Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776–1810)

Johann Wilhelm Ritter was born on December 16,1776 in Samitz (then Silesia, Germany, now Chojnow, Poland). After working for five years as an apprentice to a pharmacist, in 1795 a small inheritance allowed Ritter to enter the University of Jena at the age of nineteen. There, he benefited from the scientific mentorship of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), who reinforced his interests into electrical experiments. In 1801 he was appointed to the court of Ernst II, Duke of Gotha-Altenburg, and in 1804 moved to the Bavarian Academy of Science in Munich, where he remained until his untimely death on January 23, 1810.

Drawing of Johann Wilhelm Ritter

Drawing of Johann Wilhelm Ritter.


Ritter was interested primarily in electricity, in particular electrochemistry and electrophysiology, areas in which he made many remarkable discoveries. In 1799 he carried out electrolysis of water and in 1800 investigated the process of electroplating. In 1801 he observed thermoelectrical currents, and investigated the artificial electrical excitation of muscles. From 1802 to 1803 he built the first dry cell battery and accumulator.

In 1801 Ritter discovered ultraviolet radiation by chemical means. This foray into spectroscopy was motivated by the discovery of infrared radiation by William Herschel in 1800, coupled to his general belief in electrical polarity pervading nature. He speculated that invisible radiation beyond the visible red had to be paired to invisible radiation beyond the violet.

Ritter had a difficult writing style, a tendency to speculate to excess, and procrastinated heavily when it came to publishing detailed accounts of his investigations and discoveries. For these reasons, many of his findings went unnoticed, only to be soon independently rediscovered by other scientists. In the last years of his life, his scientific credibility was also damaged by his interest in occult phenomena, and more importantly by the inability of other scientists to reproduce his experiments in this area. Dismissed by most of his scientific peers, facing severe financial difficulties and family illnesses, Ritter died an embittered man a few weeks after his 33rd birthday. It took over a century before his scientific work was given due credit.


McRae, R.J., The Dictionary of Scientific Biographies, 1980–1990, New York.

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