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Observations placeholder

Ritter, Johann Wilhelm – Experiments with Divining rods and pendulums



Type of Spiritual Experience


Ignore the skepticism, Ritter was the first to systematically experiment and document results using a pendulum and preceeded such eminent scientists as Professor Bose in experimenting on plants, all this in the early 1800s.

A description of the experience

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

A strange new idea began to itch inside his head. What if, he wondered, all the phenomena dismissed by science as supernatural were manifestations of the galvanic force?

What if magic was actually a form of electrical interaction between objects? He heard about a young Italian peasant who claimed to be able to detect water and metals beneath the earth with a dowsing rod. Ritter thought it was worth investigating. The twitching of the dowsing rod, he mused, resembled the twitching of a frog's leg in response to electrical stimuli. He petitioned the Bavarian Academy to allow him to travel to Italy to meet this peasant. They were hesitant. They doubted it was real science, but Ritter persisted and finally they relented. In 1806 he departed, full of hope. Once again he was on a voyage of discovery into unexplored new territory.

Ritter returned a year later, bursting with excitement, convinced that the supernatural was a form of electrical activity.

 'Here I stand at the entrance to great secrets,' he proclaimed.

Eagerly he demonstrated his discoveries to his colleagues, showing them how a hand-held pendulum mysteriously swayed when held over various parts of the human body. His colleagues cast sceptical glances at each other and whispered behind his back: 'What is Ritter up to? If we let him carry on with this, he'll make a laughing stock of the Academy!'

Ludwig Gilbert, the former publisher of many of Ritter's articles, led the attack against him. He published a scathing critique of Ritter's pendulum experiments, dismissing them as pseudo-science, commenting cynically that the only knowledge they could ever produce was knowledge of how the senses can be deceived. Ritter found his colleagues no longer willing to talk to him. He became a scientific outcast.

Chastened, Ritter cast about for a way to redeem himself. In his desperation, he reached out for something that made him feel safe. Something he knew well. The pendulum had betrayed him, but his old love, the voltaic pile - that had always been true.

His wife must have had reservations when he raised the subject of more voltaic pile experiments. Not on yourself, she might have pleaded. But he assured her that he had a different plan. He had always been curious about the presence of galvanism in plants. Now he had a chance to pursue that question. There would be no danger at all.

So the voltaic column moved back in to Ritter's house - like the third member in a bizarre love triangle. Ritter threw himself back into his work. He wrote to a friend that he returned to his experiments 'con amore'. He spent his days exposing Mimosa pudica plants to the stimulation of the voltaic pile, recording how their leaves bent or their stalks twisted in response to the galvanic force. In the long hours he spent with the plants, he began to imagine that they sensed his presence and reacted positively to it - especially, he noted somewhat ominously, if he were sober.

But despite some intriguing results, his colleagues continued to spurn him. His scientific reputation seemed beyond repair. Old aches and pains from his years of self-experimentation also troubled him. To ease them he drank more heavily and increased his opium intake. Debts piled up. He realized he couldn't afford life in Munich with a family.

The source of the experience

Ritter, Johann Wilhelm

Concepts, symbols and science items





Science Items

Activities and commonsteps



Manic depression