Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
Signature Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.PNG

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (born July 1, 1742 in Ober-Ramstadt near Darmstadt , † February 24, 1799 in Göttingen ) was a physicist , natural scientist , mathematician , writer and the first German professor of experimental physics in the Age of Enlightenment . Lichtenberg is considered to be the founder of the German-speaking aphorism .


Former garden house of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg in Göttingen (2014)
Göttingen memorial plaque for Lichtenberg (Gotmarstraße 1)

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was the 17th and youngest child of the Protestant pastor Johann Conrad Lichtenberg (1689–1751) and his wife Catharina Henriette, b. Eckard. In 1745 the family moved to Darmstadt after their father was appointed pastor of Darmstadt on March 29, 1745. Lichtenberg suffered from increasing kyphoscoliosis (spinal column curvature), which not only led to a pronounced hump and small body size, but also made breathing more and more difficult. He received private tuition in his parents' house until he was ten. After the death of his father he attended the Darmstadt pedagogue from 1752 . He has received several awards for his hard work and ingenuity.

He graduated from school in 1761. Thanks to a scholarship from Landgrave Ludwig VIII amounting to 200 guilders annually  , he was able to study mathematics, physics, civil and military architecture, aesthetics, English language and literature, state history at the University of Göttingen from May 1763 to 1767 - with Abraham Gotthelf Kästner among others Study Europe, Diplomacy and Philosophy. In the following years until 1774 he carried out astronomical observations at the old observatory in Göttingen.

His physical handicap and his constant susceptibility to illness made him extraordinarily sensitive. He directed his powers of observation not only to scientific phenomena, but also to the environment and his fellow human beings.

After completing his studies, he made two long trips to England. On the first trip in 1770 (as a tutor for two English students) he led King George III. from Great Britain and Hanover through the observatory of Richmond upon Thames , whereupon the latter recommended in a letter the appointment of Lichtenberg as associate professor of philosophy. The second trip to England, on which he also got to know participants of Cook's second trip around the world (such as Georg and Johann Reinhold Forster ), he undertook from 1774 to 1775. On this occasion he met well-known scientists such as James Watt and Joseph Priestley . This trip became his great educational experience.

In 1770 Lichtenberg became professor of physics, mathematics and astronomy at the University of Göttingen, but it was not until 1776 that he gave lectures on a regular basis. In 1772 he met the Jewish scholar and scientist Rafael Levi .

1777 was Lichtenberg during a guest performance of the magician Philadelphus Philadelphia in Göttingen unhook a poster on which he announced Philadelphia's program as if it was from this itself. In these posters was alleged Philadelphia will quickly the weather vane of Jacobi Church with the flag on the St. John's Church swap. The Philadelphia challenged in this way left Göttingen hastily without having given another performance.

In 1777 Lichtenberg made the acquaintance of Maria Dorothea Stechard (1765–1782). From 1780 until her untimely death, the “little Stechardin” (see Gert Hofmann's novel ) was Lichtenberg's partner (“my wife without priestly consecration”). The letter about the death of Stechard, which Lichtenberg wrote to his school friend Gotthilf Hieronymus Amelung at the beginning of 1783, was included in the collection of letters by Walter Benjamin in German people .

From 1780 - until his death - he was full professor of physics.

In 1782 Margarete Elisabeth Kellner (1768–1848) started his job as a housekeeper. With her he began a marriage-like relationship in 1783, which was legalized in 1789 in order to secure the inheritance for her and their children.

In October 1789, convulsive asthma attacks set in (a consequence of the curvature of the spine), which confined him to the bed for months.

In 1793 he was appointed a member of the Royal Society in London.

Lichtenberg conducted extensive correspondence with important contemporaries, including Immanuel Kant , Johann Wolfgang von Goethe , Johann Daniel Ramberg and Abraham Gotthelf Kästner .

When he died in 1799, he left behind his wife and eight children. His grave is in the Bartholomäusfriedhof in Göttingen.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg is the grandfather of the Hanoverian minister of education and later president of the state consistory Carl Lichtenberg and great-grandfather of the politician Georg Lichtenberg .

Teaching and Research

Monument at the old town hall in Göttingen

Lichtenberg dealt with scientific topics on a broad level, including geodesy , meteorology , astronomy and chemistry . As a teacher, he was pioneering because, contrary to the standard of his time, he also presented experiments in his lecture. With flying kites he demonstrated the electricity of thunderstorms to his students, with gas-filled pig bladders he anticipated the balloon ride . As a researcher - following Benjamin Franklin - he introduced the terms positive and negative electricity to electricity theory . He demonstrated his skills as an experimental physicist with the development of a 2.5 square meter electrophore . With this influence machine he could generate very high voltages and cause sparks up to 40 cm in length. In 1777 he discovered star-shaped patterns on the dust of an insulator plate of the electrophore, which are known as Lichtenberg figures . He was the first to introduce the lightning rod invented by Benjamin Franklin in Göttingen and one of the first in Germany by equipping his garden houses with what he called a fear conductor in 1780 and 1794 .

In addition to his scientific discoveries, the enlightener Georg Christoph Lichtenberg is one of the most important founders of modern scientific methodology thanks to his authoritarian, critical-analytical way of thinking and his emphasis on experimentation in physics.

“The more experiences and experiments accumulate in exploring nature, the more fluctuating the theories become. But it is always good not to give up on them straight away. Because every hypothesis that was good at least serves to think and keep the phenomena together until their time. One should particularly put down the contradicting experiences until they have accumulated sufficiently to make it worthwhile to put on a new building. "

- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg : Aphorism 1602

Lichtenberg, who was influenced by Immanuel Kant and Baruch Spinoza , among others, is considered a classic representative of the late Enlightenment . In 1778 he began his later famous main lecture "Experimental Physics". The new demonstration character of the lecture, which he held until his death, made him known beyond the city limits. From 1784 he took over the publication of the textbook “Beginnings of Nature” from his friend Johann Christian Polycarp Erxleben , who died early in 1777. Three more revisions followed by 1794. The beginnings were for years the standard work among physics textbooks in the entire German-speaking area. Lichtenberg was also the publisher of the Göttingen pocket calendar from 1777 . In it he published popular scientific presentations on current scientific news in the sense of the Enlightenment (e.g. "About the fear of thunderstorms and lightning discharge") until his death. Some of his essays are considered successful literary criticism. Health-political issues were also dealt with, such as his call for public seaside baths , the advantages of which he had learned about in England in 1774.

In 1771 Lichtenberg was commissioned by the Hanover government to carry out the geodetic survey of Hanover, Osnabrück and later also Stade; the position of Göttingen was already well known. The survey trips lasted from December 1771 to September 1773. In the meantime, Lichtenberg visited Hamburg and Heligoland. The results of his only major work based on astronomical observations appeared in 1777. The comparison of Lichtenberg's values ​​with the measurements of Gauß (one of Lichtenberg's listeners) and Schumacher from the middle of the 19th century reveals deviations of between 7 and 15 arc seconds for latitude determination as well Significantly larger differences in length determination of 6 to 60 arc seconds.

Lichtenberg was known and appreciated in specialist circles throughout Germany and Europe and was in correspondence with many scholars. He was a member of numerous scientific societies, e.g. B. in Göttingen, St. Petersburg and London. In 1793, Lichtenberg inspired Ernst Chladni to develop his groundbreaking theory of shooting stars , fireballs and meteorites and supported his students Benzenberg and Brandes in their meteor observation program. In his medical criticism of mesmerism , his student Hufeland referred to "my healthy Lichtenberg physics". Even Goethe asked Lichtenberg since 1792 to its opinion to his theory of color , hoping - in vain - for recognition.

Writing work

Sudel books

For many years Lichtenberg 1764 in exercise books, his own ironic " Sudelbücher called" in aphoristic countless form of aphorisms listed (spontaneous ideas, gleanings, reflections on almost all areas of knowledge and scientific findings), which were published posthumously. They prove his openness to everything new, the encyclopedic breadth of his mind and, in a special way, his ability to skeptical observation and ironic formulation. It says something like:

"The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery."
“It is true, all people procrastinate and regret the procrastination. [...] "
"The sand clocks are not only a reminder of the rapid flight of time, but also of the dust in which we will one day fall."
"If a book and a head collide and it sounds hollow, is that always in the book?"
"To invent a finder for all things."
“Of course, I cannot say whether it will get better if it changes; but I can say this much, it has to be different if it is to be good. "

He also recorded scientific findings there. For example, he wrote about the terms positive and negative electricity he introduced:

"[...] Mein + E and -E has also been accepted by foreigners."

Policies, letters, essays

Philologists and historians have pamphlets, letters and essays on an equal footing with the Sudel books . He wrote these in German, his scientific publications preferably in Latin. In 1773 Timorus appeared , a polemic against Lavater , who had asked the Berlin enlightener Moses Mendelssohn to convert to Christianity . In 1777, in his book On Physiognomics , he turned against the physiognomists with just as biting irony against Lavater's doctrine that a person's character can be derived from his bones. In 1784 Lichtenberg wrote against Conrad Siegmund Draw , who had made a big impression in Germany with his prophecies.

In addition to his private correspondence, Lichtenberg maintained good relationships for many years with contemporary, educational cultural journals, in which he contributed essays to debates on everything that came to mind to his universally interested mind, including physiognomics , sunbathing , art and theater events.

The letters from England (written on his second trip to England in 1774/75) are the first German-language descriptions of an emerging city and valuable contributions, above all, to the history of English theater .

In 1784, Lichtenberg began in the Göttingen pocket calendar with his famous commentaries on William Hogarth's moral series of pictures (GC Lichtenberg's detailed explanation of the Hogarthic copperplate engravings, 1794–1799), which are entirely in the satirical spirit of copperplate engravings.


Grave of Margarete and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

In 1794 he became an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Saint Petersburg .

In 1935 the lunar crater Lichtenberg was named after him, in 1998 an asteroid : (7970) Lichtenberg .

In his honor the Volkswagen Foundation named a program for research funding " Lichtenberg Professorship ".

In 1842 the city of Ober-Ramstadt decided to put a memorial plaque made of black marble with gold letters on the rectory where Lichtenberg was born 100 years earlier.

On the occasion of Lichtenberg's 250th birthday, the Lord Mayor of Göttingen unveiled a Lichtenberg sculpture on the Rathausmarkt on July 1, 1992. The statue, which was cast in bronze by the Albanian artist Fuat Duschku , was donated by the Göttingen publisher Tete Böttger. At the same time, the winners of a Lichtenberg aphorism competition were also awarded.

In honor of Lichtenberg, the Göttingen Academy of Sciences awards the Lichtenberg Medal every year .

The Technical University of Darmstadt named its high-performance computer and one of its guest houses after Lichtenberg. A life-size sculpture created by Detlef Kraft has stood in front of the building since the end of June 2017 .

In Germany several schools were named after Lichtenberg, see Lichtenberg School .

The Hamburg draftsman Horst Janssen has visually thematized the sometimes ironic-sarcastic aphorisms of Lichtenberg and integrated them into his drawings and etchings as statements and image captions.

Hans Magnus Enzensberger worked with Peter Sehr, who died in 2013, on a film about the life of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg.

In 2017 the Goettingen State and University Library organized the exhibition “ ThingsDenkenLichtenberg ”.

Literary reception

Kurt Tucholsky showed his admiration for Lichtenberg through frequent quoting, with which he enriched his works and around which he built up individual themes.

Robert Gernhardt had started making drawings for the Sudelsprüchen in 1992 on the occasion of an exhibition, only 39 of them, which were published in loose succession in FAZ-Magazin until 1994 , which then grew to 99 drawings, and in 1999 by Haffmans-Verlag under the title Our earth is perhaps a female - 99 Sudelblätter by Robert Gernhardt to 99 Sudelsprüchen by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg were published.

In his novel Die kleine Stechardin, Gert Hofmann focuses on an episode from Lichtenberg's life: the relationship with Maria Dorothea Stechard between 1777 and 1782, who moved to his house on Gotmarstrasse in Göttingen when she was 12 and lived with him there until her death. In the foreword, the author points out the fictional nature of the plot, the focus of which is the development of the relationship between the unequal partners, while scientific activities and contacts with colleagues and students form the background. As materials to characterize the physicist, whose physical deformation affected his private life, Hofmann uses biographical notes from letters, diaries and critical aphoristic Sudelbuch entries about human behavior and insights into life. Century.


  • Detailed explanation of the Hogarthic copperplate engravings, with reduced but complete copies of them by Ernst Ludwig. Riepenhausen. 12 deliveries, Dieterich, Göttingen 1794–1816.
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's mixed writings, collected after his death and edited by Ludwig Christian Lichtenberg and Friedrich Kries . 9 volumes, Dieterich, Göttingen 1800–1806 (= first work edition). Reprinted in Lang, Bern 1972.
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's mixed writings; New, increased original edition organized by his sons . 8 volumes, Dieterich, Göttingen 1844–1853.
  • Writings and letters. Ed. And commented by v. Wolfgang celebrities . 4 volumes + 2 volumes of commentary, Hanser Verlag, Munich 1968–1992 (reprinted by Zweiausendeins, ISBN 3-86150-042-6 ) (An exemplary edition and exemplified by comments and indexes.)
  • Albert Leitzmann (Ed.): George Christoph Lichtenbergs Aphorisms . Berlin 1902, digitized version, Heft1, 1764-1771, pp. 1–276
  • Your hand, your mouth, more soon. Lichtenbergs Briefe 1765 to 1799. Ed. And with an afterword by Ulrich Joost. Verlag CH Beck, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-406-44185-8 .
  • Messages from little L. - Lichtenbergs Göttingen views , ed .: Peter Köhler & Thomas Schaefer, Satzwerk Verlag, Göttingen 1999, ISBN 3-930333-30-9 .
  • Nicolaus Copernicus. Difference-Verlag, Munich 2008. ( Digitized version [PDF; 368 kB; accessed on October 10, 2019]).
  • Physics lecture. According to J. Chr. P. Erxleben's beginnings of natural science. From the memoirs of Gottlieb Gamauf , edited and provided with an introduction by Fritz Krafft, marixverlag, Wiesbaden 2007, ISBN 978-3-86539-098-1 .
  • Lectures on natural science. Edited from G. Chr. Lichtenberg's annotated hand copy of the 4th edition by Johann Christian Polykarp Erxleben's Beginnings of Nature , ed. from the Academy of Sciences in Göttingen and the Technical University of Darmstadt, edited by Wiard Hinrichs, Albert Krayer u. Horst Zehe, Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2005, ISBN 3-89244-891-4 .
  • Dag Nicolaus Hasse (Ed.): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Observations. The Latin scripts. Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 1997, ISBN 3-89244-266-5 .
  • Ulrich Joost , Philipp Reclam jun. (Ed.): Aphorisms and other problems. Stuttgart 2003, 2010, ISBN 978-3-15-020213-5 .


  • Bernd Achenbach, Ulrich Joost : Lichtenberg's external appearance. A critical iconography (= Lichtenberg studies volume 1) Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 1991, ISBN 3-89244-009-3 .
  • Rainer Baasner : Georg Christoph Lichtenberg . Scientific Book Society, Darmstadt 1992, ISBN 3-534-11327-6 .
  • Peter Bussler: Cuxhaven became a seaside resort 200 years ago. The Göttingen philosopher Georg Christoph Lichtenberg gave the suggestion . In: Men from Morgenstern , Heimatbund an Elbe and Weser estuary e. V. (Ed.): Niederdeutsches Heimatblatt . No. 798 . Nordsee-Zeitung GmbH, Bremerhaven June 2016, p. 1–2 ( digitized version [PDF; 5.8 MB ; accessed on July 27, 2019]).
  • Haru Hamanaka: Knowledge and Image. Scientific history of the Lichtenberg figures around 1800 . Wallstein-Verlag, Göttingen 2015, ISBN 978-3-8353-1627-0 .
  • Hans-Joachim Heerde: The audience of physics. Lichtenberg's listener. (= Lichtenberg Studies Volume 14) Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2006, ISBN 3-8353-0015-6 .
  • Wilhelm HessLichtenberg, Georg Christoph . In: Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie (ADB). Volume 18, Duncker & Humblot, Leipzig 1883, p. 537 f.
  • Wiard Hinrichs / Ulrich Joost : Lichtenbergs book world. A book lover and user of the Göttingen library. Exhibition catalog (= Lichtenberg Studies Volume 3) Wallstein Verlag Göttingen 1989, ISBN 3-89244-012-3 .
  • Ulrich Joost (Ed.): Your hand, your mouth, more soon ... Lichtenberg's letters 1765 to 1799. CH Beck, Munich 1998, ISBN 3-406-54501-7 .
  • Ulrich Joost: Lichtenberg - the letter writer (= Lichtenberg Studies Volume 5) Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 1993, ISBN 3-86150-042-6 .
  • Ulrich Joost, Albrecht Schöne (Ed.): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Correspondence 1765–1779, 1780–1784, 1785–1792, 1793–1799. 4 volumes, CH Beck Verlag Munich 1983–1992.
  • Ulrich Joost (ed.) / Hans-Joachim Heerde (editor): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Correspondence 1765–1799. Annotated register of persons and subjects . 2 volumes, CH Beck Verlag Munich 2004, ISBN 3-406-30960-7 .
  • Ulrich Joost (conception): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg 1742–1799. Risk of enlightenment. Exhibition catalog Mathildenhöhe Darmstadt June 28 to August 30, 1992. Hanser Verlag, Munich / Vienna 1992.
  • Ulrich Joost (Ed.): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Noctes: A notebook. 2nd edition, Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 1992, ISBN 3-89244-054-9 , (facsimile edition).
  • Ulrich Joost (Ed.): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Aphorisms and other quarrels. Reclam-Verlag, Ditzingen 2003, ISBN 3-15-050042-7 .
  • Rudolf Jung: Studies on the language perception of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Attempt to interpret the philosophical aphorisms. Dissertation Frankfurt am Main 1967.
  • Carl Niekerk: Between natural history and anthropology. Lichtenberg in the context of the late Enlightenment. Niemeyer, Tübingen 2005, ISBN 3-484-18176-1 .
  • Heiko Postma : “As if lightning strikes.” About the experimental thinker Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742–1799). JMB-Verlag, Hannover 2008, ISBN 978-3-940970-05-3 .
  • Wolfgang Proß , Claus Priesner:  Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. In: New German Biography (NDB). Volume 14, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1985, ISBN 3-428-00195-8 , pp. 449-464 ( digitized version ).
  • Frank Schäfer : Lichtenberg and Judaism (= Lichtenberg Studies Volume 10) Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 1998, ISBN 3-89244-306-8 .
  • Association for local history Ober-Ramstadt: Lichtenberg - traces of a family - for the 250th birthday of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Self-published by the Association for Local History Ober-Ramstadt, 1992.
  • Joseph Peter Stern : Lichtenberg: A Doctrine of Scattered Occasions; Reconstructed from his Aphorisms and Reflections . Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana 1959

Web links

Wikisource: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg  - Sources and full texts
Commons : Georg Christoph Lichtenberg  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. (PDF) In: Retrieved March 10, 2017 .
  2. Peter Schulze : Rafael Levi. In: Klaus Mlynek, Waldemar R. Röhrbein (eds.) U. a .: City Lexicon Hanover . From the beginning to the present. Schlütersche, Hannover 2009, ISBN 978-3-89993-662-9 , p. 512.
  3. see the novel: Marion Philadelphia: The juggler of kings. Blanvalet Verlag, Munich, 2001, ISBN 3-7645-0071-9 .
  4. Lichtenbergs life chronicle 1765-1770. In: Lichtenberg Society website. Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  5. Wolfgang Promies (Ed.): Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Writings and letters. 2nd edition 2006: Carl Hanser Verlag Munich / Vienna. ( Digitized in the Google book search)
  6. biography. ( Memento from November 10, 2014 in the web archive ) Retrieved November 10, 2014.
  7. Klaus Mlynek : LICHTENBERG, Georg. In: Dirk Böttcher , Klaus Mlynek, Waldemar R. Röhrbein, Hugo Thielen : Hannoversches Biographisches Lexikon . From the beginning to the present. Schlütersche, Hannover 2002, ISBN 3-87706-706-9 , p. 233 ( digitized in the Google book search)
  8. ^ Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Writings and letters. Edited by Wolfgang Promies, Vol. 2: Sudelbücher II. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 1971, pp. 294f., Booklet J, Aph. 1602 (1790/91).
  9. ^ Franz Krojer: Lichtenberg's “Favorite Thought” and Chladni's Meteor Hypothesis. Munich 2009 ( digitized version [PDF; 144 kB; accessed on October 10, 2019]).
  10. ^ Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland: A self-biography. Berlin 1863, p. 26. The publisher wrongly wrote “Christoph” instead of “Christian”.
  11. Walther Metz: Goethe's relationship to Lichtenberg. Germanic-Romance Monthly Volume VII (1915–1919).
  12. ^ Lichtenberg: writings and letters. Edited by Wolfgang Promies, Vol. 2: Sudelbücher II. Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich 1971, p. 166, Aph. G 183.
  13. Sudelbücher II. Munich 1971, p. 147, Aph. G 78.
  14. ^ Sudelbücher I. Munich 1968, p. 160, Aph. C 27.
  15. ^ Sudelbücher I. Munich 1968, p. 291, Aph. D 399.
  16. Sudelbücher II. Munich 1971, p. 297, Aph. J 1620 (italics in the original).
  17. Sudelbücher II. Munich 1971, p. 450, Aph. K 293 (1796).
  18. Sudelbücher II. Munich 1971, p. 265, Aph. J 1440 (1790).
  19. ^ Foreign members of the Russian Academy of Sciences since 1724. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Russian Academy of Sciences, accessed October 1, 2015 (Russian).
  20. ^ Chronicle for 1992. In: Retrieved October 10, 2019.
  21. Kurt Tucholsky: Collected Works. Mary Gerold-Tucholsky; Fritz J. Raddatz (Ed.), In 10 vol. ISBN 3-499-29011-1 .
  22. ^ Sudel Blätter - Gernhardt draws Lichtenberg. In: Internet site Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . December 23, 1999, accessed October 10, 2019.
  23. Gert Hofmann: The little Stechardin . Hanser Munich / Vienna 1994.