Don’t Try This at Home

12 16 johann wilhelm ritterToday is the birthday of Johann Wilhelm Ritter, who was born in 1776 in Silesia, then in Prussia, now in Poland. He was a chemist and physicist with a side interest in philosophy and romanticism, which was rather his downfall. That, and the experiments that he relentlessly performed on his own body.

He began his scientific career at fourteen, when he became apprentice to an apothecary and afterwards studied medicine at the University of Jena. His interest in science sprang from the electrical experiments of Luigi Galvani, who experimented with the effects of electricity on dissected animals in the late eighteenth century. It was work that had led to Alessandro Volta’s invention of the voltaic pile (a sort of battery) which he also used.

In 1800, he discovered that he could use electricity to decompose water into its constituent parts of hydrogen and oxygen. He also found a way of collecting the two gases separately. In the same year he discovered the process of electroplating. He noticed that he could make particles of another metal attach to copper using an electric current. In 1802, he built the first dry cell battery, which he found retained its electrical charge for much longer than the voltaic pile; days rather than hours. That’s quite a list of achievements. But sadly he was not widely recognised or well remembered because he wrote up his notes, if he wrote them up at all, in a rather unscientific way. What he was looking for was a universal balance in all of nature. He hoped to prove that the universe was a single living entity whose functions were, on all levels, interrelated. For example, he believed that it was a certain arrangement of celestial objects that had led to the discoveries of the Leiden jar and the voltaic pile. Then, when he began to do experiments with dowsing, because he believed that magic would turn out to be some king of electricity, and to electrocute plants to see what would happen, people thought he’d really lost it. He probably had. He was thought of as a man who had lost himself in his own dreams.

But it was his belief in an overall balance in nature that led him to his most important discovery. In 1801, Ritter discovered ultraviolet light. William Herschal had recently discovered a light, invisible to man, at one end of the colour spectrum, infra-red. Ritter felt there must be another invisible light at the blue end of the spectrum. Infra-red gives off heat and Herschal had been able to detect it with a thermometer. Ritter couldn’t use this trick at the cooler end of the spectrum and he had to think of something else. He knew that paper which was coated with silver chloride turned black in sunlight. Using a prism, he was able to prove that this happened much more quickly at the blue end of the spectrum than the red. When he exposed the paper only to the invisible part, beyond violet, he found that the paper turned black even more quickly. He had proved that there was a light there that we can’t see.

09 09 voltaic pileI mentioned at the beginning that he performed experiments on himself. This is actually quite common, but Ritter really took it to obsessive extremes. He began by repeating Galvini’s experiment, but he touched one open end of the circuit to a frog’s leg and the other to his own tongue. Once Volta’s voltaic pile became known, he built his own, adding more and more discs to the pile, making the current stronger and stronger and applying it to different parts of his body. Galvini believed that the nerves carried an electrical fluid and Ritter was really trying to find out if electricity applied in certain ways could enhance or dull the senses. He would grab the positive and negative wires in his hands, making himself part of a closed circuit, perhaps for an hour at a time. He noticed that while his positive hand grew warm, the hand on the negative side of the circuit grew cold. But this was not enough for Ritter. He tried his tongue. The positive side tasted acidic and made his tongue feel as if it were bursting out in welts. The negative side tasted alkaline and made it feel as though there was a huge hole in the centre. Putting a wire up each nostril made him sneeze. A wire in each ear made a sharp crackling sound on the negative pole and a muffled sound on the positive. Then he tried his eyeballs. In one eye, everything bowed outwards and he saw blue flashes. In the other eye, he saw a red haze and everything became smaller and sharper. Being the thorough, and also rather unhinged, person that he was, he next tried his genitals. Touching the positive pole to his penis produced a medium swelling. He then tried wrapping it in a cloth which he had moistened with milk to improve the conductivity. He experienced a lot more swelling, but dutifully kept going until he experienced a massive orgasm. Unsurprisingly he judged his experiment a resounding success. He was rather difficult to separate from his voltaic pile after that. Perhaps it was what led him to invent his long life battery.

Ritter pressed on with his experiments and his eyeballs became infected, he experienced frequent headaches, muscle spasms, numbness and stomach cramps. His lungs filled with mucus, which probably contributed from his death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three. He was forced to resort to alcohol and to opium to endure the pain, which also became a problem for him. Of course no one should repeat these experiments anywhere, ever. Johann Wilhelm Ritter died alone and in extreme poverty. It was only after his death that the importance of some of his discoveries were noted. He’s a frightening example of why it’s not a good idea to become too obsessed by one thing. What I like about writing this blog is that I can never get overly fixated on one subject. Finish one subject and it’s probably time to learn about something completely different. I aim to keep my interests broad but shallow, and yours as well.

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