Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society

Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society

by M. Norton Wise

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On January 5, 1845, the Prussian cultural minister received a request by a group of six young men to form a new Physical Society in Berlin. In fields from thermodynamics, mechanics, and electromagnetism to animal electricity, ophthalmology, and psychophysics, members of this small but growing group—which soon included Emil Du Bois-Reymond, Ernst Brücke, Werner Siemens, and Hermann von Helmholtz—established leading positions in what only thirty years later had become a new landscape of natural science. How was this possible? How could a bunch of twenty-somethings succeed in seizing the future?
In Aesthetics, Industry, and Science M. Norton Wise answers these questions not simply from a technical perspective of theories and practices but with a broader cultural view of what was happening in Berlin at the time. He emphasizes in particular how rapid industrial development, military modernization, and the neoclassical aesthetics of contemporary art informed the ways in which these young men thought. Wise argues that aesthetic sensibility and material aspiration in this period were intimately linked, and he uses these two themes for a final reappraisal of Helmholtz’s early work. Anyone interested in modern German cultural history, or the history of nineteenth-century German science, will be drawn to this landmark book.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226531496
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2018
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

M. Norton Wise is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt



On a sunny morning in the late summer of 1824, a great parade of heavy cavalry rode down Unter den Linden, the boulevard of royal display and of public self-presentation in Berlin, running from the Brandenburg Gate in the west to the Royal Palace of King Friedrich Wilhelm III in the east. The spectacle celebrated a long-delayed visit of the King's eldest daughter Charlotte (Czarina Alexandra of Russia from 1825) and her husband Archduke Nicholas (Czar Nicholas I), whom the King treated like a son. It also symbolized the continuation of the Prussian-Russian alliance, which had endured since the Wars of Liberation from Napoleon (Befreiungskriege), 1813–1815. To mark the occasion, Nicholas commissioned Franz Krüger, a painter favored at the court for his portrait-like renderings of high-spirited horses and their equally highborn riders, to capture the spectacle (fig. 1.1). Nicholas himself led the 6th Brandenburg Cuirassier Regiment, of which the king had made him formal commander upon his betrothal to Princess Charlotte in 1817. Krüger's Parade auf dem Opernplatz gives a panoramic view, a carefully constructed wide-angle perspective. Measuring two and a half by three and three quarters meters, it took six years to complete and set a new standard for the genre. It will provide the stage here on which the young men who would found the Berlin Physical Society in 1845 formed their identities and their ambitions. They and their science are my ultimate goal.

The painting captures the eye from a distance for its bright and animated realism, almost photographic in architectural detail and full of motion. On reflection, however, the picture has a strange composition. It inverts the expected social order. Structurally, Krüger has borrowed a technique familiar from landscape paintings, in which a valley or stream running diagonally before a mountainous terrain focuses attention on the action of symbolic figures in a sylvan foreground. Similarly, he uses the strong diagonal formed by the parade route to separate background from foreground. But the royal court, who formed the actual social focus of the spectacle and in the tradition of such paintings of historical events should have been foregrounded, are displaced into the background. They sit on their horses in the near anonymity of the shadows cast by the grand buildings defining the far side of the street, although on very close inspection each is presented in a miniature portrait. Friedrich Wilhelm is visible astride a light brown horse between the Prinzessinenpalais on the left, private residence of his second wife, and the tall statue on the tree-shaded Opernplatz of General G. L. von Blücher, one of the heroes of the Befreiungskriege. Nicholas, rather than riding at the head of his troops, is riding in the opposite direction to salute the king, with his back to the viewer. The royal princes and top generals, so dark as to be almost unrecognizable, observe from their horses to the left and right of the king.

In sharp contrast, the viewer's interest lights immediately on the highly individualized crowd on the right. They pay little attention to the theater of absolute monarchy before them but attend to their own theater of seeing and being seen. Krüger apparently shares their vision of themselves as the new center of social importance, for he presents each of them in miniature portraits as well. They form a kind of microcosm of that diverse body called the "public" (Öffentlichkeit; see the introduction) and are people who would be recognized by anyone familiar with public life in Berlin in the late twenties. Over fifty have been identified. They include a number of aristocratic administrators and advisors who saw themselves as representatives of the new Prussia governed by a professional elite of civil servants composed of well-educated citizens, the so-called Bildungsbürgertum.

The movement from background on the left to foreground on the right thus portrays a kind of social transition: from the military rulers to a collection of mounted middle-level officers in the center mixed with standing notables to the more fully civilian society on the right. Modern viewers may be likely to see in this a challenge to the authority of Friedrich Wilhelm and Czar Nicholas. But that cannot be quite how the rulers saw it, since the czar and czarina both expressed their delight with the painting. Friedrich Wilhelm even commissioned Krüger to repeat it for "Eine preussische Parade" in 1839. He certainly did recognize, however, that the Bildungsbürgertum had acquired a position in society, and an attendant administrative role, that was as necessary to the well-run state as their promotion of political responsibility in a civil society was problematic.

The Public

As discussed in the introduction, the task of this volume will be to locate the pursuit of natural science within this state-centered construction of public consciousness by looking for the resources of the ambitious young reformers who founded the Berlin Physical Society in 1845. In his Parade, Krüger has collected together a number of the major figures for this cultural location. Literally, the painting locates them in relation to buildings that symbolize architecturally the new position of the educated elite in society and that here stand behind them (fig. 1.2). The prominent Doric columns define the portico of the Neue Wache, built between 1816 and 1818 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose neoclassical buildings were reshaping civic consciousness. Literally the "new guardhouse" of the royal guard but figuratively the "new guard," the Neue Wache symbolized in the minds of liberals the new citizen army (including some middle-class officers) that had defeated Napoleon in the Befreiungskriege, also called, with the stress on domestic liberalization, the Wars of Freedom (Freiheitskriege).

The "new guard," in this vision, would be the agents responsible for maintaining constant vigilance against external aggression and for building the Prussian future, despite increasing signs of reactionary absolutism. As a visionary participant in this movement toward a modernized state, Schinkel had designed the Neue Wache as a bridge between civilian and military life. It stands between the new University of Berlin rising behind it, established in 1810 on the educational theories of Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was then directing cultural affairs in the interior ministry, and the eighteenth-century Armory (Zeughaus), symbol of Prussian military might under Frederick the Great. The armory itself is not actually visible, for we view the scene from one of its upper windows, where Krüger stood to construct his panorama. But we should see Schinkel's neoclassicism in its intended function, uniting military and public virtue and testifying to the Humboldtian ideal of Bildung, of the cultivated self, as the model of the self-motivated citizen in a modern state.

This ideal appears most explicitly in the glistening white statue of General Gerhard von Scharnhorst as a latter-day Greek hero. Krüger has made him the central focus of the painting, much enlarged by its wide-angle perspective. He stands before the Neue Wache as an integral part of Schinkel's design, paired with another hero of the wars, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Bülow, largely obscured behind him. Scharnhorst had led the reorganization of the army that followed its humiliation by Napoleon in 1806, pressing constantly for the eradication of aristocratic privilege, for utilization of the talents of commoners in the officer corps, and for activating the latent strength and self-motivation of the entire citizenry in the army. After his death from wounds suffered in the battle of Groß-Görschen in 1813, he was lionized as the hero of liberation but also of liberal reform. Particularly significant for the painting was his foundation of the Kriegsschule in 1810 as a kind of military university for training young officers whose position would be based on accomplishment rather than birth. Although on a smaller scale, the Kriegsschule emphasized many of the same virtues of Wissenschaft (science, both natural and human) and Bildung that marked Humboldt's plans for the University at the same time except that Scharnhorst placed mathematics at the center of the military curriculum in parallel with classical languages at the University.

Scharnhorst's statue provides an image of civic humanism. The sculptor Christian Daniel Rauch, friend of Schinkel and client of Humboldt's, presented him as a classical warrior-intellectual. His educational role appears on the side of the tall pedestal supporting his statue, fully visible in Krüger's painting and in figure 1.3. Pallas Athena, goddess of war but representing also practical reason and democracy, lectures to two young students while carrying the torch of enlightenment. Her book carries the names of military reformers from Montucla to Frederick the Great to Scharnhorst. If her lecture follows Scharnhorst's guidelines, she might be presenting a theme that will form a connecting thread for this volume: mathematical analysis is to the natural sciences and physical action what linguistic analysis is to the human sciences and moral action. Among Prussian educational reformers, the two sorts of analysis were often treated like two grammars, with many interrelations but serving different ends. Rigorous study of classical language and literature opened the mind to objective reflection on everyday human behavior, but from a distant and higher perspective, appropriate to a citizen of the world. So too mathematics — always including mechanics and geometrical drawing — trained students to reason logically and abstractly about the behavior of particular physical objects. For Scharnhorst, much of this educational methodology represented an attempt to incorporate into the Prussian Army lessons learned from their enemies in France, where the citizen army had been a key element in the defense of the revolution and where the new École polytechnique provided the engineering model for training officers.

Taken as a whole, then, and in its positioning between the University and the armory, the Neue Wache embodied in art and architecture an idealized vision of the relation between civic and military life in a revitalized Prussian state. But if its white marble still glistened in the sun in the 1820s, its original symbolism had already begun to lose some of its uplifting spirit. The representative figures of Scharnhorst and Humboldt were no longer setting the goals of the Kriegsschule and the University. Conservative aristocrats who gained the king's ear following the Befreiungskriege/Freiheitskriege had been able to thwart plans for a full-fledged citizen army just as they fended off the widespread expectation for representative, constitutional government that had attended the war. Most infamous were the Karlsbad Decrees of 1819, pushed on the German Confederation by the Austrian foreign minister, Prince Metternich, in response to a supposed threat to the established monarchical order signaled by the murder of a conservative journalist by a deranged student. The decrees sharply limited the freedoms of students, professors, and the press. Still, Friedrich Wilhelm did not allow the voices of aristocratic conservatism to dictate policy. Instead, he swayed one way or the other, depending on the threat to his own rule, effectively using the claims of modern civil society against those of historic aristocratic legitimacy and vice versa. But there were real losses among the reformers.

Scharnhorst had been replaced as minister of war immediately after his death by his liberal intellectual heir, General Karl von Boyen, but Boyen resigned in protest of the Karlsbad Decrees in 1819 to be replaced by the more moderate General Albrecht Georg von Hake. For his part, Humboldt, who had been serving in the foreign ministry and was supported by Boyen, badly misjudged the political situation leading to the Karlsbad Decrees, and he blamed Hardenberg, who took deep offense and forced him to resign. Humboldt largely retired from active public life to his Charlottenburg villa and his family estate at Tegel, northwest of Berlin. There his client and friend Schinkel performed a masterful neoclassical renovation to provide a proper setting for Humboldt's persona and his collection of classical art. Meanwhile, Humboldt's old position in cultural affairs had become a full ministry in 1817, with Karl Freiherr von Altenstein in charge. In Krüger's painting, Altenstein sits tall on a white horse toward the back of the crowd, dressed in black coat and top hat (fig. 1.4).

By the time Krüger completed his work in 1830, the torch of public intellectual in the Humboldt family had passed from Wilhelm to Alexander, who returned from Paris in 1827 as a Renaissance man of science, having completed the extraordinary expedition to South America that won him the acclaim of professional and public audiences alike. He appears in the painting (fig. 1.5) on the left of a group of six prominent men surrounded by horses.

The shift from Wilhelm to Alexander may be taken as a sign of the increasing recognition of the importance of science for the state and of an already developing shift in educational policy from the ideal to the real, with more attention to practical concerns. In this, Alexander von Humboldt became a ubiquitous presence as chamberlain to the king, advisor to his ministries on the advancement of science, and the leading patron of promising young scientists, including at least two of those who would constitute the Berlin Physical Society in 1845: its most charismatic leader, Emil du Bois-Reymond, and its most profound intellect, Hermann Helmholtz. Krüger has recognized Humboldt's prominent public role by placing him at the 1824 parade even though he did not return to Berlin until 1827. He will reappear continually in the chapters to follow.

If the Neue Wache represents a bridge between the ideals of civilian and military culture and more specifically between the University and the Kriegsschule, it may be taken as well to suggest a whole variety of similar bridges that Schinkel, the Humboldt brothers, and their peers were attempting to build between intellectual and material development for a state guided by civic humanism. Among these bridges was the Vereinigte Artillerie- und Ingenieurschule (United Artillery and Engineering School), which split off from the Kriegsschule in 1816. For over twenty years it remained under the joint directorship of two of the leading advocates of middle-class officers, Prince August of Prussia, cousin of the king, who headed the artillery and provided a social center for the "court liberals," and General Gustav von Rauch, head of the engineering corps and one of the radical parliamentarians around von Boyen. They may well be among the mounted reviewers of the parade accompanying the king, for the reaction following the Karlsbad Decrees did not expunge liberal reformers from the military any more than from government administration and certainly not from the Berlin military schools. Along with their goals for civil society, they continued to advance science-based professional education into the 1830s. Emblematic of this process of reform at the Vereinigte Artillerie- und Ingenieurschule is the fact that Werner Siemens could acquire there the basic technical training that brought him into contact with the other members of the Berlin Physical Society and launched him on his entrepreneurial career. In a similar way, the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Institut for army doctors would launch Helmholtz.

The school that Siemens had actually wanted to attend was the civilian counterpart of the Artillerie- und Ingenieurschule, the Allgemeine Bauschule, where Schinkel became the leading light following its reconfiguration in 1819. Schinkel's presence in Krüger's painting (fig. 1.6, in black top hat behind the actress Karoline Bauer) can serve here to recall his role in technical education. The Bauschule trained architects, civil engineers (Baumeister), and inspectors of construction primarily to serve the needs of the state. They were the builders of the fast-growing city surrounding Krüger's painting, including streets, canals, bridges, and machinery as well as buildings.


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Table of Contents

Parade auf dem Opernplatz
Pegasus and the Muses (Museums) of Art, Industry, and Science
Section 1: Altes Museum, University, and Bauschule
Pegasus and the Muses (Museums) of Art, Industry, and Science
Section 2: Gewerbehaus
Modernizing Military Schools: Self-Acting Officers and Instruments
“What’s in a Line?”
The Berlin Physical Society
The Mechanism of Matter: Hermann Helmholtz’s Erhaltung der Kraft
“A Spectacle for the Gods”

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