German) are the notebooks he kept from his student days until the end of his life. Each volume was accorded a letter of the alphabet from A, which begun in 1765, to L, which broke off at Lichtenberg's death in 1799.

These notebooks first became known to the world after the man's death, when the first and second editions of Lichtenbergs Vermischte Schriften (1800–06 and 1844–53) were published by his sons and brothers. Since the initial publications, however, notebooks G and H, and most of notebook K, were destroyed or disappeared. Those missing parts are believed to have contained sensitive materials. The manuscripts of the remaining notebooks are now preserved in Göttingen University.

The notebooks contain quotations that struck Lichtenberg, titles of books to read, autobiographical sketches, and short or long reflections. Those reflections helped Lichtenberg earn his posthumous fame. Today, he is regarded as one of the best aphorists in Western intellectual history.

Some scholars have attempted to distil a system of thought out of Lichtenberg's scattered musings. However, Lichtenberg was not a professional philosopher, and had no need to present, or to have, any consistent philosophy.

The scrapbooks, nevertheless, reveal a critical and analytical way of thinking and emphasis on experimental evidence in physics, through which he became one of the early founders and advocates of modern scientific methodology.

The more experience and experiments are accumulated during the exploration of nature, the more faltering its theories become. It is always good though not to abandon them instantly. For every hypothesis which used to be good at least serves the purpose of duly summarizing and keeping all phenomena until its own time. One should lay down the conflicting experience separately, until it has accumulated sufficiently to justify the efforts necessary to edifice a new theory. (Lichtenberg: scrapbook JII/1602)

The reflections also include keen observations on human nature, à la the 17th-century French moralists.

Arthur Schopenhauer admired Lichtenberg greatly for what he had written in his notebooks. He called Lichtenberg one of those who "think ... for their own instruction", who are "genuine 'thinkers for themselves' in both senses of the words".[5] Other admirers of Lichtenberg's notebooks include Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Ludwig Wittgenstein.[6] Lichtenberg is not read by many outside Germany. Leo Tolstoy held Lichtenberg's writings in high esteem, expressing his perplexity of "why the Germans of the present day neglect this writer so much."[7] The Chinese scholar and wit Qian Zhongshu quotes the Waste books in his works several times.[8] A crater on the Moon is named Lichtenberg in his honour.

Other works

As a satirist, Lichtenberg takes high rank among the German writers of the 18th century. His biting wit involved him in many controversies with well-known contemporaries, such as the Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater whose science of physiognomy he ridiculed, and Johann Heinrich Voss, whose views on Greek pronunciation called forth a powerful satire, Über die Pronunciation der Schöpse des alten Griechenlandes.[9] For Laurence Sterne's wit on the bigotry of the clergy, in his novel Tristram Shandy, Lichtenberg condemned him as a scandalum ecclesiae (a scandal for the Church).[10]

In 1777, Lichtenberg opposed the apparent misrepresentation of science by Jacob Philadelphia. Lichtenberg considered him to be a magician, not a physicist, and created a satirical poster that was intended to prevent Philadelphia from performing his exhibition in Göttingen. The placard, called “Lichtenberg's Avertissement,” described extravagant and miraculous tricks that were to be performed. As a result, Philadelphia left the city without a performance.

In 1784 he took over the publication of the textbook Anfangsgründe der Naturlehre ("Foundations of the Natural Sciences") from his friend and colleague Johann Christian Erxleben upon his premature death in 1777. Until 1794, three further editions had followed. For many years, the Anfangsgründe remained the standard textbook for physics in German.

He published the Göttinger Taschen Calender from 1778 onwards, and contributed to the Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und Literatur, which he edited for three years (1780–1782) with J. G. A. Forster. The Göttinger Taschen Calender, beside being a usual Calendar for everyday usage, contained not only short writings on natural phenomena and new scientific discoveries (which would be termed popular science today), but also essays in which he contests quackery and superstition. It also contained attacks on the “Sturm und Drang” writers. In the spirit of enlightenment, he strove to educate the common people to use logic, wit and the power of their own senses.

Based on his visits to England, his Briefe aus England, with admirable descriptions of Garrick's acting, are the most attractive of his writings published during his lifetime. He also published from 1794 to 1799 an Ausführliche Erklärung der Hogarthischen Kupferstiche, in which he described the satirical details in William Hogarth's prints.

Freud (in his “Why War?” letter to Einstein) mentions Lichtenberg's invention of a “Compass of Motives” in a discussion on the combination of human compounded motives and quotes him as saying, “The motives that lead us to do anything might be arranged like the thirty-two winds and might be given names on the same pattern: for instance, ‘food-food-fame’ or ‘fame-fame-food’.”

Selected bibliography

Works published during his lifetime

  • Briefe aus England, 1776–78
  • Über Physiognomik, wider die Physiognomen, 1778
  • Göttingisches Magazin der Wissenschaften und Litteratur, 1780–85 (ed. by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Georg Forster)
  • Über die Pronunciation der Schöpse des alten Griechenlandes, 1782
  • Ausführliche Erklärung der Hogarthischen Kupferstiche, 1794–1799

Complete works in German

  • Schriften und Briefe, 1968–72 (4 vols., ed. by Wolfgang Promies)

English translations

  • The Reflections of Lichtenberg, Swan Sonnenschein, 1908 (selected and translated by Norman Alliston).
  • Lichtenberg's Visits to England, as Described in his Letters and Diaries, Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1938 (trans. and ed., by Margaret L. Mare and W. H. Quarrell)
  • The Lichtenberg Reader, Beacon Press, 1959 (trans. and ed. by Franz H. Mautner and Henry Hatfield)
  • The World of Hogarth. Lichtenberg's Commentaries on Hogarth's Engravings, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966 (trans. by Innes and Gustav Herdan)
  • Hogarth on High Life. The Marriage à la Mode Series, from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's Commentaries, 1970 (trans. and ed. by Arthur S. Wensinger and W. B. Coley)
  • Aphorisms, Penguin, 1990 (trans. with an introduction and notes by R. J. Hollingdale), ISBN 0-14-044519-6, reprinted as The Waste Books, 2000, ISBN 978-0-940322-50-9
  • Lichtenberg: Aphorisms & Letters, Johnathan Cape, 1969 (trans. and ed. by Franz H. Mautner and Henry Hatfield), SBN 224-61286-7
  • G.C. Lichtenberg: Philosophical Writings, (trans. and ed. by Steven Tester), Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012.


  1. Lichtenberg explained the purpose of his "scrapbook" in his notebook E: Die Kaufleute haben ihr Waste book (Sudelbuch, Klitterbuch glaube ich im deutschen), darin tragen sie von Tag zu Tag alles ein was sie verkaufen und kaufen, alles durch einander ohne Ordnung, aus diesem wird es in das Journal getragen, wo alles mehr systematisch steht ... Dieses verdient von den Gelehrten nachgeahmt zu werden. Erst ein Buch worin ich alles einschreibe, so wie ich es sehe oder wie es mir meine Gedancken eingeben, alsdann kan dieses wieder in ein anderes getragen werden, wo die Materien mehr abgesondert und geordnet sind. "Tradesmen have their 'scrapbook' (scrawl-book, composition book I think in German), in which they enter from day to day everything they buy and sell, everything all mixed up without any order to it, from there it is transferred to the day-book, where everything appears in more systematic fashion ... This deserves to be imitated by scholars. First a book where I write down everything as I see it or as my thoughts put it before me, later this can be transcribed into another, where the materials are more distinguished and ordered."
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  3. In one of his letters dated 25 October 1786 to Johann Beckmann.
  4. The relation between the man and his "little daughter" was made into a novel by Gert Hofmann. The work has been translated by his son Michael Hofmann into English, with the title Lichtenberg and the Little Flower Girl.
  5. Arthur Schopenhauer, trans. R.J. Hollingdale, Essays and Arphorisms, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1970, p. 93.
  6. For Lichtenberg's influences on German writers, see Dieter Lamping, Lichtenbergs literarisches Nachleben, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992.
  7. Carl Brinitzer, trans. Bernard Smith, A Reasonable Rebel, New York: Macmillan, 1960, p. 194.
  8. For example, in his essay Zhongguo Shi Yu Zhongguo Hua (中国诗与中国画 "Chinese poetry and Chinese paintings").
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  10. Bridgwater, Patrick (1988) Arthur Schopenhauer's English schooling, pp. 352–3: <templatestyles src="Template:Blockquote/styles.css" />

    Not only are the two longest chapters in the novel (Trim's sermon and Slawkenbergius's tale) concerned with the bigotry of the orthodox clergy, but, even more significantly, the whole novel, which breathes tolerance, is implicitly concerned with the same thing. And the bigotry of the orthodox (Anglican) clergy was as much Schopenhauer's hobby-horse as the arts of fortification were Uncle Toby's. He was obsessed by it, as his vitriolic comments on Samuel Johnson — and on the Anglican clergy — show. Lichtenberg condemned Sterne as a 'scandalum ecclesiae'; no doubt it was precisely this that Schopenhauer appreciated. He also shared, to a marked degree, Sterne's delight in ridiculing pedantry.


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Further reading

  • Buechler, Ralph Wolfgang (1988). Science, Satire and Wit: The Essays of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  • Katritzky, Linde (1995). "Coleridge's Links with Leading Men of Science," Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 49, No. 2.
  • Mautner, Franz H. and Miller, Jr., Franklin (1952). "Remarks on G. C. Lichtenberg, Humanist-Scientist," Isis, Vol. 43, No. 3.
  • Milch, Werner J. (1942). "Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: On the Occasion of the Two Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth, 9 July 1942," The Modern Language Review, Vol. 37, No. 3.
  • Øksenholt, Svein (1963). Thoughts Concerning Education in the Works of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: An Introductory Study in Comparative Education, Martinus Nijhoff.
  • Sanke, Jean M. (1999). Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: A Critical Bibliography of Research and Criticism, 1948-1996, Purdue University.
  • Stern, J. P. (1959). Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions; Reconstructed from his Aphorisms and Reflections, Indiana University Press.

External links