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Sir Henry Roscoe: Hermann von Helmholtz

S. 89-95 aus:
Roscoe, Henry Enfield: The life and experiences of Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe / written by himself. - London ; New York : MacMillan, 1906
Signatur UB Heidelberg: T 876

On looking back upon the life and interests I had in Heidelberg, I do not think that such a time existed there before, or has done since. Such distinguished friends as Helmholtz, Bunsen, Kirchhoff, Koenigsberger, and Quincke as men of science, and I may add Häuser and Vangerow as men of letters, besides eminent representatives of other professions, will never meet together again.

Amongst these great men the figure of Helmholtz stands out pre-eminent. To use the words with which as President I welcomed him as Faraday Lecturer to the Chemical Society, “eminent as an anatomist, as a physiologist, as a physicist, as a mathematician, and as a philosopher, we chemists are now about to claim him as our own.”

The title of the lecture was “On the Modern Development of Faraday's Conception of Electricity” and the lecture may truly be said to have been a turning-point in the history of the subject and to have laid the foundation of our present ideas of the theory of electrolysis.

The following letters (translated) from Helmholtz indicate the great amount of trouble which he took in connection with this lecture :—

November 21st, 1880.


I am quite ready to give the Faraday Lecture for 1881 if it can be arranged to take place between the 15th March and the 22nd April. Of late I have been working partly upon electrolysis and partly upon electro-dynamics, more or less on Faraday's lines, and I will try how much of this I can make suitable for chemists without becoming too abstract.

I saw our old friend in Heidelberg in September. He was well and happy, although he speaks about wishing to retire.

My kindest regards to your wife.


H. HELMHOLTZ.        

January 3rd, 1881.


If the Council of the Chemical Society already wish to publish the title of my Faraday Lecture, I think of calling it something like this : “The Modern Development of Faraday's Ideas on Electricity.” Can you think of a better English expression for it? (Die neuere Entwickelung von Faraday's Vorstellungen vom Wesen der Elektricität}. If so, please suggest it. I will write my address in English. If you will then kindly take the trouble to read it through and correct all that does not please you, I should be very grateful to you. I do not as yet know how far I dare attempt to perform experiments. In a strange place with strange apparatus it is always risky. Besides that, Professor Tyndall writes me that there will only be an hour between the closing of the last lecture and the beginning of mine, and therefore that would give but little time for preparation. The phenomena of which I shall have to speak are undoubtedly known to most chemists, and I shall probably only have to set out the apparatus in order to explain what I mean shortly and quickly.

Many thanks for your friendly invitation to stop with you. I accept for myself with great pleasure; my wife has not quite decided yet what she will do.

With kindest regards to your wife,


H. HELMHOLTZ.        

PARIS (undated).


I have come safely through my expedition in England, Ireland, and Scotland, given my lecture in Dublin, spoken at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and ended up by staying with Sir W. Thomson. Every moment of this entire time was so filled up that I was quite unable to write the short notices necessary for the completion of the Faraday Lecture for publication. To-morrow night we go to Berlin, and will get there on Monday evening. Meanwhile the Editor of the Journal of the Chemical Society has sent me a copy of the present text with the request that I should revise it speedily. In any case I will send it off from Berlin if I do not find a quiet moment here to finish it off. Should it be necessary to get it through very quickly in order to insert it in the June number, I beg you to send me a post-card to Berlin to that effect. My time has been so occupied ever since my lecture at the R.I., what with preparing my next lecture and making appointments to see people, that I have had no time to get through this revision.

Once more, many and hearty thanks from my wife and myself to you both for our delightful stay with you, and for the great sacrifice of time you gave on my behalf.

In true friendship,



In 1861, Helmholtz married our friend Anna von Mohl, and their house in Heidelberg became the resort of all that was best and intellectual, not only there, but from all the world over. Helmholtz was certainly, taking him altogether, the most wonderful man I ever knew, and his character was as charming and simple and his heart as kind as his intellect was great. He was not merely an eminent savant, but a polished man of the world, as much at home among princes and grand-dukes as he was in his laboratory among his students. Our two families became intimate, for the Helmholtzes frequently came to England and stayed either at my sister Mrs. Enfield's house in London, or with us in Manchester. Frau von Helmholtz was as charming in her way as he in his. She outlived her husband by a few years, and died on December 1st, 1899. A beautiful notice was written shortly after her death by Marie von Bunsen, grand-daughter of the Chevalier, which contains the following appreciation: “A man leaves his mark on the world by works and deeds, but a woman who neither courts publicity nor attempts authorship cannot acquire fame, and yet Anna von Helmholtz may truly be said to be one of the most remarkable of German women.”

Frau von Helmholtz had a highly sensitive and active temperament. I remember that on the morning of the day on which he was to deliver the Faraday Lecture she came down to breakfast and amused us by saying that she had been so nervous about the success of his lecture that she felt in the night as if she should die; upon which he remarked in his calm, equable manner, “Ach, das geht nicht so schnell.”

Helmholtz was a very temperate man; he never smoked, and I remember his saying that he found that the smallest quantity of alcohol dispelled from his mind “all his good ideas,” as he used to express it, by which he meant that if any great problem had to be thought out, this was only possible when his brain was free from alcoholic taint.   …

To return to Helmholtz. When I was last in Heidelberg I had an interesting conversation about him with Koenigsberger, the well-known Professor of Mathematics. They had been on most intimate terms. Koenigsberger had just written a most valuable and elaborate nécrologe of his great colleague. In a letter to me, he remarks that it was always interesting to listen to Bunsen and Kirchhoff dispute about some mathematical, scientific, or philosophical subject. Still more interesting was it, however, to watch, when he was present, the incomparable Helmholtz looking silently on from his calm Olympian heights with an appreciative and meaning smile as the discussion proceeded. He also spoke to me about the very great admiration which Helmholtz had felt for Clerk Maxwell's work. He said that he (Helmholtz) considered Maxwell superior to himself as a physicist, and often spoke of him as if he were inspired.

Perhaps the most striking example of Helmholtz's many-sidedness was shown on the anniversary of his seventieth birthday, when deputations, not only from all the German universities, but from a great number of distinguished persons from the Emperor downwards, and from scientific and other associations of various kinds, presented addresses of congratulation to him. To each one of these he replied, apparently without effort, and certainly without preparation, in the most varied and appropriate language, alluding in the case of each deputation to the special points of most interest to them. To his scientific labours I do not intend to refer: those who are interested will find them mentioned in Koenigsberger's excellent Life of Helmholtz published by Vieweg ; or in the touching and able Memorial Lecture delivered before the Chemical Society in January 1896 by my distinguished and lamented friend Professor FitzGerald of Dublin University.

Helmholtz and his wife suffered a similar loss to ourselves in the death of their eldest son. Robert von Helmholtz was from birth a cripple, and it was only by the very greatest care and by the most rigid surgical and medical treatment that he survived his childhood. He became, however, a distinguished mathematician; indeed I have heard his father say that he considered his son's mathematical brain superior to his own, and if his life had been spared he too would have done great things.

Full of honours and esteemed by the whole world, Helmholtz breathed his last on September 8th, 1894. An excellent likeness of Helmholtz faces this page.

Florenz 1891

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