Heinrich Hertz

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The rigour of science requires that we distinguish well the undraped figure of Nature itself from the gay-coloured vesture with which we clothe her at our pleasure.

Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (February 22, 1857January 1, 1894) was a German physicist who clarified and expanded the electromagnetic theory of light that had been put forth by Maxwell. He was the first to satisfactorily demonstrate the existence of electromagnetic waves by building an apparatus to produce and detect VHF or UHF radio waves.


It is not particularly satisfactory to see equations set forth as direct results of observation and experiment, where we used to get long mathematical deductions as apparent proofs of them.
  • It's of no use whatsoever. This is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right—we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there.
    • As quoted by Andrew Norton, Dynamic fields and waves (2000) p. 83.

Electric Waves: Being Researches on the Propagation of Electric Action with Finite Velocity Through Space (1893)[edit]

Tr. D. E. Jones, source. Original German publication: Untersuchungen uber die Ausbreitung der Elektrisehen Kraft (1892)
  • It is not particularly satisfactory to see equations set forth as direct results of observation and experiment, where we used to get long mathematical deductions as apparent proofs of them. Nevertheless, I believe that we cannot, without deceiving ourselves, extract much more from known facts than is asserted in the papers referred to. If we wish to lend more color to the theory, there is nothing to prevent us from supplementing all this and aiding our powers of imagination by concrete representations of the various conceptions as to the nature of electric polarisation, the electric current, etc.
    • Introduction, p. 28
  • When a constant electric current flows along a cylindrical wire, its strength is the same at every part of the section of the wire. But if the current is variable, self-induction produces a deviation from this... induction opposes variations of the current in the centre of the wire more strongly than at the circumference, and consequently the current by preference flows along the outer portion of the wire. When the current changes its direction... this deviation increases rapidly with the rate of alternation; and when the current alternates many million times per second, almost the whole of the interior of the wire must, according to theory, appear free from current, and the flow must confine itself to the very skin of the wire. Now in such extreme cases... preference must be given to another conception of the matter which was first presented by Messrs. 0. Heaviside and J. H. Poynting, as the correct interpretation of Maxwell's equations as applied to this case. According to this view, the electric force which determines the current is not propagated in the wire itself, but under all circumstances penetrates from without into the wire, and spreads into the metal with comparative slowness and according to laws similar to those which govern changes of temperature in a conducting body.
    ...Inasmuch as I made use of electric waves in wires of exceedingly short period in my experiments on the propagation of electric force, it was natural to test by means of these the correctness of the conclusions deduced. As a matter of fact the theory was found to be confirmed by the experiments...
    • "On the Propagation of Electric Waves by Means of Wires" (1889) Wiedemann's Annalen. 37 p. 395, & pp.160-161 of Electric Waves

Quotes about Hertz[edit]

  • The difficult surface conditions met with when light passes from one medium to another, including such subjects as ellipticity, total reflection, etc., have been critically discussed among others by Neumann (1835) and Rayleigh (1888) but the discrimination between the Fresnel and the Neumann vector was not accomplished without misgiving before the advent of the work of Hertz.
    It appears... that the elastic theories of light, if Kelvin's gyrostatic adynamic ether be admitted, have not been wholly routed. Nevertheless the great electromagnetic theory of light propounded by Maxwell (1864, 'Treatise,' 1873) has been singularly apt not only in explaining all the phenomena reached by the older theories and in predicting entirely novel results, but in harmoniously uniting as parts of a unique doctrine, both the electric or photographic light vector of Fresnel and Cauchy and the magnetic vector of Neumann and MacCullagh. Its predictions have, moreover, been astonishingly verified by the work of Hertz (1890), and it is to-day acquiring added power in the convection theories of Lorentz (1895) and others.
    • Carl Barus, "The Progress of Physics in the Nineteenth Century," II., Science, (Sept. 29, 1905) Vol. 22, pp.387-388, "Theories."
  • The subject of electric oscillation announced in a remarkable paper of Henry in 1842 and threshed out in its main features by Kelvin in 1856, followed by Kirchhoff's treatment of the transmission of oscillations along a wire (1857), has become of discriminating importance between Maxwell's theory of the electric field and the other equally profound theories of an earlier date. These crucial experiments contributed by Hertz (1887, et seq.) showed that electromagnetic waves move with the velocity of light, and like it are capable of being reflected, refracted, brought to interference and polarized. A year later Hertz (1888) worked out the distribution of the vectors in the space surrounding the oscillatory source. ...Some doubt was thrown on the details of Hertz's results by Sarasin and de la Rive's phenomenon of multiple resonance (1890), but this was soon explained away as the necessary result of the occurrence of damped oscillations by Poincaré (1891), by Bjerknes (1891) and others.
    • Carl Barus, "The Progress of Physics in the Nineteenth Century," II., Science, (Sept. 29, 1905) Vol. 22, p.394, "Electric Oscillation."
  • In 1888... Heinrich Hertz succeeded in producing electromagnetic waves (to which he subsequently gave the shorter name of electric waves) standing in free space and gliding over wires; he showed that they could be reflected, refracted, polarized, diffused, and generally followed optical laws just as though they were light waves. This achievement was the first real advance toward the art of wireless telegraphy.
    As a detector of electric waves at a distance from whence they were emitted, Hertz employed a circlet of wire having an air gap in it of microscopic size; this he termed a "resonator." The distance to which waves could be detected with it was very limited, but it served Hertz's purpose admirably. ...
    Any theory advanced must conform with Maxwell's conceptions and the experiments of Hertz, but as the fundamental equations by which Maxwell evolved his theory are as broad as they are beautiful, its interpretations by various technicians are widely divergent, and the final solution is rendered all the more difficult when Hertz's work is consulted; for he not only observed electric waves in free space, but waves which traverse the surface of wires as well.
  • Although experimenters had attempted by various means to submit Maxwell's views to a test, the technical difficulties were so great that no success had been achieved. It appeared clearly from Maxwell's equations that no appreciable effects could be anticipated unless dE/dt was very great; and this meant that the electric intensity E would have to vary with extreme rapidity. The simplest means of obtaining a result of this kind would be to produce an oscillating field of electric intensity in which the oscillations were extremely rapid, say, several millions per second. But no mechanical contrivance could yield such rapid vibrations, and... no other methods suggested themselves. ...
    In 1885 Helmholtz directed the attention of his pupil, Hertz, to the problem. Hertz was one of the most remarkable experimenters of the nineteenth century; he succeeded in at last vanquishing the technical difficulties and in generating by purely electrical means an oscillating electric field of extremely high frequency. Electromagnetic waves of sufficient intensity were thus produced; and after having been sidetracked for a time by a secondary phenomenon whose nature was elucidated by Poincaré, Hertz verified the fact that the waves advanced with the speed of light and indeed possessed all the essential properties of light waves other than those of visibility to the human eye. Thus, as a result of Hertz's experiments, the foundations were laid for the commercial use of wireless and radio; but, more important still, Maxwell's electromagnetic theory of light establishing the intimate connection between electricity and optics had been at last vindicated.
  • If the idea of physical reality had ceased to be purely atomic, it still remained for the time being purely mechanistic; people still tried to explain all events as the motion of inert masses; indeed no other way of looking at things seemed conceivable. Then came the great change, which will be associated for all time with the names of Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, and Hertz.
    • Albert Einstein, "Clerk Maxwell's Influence on the Evolution of the Idea of Physical Reality" in Essays in Science (1934)
  • Heinrich Hertz seemed to be predestined to open up to mankind many of the secrets which nature has hitherto concealed from us; but all these hopes were frustrated by the malignant disease which, creeping slowly but surely on, robbed us of this precious life and of the achievements which it promised.
    • Hermann von Helmholtz, Introduction to Hertz, The Principles of Mechanics Presented in a New Form (1899) Tr. D. E. Jones, J. T. Walley, p. vii.
  • As a boy he won the appreciation of his parents and teachers by his high moral character. Already his pursuits showed his natural inclinations. While still attending school he worked of his own accord at the bench and lathe, on Sundays he attended the Trade School to practise geometrical drawing, and with the simplest appliances he constructed serviceable optical and mechanical instruments. ...It is in young men of unusual capacity that one most frequently observes [his] sort of timid modesty. ...their strength must be tried by some practical test before they can secure the self-reliance requisite for their difficult task. And even in later years men of great ability are the less content with their own achievements the higher their capacity and ideals. The most gifted attain the highest and truest success because they are most keenly alive to the presence of imperfection and most unwearied in removing it. ...[A]s he grew in knowledge he grew in the conviction that only in scientific work could he find enduring satisfaction.

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