Otto von Guericke (November 20, 1602 – May 11, 1686 (Julian calendar); November 30, 1602 – May 21, 1686 (Gregorian calendar) was a German scientist, inventor, and politician.
His major scientific achievements were the establishment of the physics of vacuums, the discovery of an experimental method for clearly demonstrating electrostatic repulsion, and his advocacy of the reality of “action at a distance” and of “absolute space”.
Otto von Guericke was born to a patrician family of Magdeburg, Germany. In 1617 he became a student at the Leipzig University. Owing to the outbreak of the Thirty Years War his studies at Leipzig were disrupted and subsequently he studied at the Academia Julia in Helmstedt and the universities of Jena and Leyden. At the last of these he attended courses on mathematics, physics and fortification engineering.
His education was completed by a nine-month-long trip to France and England. On his return to Magdeburg in 1626 he married Margarethe Alemann and became a member of the Rats Collegium of Magdeburg. He was to remain a member of this body until old age.
Von Guericke was personally distrustful of the city’s enthusiasm for the cause of Gustavus Adolphus but was nonetheless a victim of the fall of Magdeburg to von Tilly’s troops in May 1631. Destitute, but fortunate to escape with his life, he was an Imperial prisoner at a camp in Fermersleben until, through the good offices of Ludwig of Anhalt-Cothen, a ransom of three hundred thalers had been paid.
Following a period of employment as engineer in the service of Gustavus Adolphus he and his family returned to Magdeburg in February 1632. For the next decade he was occupied rebuilding his own and the city’s fortunes from the ruins of the fire of 1631. Under the Swedish and subsequently Saxon authorities he remained involved in the civic affairs of the city, becoming in 1641 a Kammerer and in 1646 Burgomaster, a position he was to hold for thirty years.
His first diplomatic mission on behalf of the city, in September 1642, was to the court of the Elector of Saxony at Dresden to seek some mitigation of the harshness with which the Saxon military commander treated Magdeburg. Diplomatic missions, often dangerous as well as tedious, occupied much of his time for the next twenty years. A private scientific life, of which much remains unclear, was developing in parallel.
His scientific and diplomatic pursuits finally intersected when, at the Reichstag in Regensburg in 1654, he was invited to demonstrate his experiments on the vacuum before the highest dignitaries of the Holy Roman Empire. One of them, the Archbishop Elector Johann Philip von Schonborn, bought von Guericke’s apparatus from him and had it sent to his Jesuit College at Wurzburg.
One of the professors at the College, Fr. Gaspar Schott, entered into friendly correspondence with von Guericke and thus it was that, at the age of 55, von Guericke’s work was first published as an Appendix to a book by Fr. Schott – Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica – published in 1657.
This book came to the attention of Robert Boyle who, stimulated by it, embarked on his own experiments on air pressure and the vacuum, and in 1660 published New Experiments Physico-Mechanical touching the Spring of Air and its Effects. The following year this was translated into Latin and, made aware of it in correspondence with Fr. Schott, von Guericke acquired a copy.
In the decade following the first publication of his own work von Guericke, in addition to his diplomatic and administrative commitments, was scientifically very active. He embarked upon his magnum opus — Ottonis de Guericke Experimenta Nova (ut vocantur) Magdeburgica de Vacuo Spatio — which as well as a detailed account of his experiments on the vacuum, contains his pioneering electrostatic experiments in which electrostatic repulsion was demonstrated for the first time and sets out his theologically based view of the nature of Space.
In the Preface to the Reader he claims to have finished the book on March 14, 1663 though publication was delayed for another nine years until 1672. In 1664, his work again appeared in print, again through the good offices of Fr. Schott, the first section of whose book Technica Curiosa, entitled Mirabilia Magdeburgica, was dedicated to von Guericke’s work.
The earliest reference to the celebrated Magdeburg hemispheres experiment is on p. 39 of the Technica Curiosa where Fr. Schott notes that von Guericke had mentioned them in a letter of July 22, 1656. Fr. Schott goes on to quote a subsequent letter of von Guericke of August 4, 1657 in which he states that he now had carried out the experiment, at considerable cost, with 12 horses.
The 1660s saw the final collapse of Magdeburg’s aim, to which von Guericke had devoted some twenty years of diplomatic effort, of achieving the status of a Free City within the Holy Roman Empire.
On behalf of Magdeburg, he was the first signatory to the Treaty of Klosterberg (1666) whereby Magdeburg accepted a garrison of Brandenburg troops and the obligation to pay dues to the Great Elector, Friedrich Wilhelm I of Brandenburg. Despite the Elector’s crushing of Magdeburg’s political aspirations, the personal relationship of von Guericke and Friedrich Wilhelm remained warm.
The Great Elector was a patron of scientific scholarship; he had employed von Guericke’s son, Hans Otto, as his Resident in Hamburg and in 1666 had named Otto himself to the Brandenburg Rat.
When the Experimenta Nova finally appeared it was prefaced with a fulsome dedication to Friedrich Wilhelm. The year 1666 also saw von Guericke’s ennoblement by Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor when he changed the spelling of his name from “Gericke” to “Guericke” and when he became entitled to the prefix “von”.
Schimank p. 69 reproduces von Guericke’s petition to Leopold requesting the prefix “von” and the change of spelling.
In 1677 von Guericke, after repeated requests, was reluctantly permitted to step down from his civic responsibilities. In January 1681, as a precaution against an outbreak of plague then affecting Magdeburg, he and his second wife Dorothea moved to the home of his son Hans Otto in Hamburg.
There he died peacefully on May 11 (Julian) 1686, 55 years to the day after he had fled the flames in 1631. His body was returned to Magdeburg for interment in the Ulrichskirche on May 23 (Julian) (Schneider p. 144). The Otto von Guericke University of Magdeburg is named after him.
There are only three important contemporary sources describing Von Guericke’s scientific work – Fr. Schott’s Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica and Technica Curiosa of 1657 and 1664 and his own Experimenta Nova of 1672. His scientific concerns may be divided into three areas, to each of which a Book of the Experimenta Nova is dedicated as follows:
Book II: the nature of space and the possibility of the void
Book III: the experimental work on the production of vacua, the pressure of air and the Earth’s atmosphere
Book IV: the investigation into cosmic potencies.
Book II of the Experimenta Nova is an extended philosophical essay in which von Guericke puts forward a view of the nature of Space similar to that later espoused by Newton.
He is explicitly critical of the plenist views of Aristotle and of their adoption by his younger contemporary Descartes. A particular and repeated target of his criticism is the manner in which the “nature abhors a vacuum” principle had migrated from simply a matter of experiment to a high principle of physics which could be invoked to explain phenomena such as suction but which itself was above question.
In setting out his own view, von Guericke, while acknowledging the influence of previous philosophers such as Lessius (but not Gassendi), makes it clear that he considers his thinking on this topic to be original and new. There is no evidence that von Guericke was aware of the “Nouvelles Experiences touchant le vide” of Blaise Pascal published in 1647.
In the Experimenta Nova Book III Ch. 34 he relates how he first became aware of Torricelli’s mercury tube experiment from Valerianus Magnus at Regensburg in 1654.
Pascal’s work built upon reports of the mercury tube experiment which had reached Paris via Marin Mersenne in 1644.
An indication of the unresolved status of the “nature abhors a vacuum” principle at that time may be taken from Pascal’s opinion, expressed in the conclusion of the Nouvelles Experiences, when he writes: “I hold for true the maxims set out below : (a) that all bodies possess a repugnance to being separated one from another and from admitting a vacuum in the interval between them – that is to say that nature abhors a void.”
Pascal goes on to claim that this abhorrence of a void is however a limited force and thus that the creation of a vacuum is possible.
There were three broad currents of opinion from which von Guericke dissented. Firstly there was the Aristotelian view that there simply was no void and that everything that exists objectively is in the category of substance. The general plenist position lost credibility in the 17th century, owing primarily to the success of Newtonian mechanics. It was revived again in the 19th century as a theory of an all pervading aether and again lost plausibility with the success of Special Relativity. Secondly, there was the Augustinian position of an intimate relation between space, time, and matter; all three, according to St. Augustine in the Confessions and the City of God,(Confessions Ch. XI,City of God Book XI Ch. VI) came into being as a unity and ways of speaking that purport to separate them – such as “outside the universe” or “before the beginning of the universe” are, in fact, meaningless. Augustine’s way of thinking is also attractive to many and seems to have a strong resonance with General Relativity. The third view, which von Guericke discusses at length, but does not attribute to any individual, is that Space is a creation of the human Imagination.
Thus it is not truly objective in the sense that matter is objective. The later theories of Leibniz and Kant seem inspired by this general outlook, but the denial of the objectivity of Space has not been scientifically fruitful.
Von Guericke sidestepped the vexed question of the meaning of “nothing” by asserting that all objective reality fell into one of two categories – the created and the uncreated. Space and Time were objectively real but were uncreated, whereas matter was created. In this way he created a new fundamental category alongside Aristotle’s category of substance, that of the uncreated.
His understanding of Space is theological and similar to that expressed by Newton in the Scholium to the Principia. For instance, von Guericke writes (Book II Chapter VII) “For God cannot be contained in any location, nor in any vacuum, nor in any space, for He Himself is, of His nature, location and vacuum.”
In 1654 von Guericke invented a vacuum pump consisting of a piston and an air gun cylinder with two-way flaps designed to pull air out of whatever vessel it was connected to, and used it to investigate the properties of the vacuum in many experiments. This pump is described in Chapters II and III of Book III of the Experimenta Nova and in the Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica (p. 445-6). Guericke demonstrated the force of air pressure with dramatic experiments.
In 1657, he machined two 20-inch diameter hemispheres and pumped all the air out of them, locking them together with a vacuum seal. The air pressure outside held the halves together so tightly that sixteen horses, eight harnessed to each side of the globe, could not pull the halves apart. It would have required more than 4,000 pounds of force to separate them.
With his experiments Guericke disproved the hypothesis of “horror vacui”, that nature abhors a vacuum. Aristotle in e.g. Physics IV 6-9 had argued against the existence of the void and his views commanded near universal endorsement by philosophers and scientists up to the 17th century. Guericke showed that substances were not pulled by a vacuum, but were pushed by the pressure of the surrounding fluids.
All of von Guericke’s work on the vacuum and air pressure is described in Book III of the Experimenta Nova (1672). As regards the more detailed chronology of his work we have, in addition to the Experimenta Nova’s description of his demonstrations at Regensburg in 1654, the two accounts published by Fr.Schott in 1657 and 1663.
In Chapter 27 he alludes to what transpired at Regensburg in 1654. The first experiment he explicitly records as having been demonstrated was the crushing of a non-spherical vessel as the air was withdrawn from it. He did not use a vacuum pump directly on the vessel but allowed the air in it to expand into a previously evacuated receiver.
The second was an experiment in which a number of men proved able to pull an airtight piston only about half way up a cylindrical copper vessel. Von Guericke then attached his evacuated Receiver to the space below the piston and succeeded in drawing the piston back down again against the force of the men pulling it up.
In a letter to Fr. Schott of June 1656, reproduced in Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica (p. 454-455), von Guericke gives a short account of his experiences at Regensburg. Based on this, Schimank  gives a list of ten experiments which he considers likely to have been carried out at Regensburg.
In addition to the above two, these included the extraction of air using a vacuum pump, the extinction of a flame in a sealed vessel, the raising of water by suction, a demonstration that air has weight, and a demonstration of how fog and mist can be produced in a sealed vessel. The Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica also provides the earliest drawing of von Guericke’s vacuum pump. This corresponds to the description in the opening chapters of Book III of the Experimenta Nova of the first version of his pump.
Stimulated by the interest taken in his work von Guericke was scientifically very active in the decade after 1654. In June 1656 we find him writing to Fr. Schott (Mechanica Hydraulico-pneumatica p. 444) “Since the time when I produced the exhibition for the said eminent Elector, I have a better and clearer grasp of all these matters and many other topics as well.” The celebrated hemispheres experiment was, as noted in the biographical section above, carried out between July 1656 and August 1657.
In Chapter IV of Book III he describes a new and much improved design of vacuum pump and attributes its invention to the need for a more easily transportable machine with which he could demonstrate his experiments to Frederick William who had expressed the desire to see them. The new pump is also described on p. 67 of the Technica Curiosa. The demonstration in the Elector’s Library at Cölln an der Spree took place in November 1663 and was recorded by a tutor to the Elector’s sons.
(Schneider p. 113.) A number of experiments, such as the rather cruel testing of the effect of a vacuum on birds and fish (Experimenta Nova Book III Chapter XVI), are not described in the Technica Curiosa.
Although the Experimenta Nova does contain correspondence from 1665, there is no reason to doubt von Guericke’s assertion that the work was essentially finished by March 1663.
Throughout Books II and III he returns again and again to the theme of there being no abhorrence of a vacuum and that all the phenomena explained by this supposed principle are in fact attributable to the pressure of the atmosphere in conjunction with various incorporeal potencies which he held to be acting.
Thus the Earth’s “conservative potency” (virtus conservativa) provided the explanation for the fact that the Earth retains its atmosphere though travelling through space.
In countering the objection of a Dr. Deusing that the weight of the atmosphere would simply crush the bodies of all living things, he shows explicit awareness of the key property of a fluid – that it exerts pressure equally across all planes.
In Chapter XXX of Book III he writes: “Dr. Deusing ought to have borne in mind that the air does not just press on our heads but flows all around us. Just as it presses from above on the head, it likewise presses on the soles of the feet from below and simultaneously on all parts of the body from all directions.”
In the Experimenta Nova Book III Chapter 20 von Guericke reports on a barometer he had constructed and its application to weather forecasting. The earliest reference to his barometer is in a letter to Fr. Schott of November 1661 (Technica Curiosa p. 37) where he writes: “I have observed the variation in the weight of the air by using a little man (i.e. a statue in the form of one) who hangs from a wall in my hypocaust where it floats on air in a glass tube and uses a finger to show the weight or lightness of the air.
At the same time it indicates whether or not it is raining in nearby localities or whether there is unusually stormy weather at sea.”
In a subsequent letter of December 30, 1661 (Technica Curiosa p. 52) he gives a somewhat amplified account. His barometer thus prepared the way for meteorology. His later works focused on electricity. He invented the first electrostatic generator, the “Elektrisiermaschine”, of which a version is illustrated in the engraving by Hubert-François Gravelot, c. 1750.
Von Guericke thought of the capacity of body to exert an influence beyond its immediate boundaries in terms of “corporeal and incorporeal potencies”. Examples of “corporeal potencies” were the giving off of fumes, smells, gases etc. by bodies. An example of an “incorporeal potencies” was the Earth’s “conservative potency” whereby it retained its atmosphere and caused the return of objects thrown upwards to the Earth’s surface.
The Earth also possessed an “expulsive potency” which was deemed to explain why objects that fall bounce back up again. The notion of an “incorporeal potency” is similar to that of “action at a distance” except the former notion remained purely qualitative and there is no inkling of the fundamental “action and reaction” principle.
Von Guericke describes his work on electrostatics in Chapter 15 of Book IV of the Experimenta Nova. In a letter of November 1661 to Fr. Schott, reproduced in the Technica Curiosa, he notes that the then projected Book IV would be concerned with “cosmic potencies” (virtutes mundanae).
Accepting the claim of the preface to the Experimenta Nova that the entire work had been essentially completed before March 1663, von Guericke can be fairly credited with inventing a primitive form of frictional electrical machine before 1663. He used a sulphur globe that could be rubbed by hand.
In Chapter 6 of Book IV von Guericke writes: “It seems reasonable to suppose that if the Earth has a fitting and appropriate attractive potency it will also have a potency of repelling things that might be dangerous or disagreeable to it. This is to be seen in the case of the sulphur sphere described below in Chapter 15.
When that sphere is stroked or rubbed not only does it attract all light objects, but it sometimes arbitrarily also repels them before attracting them again.
Sometimes indeed it doesn’t even attract them again.” Von Guericke was aware of both Gilbert’s book “On the Magnet and Magnetic bodies and on the great magnet the Earth” published in 1600 and of the Jesuit Niccolo Cabeo’s “Philosophia Magnetica” (1629).
He does not explicitly acknowledge any anticipation of his demonstration of electrostatic repulsion by the latter but,as he quotes a passage from the same page, could not have been unaware that, in a discussion of the nature of electrical attraction, Cabeo had written (Philosophia Magnetica p. 192): ” When we see that small bodies (corpuscula) are lifted (sublevari et attolli) above the amber and also fall back to the motionless amber, it cannot be said that such erratic behaviour (talem matum – but if “matum” is taken as a misprint for “motum”, then the translation is simply “such motion”) is an attraction by the gravity of the attracting body.”
In Book IV Chapter 8 of the Experimenta Nova von Guericke is at pains to point out the difference between his own “incorporeal potency” views and Cabeo’s more Aristotelian conclusions. He writes : “Writers who have written on magnetism, always confuse it with electrical attraction, although there is a great difference. In particular, Gilbert in his book De Magnete claims that electrical attraction is caused by the effluence of a humour, that the humid seeks the humid and this is the cause of the attraction.
Moreover in Philosophia Magnetica, Book 2 Chapter 21, Cabeo criticises Gilbert but does admit that this attraction is created by the agency of an effluent. Humidity does not play any role but the attraction is brought about purely by the agency of an effluent, by which the air is disturbed.After the initial impulse, the air returns to the amber again taking with it little particles.
He (Cabeo) concludes by saying :’I say therefore that from amber or any other electrically attracting body, a very rarefied effluent is emitted which dispels and attenuates the air, extremely agitating it. Then the agitated and attenuated air returns to the amber body sweeping along with it whatever dust or small bodies are in its way’.
We however, who in the previous chapter, take the attraction of the sulphur ball as electrical in nature and operating through a conservative potency, cannot admit that the air plays a role in producing the attraction. Experiment visibly shows that this sulphur globe (once it has been rubbed) also exercises its potency through a linen cord up to a range of a cubit and more and can attract at that distance.”
The key Chapter 15 is entitled “On an experiment, in which these potencies, listed above,can be evoked by the rubbing of a sulphur ball.” In Section 3 of this chapter he describes how light bodies are repelled from a sulphur sphere which has been rubbed with a dry hand, and are not again attracted until they have touched another body.
Oldenburg’s review of the Experimenta Nova (November 1672) in the Proceeding of the Royal Society sceptically observes: “How far this globe may be confided in, the Tryals and Consideration of some ingenious person here may perhaps inform us hereafter.” In fact, Robert Boyle repeated von Guericke’s experiments for the Royal Society in November 1672 and February 1673.