German physicist and writer
Born July 1st, 1742 in Oberramstadt near Darmstadt
Died February 24th, 1799 in Göttingen
Lichtenberg was a true universal scholar of his time, active in fields like mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, meteorology and of course physics. Apart from his interest in natural sciences he was also
a renowned writer.
He was born as the 18th child to a protestant pastor who died when Georg was only nine years old.
Lichtenberg was slightly handicapped - he had a hunchback, and consequently had to live through much
mockery as a child. He became an acute observer with a sharp humor.
In 1763 he went to Göttingen to study mathematics and natural sciences. Already during this time
he started his nowadays most widely know work: the waste books ("Sudelbücher"),
a number of notebooks (labeled A to L) where he put down all his ideas and random thoughts.
This collection of aphorisms was published only posthumously, but Lichtenberg was already famous
in his lifetime, counting among his friends people like Kant and Goethe. He went to England twice, in 1770 and 1774/5. Lichtenberg liked it a lot there and even met
king George III. His Letters from England (obviously) are a record of his experiences.
In 1777 he became engaged with the then thirteen year old Maria Stechard, who died in 1782 - which
depressed Lichtenberg deeply. However, he found another woman called Margarethe Kellner whom he married
in 1789. They had six children together.
His acedemic career progressed smoothly. Already in 1770 he had become an assistant professor in
Göttingen, and in 1775 he was appointed professor ordinarius. His lectures were famous across
all of Europe for his experiments. Lichtenberg was an advocate of the philosophy of enlightenment, and from 1778 on he contributed
to the Göttinger Taschenkalender to help spread it. He also edited the
Göttingisches Magazin der Literatur und Wissenschaft
between 1780 and 1782. Finally he became a member of the Royal Society in 1793.
It was Lichtenberg who introduced the convention of using the symbols + and - for the two
poles of a current source. As was en vogue at the time he built huge machines for experiments
with high voltages and in 1777 he discovered a pattern on one of his constructions - a brush discharge had been made visible by dust. These "frozen lightnings" are known as
Lichtenberg figures today. They look very interesting because of their fractal character
(see (1) for a picture). The same principle is used in today's xerocopying by the way.
Lichtenberg can also take credit for introducing the first of Benjamin Franklin's lightning rods