Introduction to Experimenta circa effectum conflictus electrici in acum magneticam

In this brief treatise Danish physicist Hans Christian Ørsted (1777–1851) acquainted the scholarly world with his discovery of electromagnetism. In so doing, he added his name to a rollcall of internationally distinguished Danish scientists stretching from, for example, Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) to Niels Steensen (1638–86), to Ole Rømer (1644–1710) and onwards to Niels Bohr (1885–1962). In 1821, Ørsted’s discovery allowed English physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) to construct the first electric motor — a machine transforming an electric effect into a mechanical effect, or vice versa — when he succeeded in causing a bar magnet to rotate around an electric conductor and an electric conductor to rotate around a bar magnet. Ørsted’s discovery thus led to the intense industrialisation that characterised the second half of the nineteenth century and continues to this day. Ørsted had an ongoing interest in developing the practical application of science, and he played a leading role in the foundation of Den Polytekniske Læreanstalt (College of Advanced Technology) in 1829, later called Danmarks Tekniske Universitet (Technical University of Denmark), of which he was director until his death in 1851. Not only was his discovery of far-reaching practical value, however; via Faraday, it was also influential in the development of an electromagnetic field theory within theoretical physics.

Ørsted was a primarily experimental physicist, and like Faraday he lacked the prerequisites for developing a mathematical facet to his research. At a quite young age, he had met the German experimental physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810), who interpreted his own research results on the basis of the dynamic view of nature promoted by Romanticism. Ørsted became an adherent — albeit with reservations — of this view of nature. The leading figure in the field was the German philosopher F. W. J. Schelling (1775–1854), whose Romantic natural philosophy also proved determinative for Ørsted’s perception of the natural world. Schelling was inspired by the natural philosophy of his compatriot Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), involving the construct of an a priori cognition of nature, which was also the subject of Ørsted’s 1799 doctoral dissertation. According to Romantic philosophy of nature, this nature — which includes, being a natural product, humankind — is a large organism in which the whole and each of its parts are subject to the same laws. The Romantics saw nature as an entity, and it is on the basis of this entity that the natural scientist must act in order to understand the part, i.e. the individual physical phenomena.

In her book De l’Allemagne (On Germany), the French woman of letters Madame de Staël (1766–1817) wrote that Romantic natural philosophy is guided by two principles. The one is that nature is created in the image of the human soul, and thus humankind is subjected entirely to the laws of nature. This implies that by looking into itself, humankind can achieve knowledge of the outside, the surrounding world. Ørsted was too much of an empiricist and experimental physicist to accept this principle. He fully endorsed the second principle, however, which states that there is a harmony or concurrence between each part of the universe and the whole universe, and thus the whole reflects the parts and the parts reflect the whole. Ørsted considered this principle to imply that humankind, with its inherent reason imbued by nature, has the possibility to perceive the harmony of the world or the reason that obtains in nature. Human reason — meaning the ability to reason about natural phenomena available to the senses, including results of experiments made and planned on the basis of expectations and experiences — is therefore an important source of perception of the laws to which nature is subject.

To conduct experiments is to ask questions of nature, and this only lies within the power of someone who already knows about what he should ask. The person experimenting must therefore, on the one hand, be constantly aware of the whole, otherwise he can obtain no clear idea of the parts, on the other, he must not consider any of the parts extraneous to his attention, because each is indeed a part of the whole. He ought never to forget that the forces by which life and motion are maintained throughout nature are found in the smallest as in the largest of bodies,

wrote Ørsted in Videnskaben om Naturens almindelige Love (1809, The Science of the General Laws of Nature).

Voices were heard in Ørsted’s day suggesting that his discovery of electromagnetism had been a matter of luck. In 1857, for example, his pupil and friend, the Norwegian physicist Christopher Hansteen (1784–1873), wrote to Faraday that it had rightly been claimed that Ørsted had stumbled on his discovery by accident. Ørsted had already protested against this belief as early as 1821, and as demonstrated in Absalon Larsen’s original 1920 preface to The Discovery of Electromagnetism, he had conducted a planned series of experiments. In accordance with Romantic natural philosophy about the unity of nature, Ørsted had sought to clarify the relationship between magnetism and electricity, and by means of scrupulously planned experimental enterprise he had interrogated nature about the connection between the two forces, and he had received an answer to his question. Shortly before his death in 1851, Ørsted told a foreign colleague that he could thank inspiration from Romantic natural philosophy for his discovery.

Ørsted was not only the greatest scientist in 19th-century Denmark, he was also a significant figure in the cultural life of his day. The period from c. 1810 to 1860 is often called the Danish Golden Age, due to a flourishing of creativity in the arts. Major Danish figures of the day, who were or are also famous beyond the national borders, include the sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770–1844), writer Hans Christian Andersen (1805–75) and theologians N. F. S. Grundtvig (1783–1872) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55). Like these, Hans Christian Ørsted was a leading cultural light in his time.

In principle, the Danish Golden Age represented a unified culture in which religion, the arts and societal life were amalgamated. Ørsted added science to this triad. When still quite young, he knew that his interests stretched far beyond the natural sciences; for example, in 1796 he responded to the University of Copenhagen’s annual call for ‘prize papers’ by choosing to submit a thesis in the aesthetics category, where the set topic related to boundaries between poetry and prose. Later in life, he expressed the opinion that the great scientific advances of the day should be used as material for literary works. In his poem Luftskibet (The Airship), which he published in 1836, he provided an example of how this idea could be implemented. In a preface to the poem, he wrote:

I am utterly convinced that natural science ought to constitute a significant component of the general education, and in this respect I would like to contribute to the best of my ability in a direction that has hitherto received less attention than it deserved. There is agreement that natural science should be cultivated. Its immense usefulness recommends it to the general public. Those of greater astuteness also recognise the enormous effect it must have on developing the faculty of thought and the perceptive imagination alike. As of yet, however, no particularly serious consideration has been given to connecting it with the thoughts and the emotions that most move humankind, and which I believe can be both expanded and clarified by means of natural science.

Ørsted’s hope that knowledge of natural science would be a component of general education was also evident in 1823 when he founded Selskabet for Naturlærens Udbredelse (Society for the Dissemination of Natural Science), which continues to function today in accordance with the intentions of its founder. His thoughts on natural science as an important factor in character development also led to abrasive showdowns with some of his contemporaries, who put emotions, intuition and faith above experience and reason. Grundtvig, who thought science should be subordinate to the Christian faith, and who asserted the truth of the geocentric world picture because he considered it to be true to the word of the Bible, got as good as he gave, and the poet Bernhard Severin Ingemann (1789–1862) was sharply criticised for being anti-science, because in one of his novels he had referred to reason in negative terms. In these disputes, Ørsted would seem to have been more a child of Enlightenment than of Romanticism.

In 1820, in his search for patrons, the later so very famous writer Hans Christian Andersen approached Ørsted. In his 1855 autobiography Mit Livs Eventyr (The Fairytale of My Life), Andersen wrote that Ørsted had exercised great influence on his intellectual development and was “the only one who, throughout my development as a writer, kept my spirits up, gave me encouragement and predicted a future of recognition and acclaim, also in my homeland.” Their long-standing friendship had familiarised Andersen with the view of nature and the world as expressed in Ørsted’s Aanden i Naturen (The Spirit in Nature), a collection of earlier published and unpublished popular texts issued in 1849–50 when Ørsted was an old man. Many of Andersen’s tales reflected these views, not least “Klokken” (The Bell), which tells about the sound of a bell ringing in the distance, an image of the harmoniously arranged universe, which can sometimes be heard. Many people attempt to reach the spot whence the sound emanates, but only two — a prince (Hans Christian Ørsted) and a poor boy (Hans Christian Andersen) — manage to make their way through a trackless forest, arriving by separate routes at

The sea, the vast, splendid sea […]; all of nature was a vast hallowed cathedral […]; they ran to meet one other, and held each other by the hand in the vast cathedral of Nature and Poetry, while above them the invisible, holy bell was pealing, and around it blessed spirits soared, dancing towards a joyful hallelujah.

Aanden i Naturen (The Spirit in Nature) gave cause, incidentally, for the leader of the Danish Church, Bishop J. P. Mynster (1775–1854), to criticise Ørsted for lacking orthodoxy — thus ending a friendship that went back to their youth.

Ørsted’s endeavours to disseminate natural science to a wider circle were accompanied by his interest in language. This interest was already apparent at an early stage in his scientific career. In 1809, for example, he wrote in the abovementioned Videnskaben om Naturens almindelige Love (The Science of the General Laws of Nature) that it had been his particular wish in this textbook

to use terms of Danish origin rather than foreign words. The entire discourse then becomes more natural, and foreign inflexions — which indisputably disfigure the language far more than foreign root words — will be avoided. Moreover, by being expressed in words of the mother tongue’s own stem, thoughts obtain a far more direct, if I might venture to say, immediate clarity; whereas, upon hearing a foreign word, the thought must first be allowed to sail off to other parts in order to find its origin and inner meaning.

During his lifetime, Ørsted devised approximately 2,000 words with a Danish ring to them, which he used in his writings, and which were to take the place of foreign words and words with a foreign ring to them. Many of these words have gained their foothold in the Danish language: for example, ilt for oxygen, formed from the Danish word ild (fire), and brint for hydrogen, formed from the Danish word brænde (burn). Some of the words Ørsted devised were used by him alone, such as skabelunde for skabelon (template).