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Ritter, Johann Wilhelm

Category: Genius


Johann Wilhelm Ritter (16 December 1776 – 23 January 1810) was a German who is viewed as one of the founders of modern electro-chemistry, anticipating many later discoveries, although he was not always aware of the significance of his own results.  He was born in Samitz (Zamienice) near Haynau (Chojnów) in Silesia (then part of Prussia, since 1945 in Poland), and died in Munich.

Ritter was a genius in the true meaning of the term, brilliant but really not of this world, shy awkward and anti-social, and almost permanently manic.  He married a prostitute, had four children he couldn’t feed, was incapable of managing money and was, as a consequence, constantly in debt; and he experimented on himself using electricity with an abandon that appears either masochistic or suicidal. 

Ritter was fascinated by experiments in electrical excitation of muscle and sensory organs as well as the electro-physiology of plants. Much of his success in such studies was due to the use of his own body, even at very high voltages. Needless to say this was not without effect.  He became very ill. While embroiled in several controversies as a member of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences (Munich), he died at the young age of 33.

In the following description, I have used extracts from a book which has details of Ritter’s life.  Although it may contain some dramatised enactments, it also evokes in a very vivid way how much he suffered for his science.  It also describes in some detail experiments Ritter tried on himself using electricity, which few encyclopaedias are likely to ever publish.


It might be added that the same reticence is used in these encyclopaedias about his marriage, where they simply state “From 17 June 1804 married to his housemaid, Johanna Dorothea Münchgesang (10 October 1788–20 November 1823), with whom he had already been living in an open marriage in Jena”.  And in contrast we have a description of what she was doing before she became his 'maid'.

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese
In 1803, Ritter had a chance encounter. During one of his rare excursions out of his room, a young woman caught his eye. She was eighteen and beautiful. Her name was Dorothea. Excitedly he wrote to a friend, telling him of the 'girl of delightful quality' he had recently met. The historian Dan Christensen notes that Dorothea was, apparently, a prostitute. Nevertheless, Ritter genuinely loved her.


She was also, it seems, a good soul; for under her influence, he began to shake off his fascination with self destructing via his experiments with the voltaic pile.  For a while he returned to a semblance of a normal life.  But not for long.

Ritter as mystic

Ritter belonged to the German Romantic movement. He was personally acquainted with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, Johann Gottfried Herder and Clemens Brentano. He was strongly influenced by the philosophers of the time and the Naturphilosophie movement.  In other words he was a believer in the spiritual.  One of the key concepts in mystic and spiritual philosophy is that of contrast.


Many of Ritter's researches were guided by a search for polarities – opposites - in the several "forces" of nature, and for the relation between those "forces" – two of the assumptions of Naturphilosophie.

In 1801, after hearing about the discovery of "heat rays" (infrared radiation) by William Herschel (in 1800), Ritter looked for an opposite (cooling) radiation at the other end of the visible spectrum.

He did not find exactly what he expected to find, but after a series of attempts he noticed that silver chloride was transformed faster from white to black when it was placed at the dark region of the Sun's spectrum, close to its violet end. The "chemical rays" found by him were afterwards called ultraviolet radiation.

Thus his research was guided by mystic principles.



Ritter’s studies principally focussed on electricity and what it could do. 

He suggested, for example, as early as 1798, that chemical reactions can generate electricity.   He was also, however, an avid researcher into the so called ‘occult'. 

He did a great deal of work into pendulums and studied dowsing. His ‘inclination to mysticism’ and his research into what were regarded as ‘various questionable phenomena’, including the divining rod and the medium Francesco Campetti, did not go down well with establishment science.

He is also described as having “an unorthodox, imprecise writing style”— which contributed to his later lack of recognition. A great deal of Ritter’s work would in fact have gone unreported if it was not for Hans Christian Ørsted, who visited him in Jena in 1801, and became his friend. Several of Ritter's discoveries were later reported by Ørsted.


Ritter’s most important contribution to electro-chemistry came in 1798. Ritter was the first to establish an explicit connection between galvanism and chemical reactivity. He correlated the electrical effects produced by various metal couples on the muscle with differences in the metals’ ease of oxidation. His suggestion that current was due to a chemical interaction between the metals was the first electro-chemical explanation of this phenomenon.

This is equipment from 1850, forty years after Ritter's death
but it shows that ideas do catch on in time

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

To conduct his experiments, Ritter used the most sensitive electrical detection equipment he could find - his own body. He placed a zinc rod on the tip of his tongue and a silver rod at the back of it. When he did so, he felt an acidic taste, indicating a reaction was occurring. Next he created a circuit that connected his extended tongue to the metal rods and then to a pair of frog's legs. Again he felt an acidic taste, and simultaneously the frog's legs twitched away, proving the presence of a galvanic reaction. He performed similar experiments on his eyeballs (he saw lights dance in his vision), and his nose (he experienced a sharp pain and a prickling sensation).

In 1798, two years after arriving in Jena, Ritter published his results in a book with the wordy title Proof that a Continuous Galvanism Accompanies the Process of Life in the Animal Kingdom. At this point, his future looked promising. The book was well received by the scientific community, gaining him a reputation as a skilled experimenter and an expert on galvanism.

Decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis

In 1800, only months after the English chemist William Nicholson succeeded in decomposing water into hydrogen and oxygen by electrolysis, Ritter duplicated the experiment but arranged the electrodes so that he could collect the two gases separately, thus improving on the experiments of Carlisle and Nicholson.


Ritter discovered the process of electroplating. He observed that he could get metal to attach to copper which was the first electroplating attempt. He also observed the amount of metal deposited and the amount of oxygen produced during an electrolytic process that depended on the distance between the electrodes. He learned that the closer the electrodes, the stronger the effects. The basic concept of electrolysis and electroplating were discovered by Ritter at the same time or in some cases earlier than Carlisle and Nicholson's, or Davy's experiments.

Thermo-electric currents

In 1801 he observed thermo-electric currents and anticipated the discovery of thermo-electricity by Thomas Johann Seebeck.

Discovery of Ultraviolet

As mentioned above, whilst at the University of Jena, he experimented with silver chloride. Although it was known that AgCl decomposed in light, Ritter found that this process was most efficient in the presence of “invisible” radiation, beyond the violet end of the spectrum. This radiation became known as ultraviolet radiation. Thus Ritter discovered the ultraviolet end of the spectrum.

Dry cell batteries 

Count Volta demonstrates his newly-invented battery or
'Voltaic pile' to Napoleon

Ritter  made the first dry cell battery in 1802 and a storage battery in 1803.

In 1802, he developed a dry cell battery from his efforts with electrolytic cells. He found that his new combination worked as well as the Volta pile to charge Leyden jars, and continued to function equally well for six days.

Volta's pile worked only about 15 to 20 minutes before exhausting.

Ritter again did not publish his work on the dry pile because he stated that his two months of very concentrated research would take him two years to write.

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

In 1800, the Italian physicist Alessandro Volta made an announcement that changed Ritter's life. In fact, it changed the entire direction of electrical research. Volta unveiled a device he called an 'artificial electric organ'. It quickly became more widely known as a voltaic pile, though it did look rather like a tall, phallic organ. It consisted of a vertically stacked column of pairs of silver and zinc discs - or copper and zinc discs - separated by pieces of brine-soaked fabric or paper. The combination of the metals and the brine (the electrolyte) triggered a chemical reaction that produced an electrical current.

If a person placed his hands on the top and bottom poles of this pile of discs, he felt the tingle of an electric current. Stack up more discs, and the current became stronger; the tingle turned into a painful shock. Discs could be stacked ad infinitum, causing the current to become ever more powerful. What Volta had created was the world's first battery, allowing for continuous, steady, and strong discharges of electrical current over long periods of time……..

Ritter immediately fell in love with the voltaic pile. He set to work building his own and busied himself tinkering with it and finding new applications for it. The next two years were the most productive time in his life, as if the pile had energized his intellectual abilities. This was the period during which almost all his 'firsts' occurred, including his discovery of the process of electroplating, his observation of thermoelectric currents, and his construction of a dry-cell battery (a variation of the voltaic pile).

But for Ritter the most exciting aspect of the voltaic pile was that it allowed him physically to experience galvanism. It was like a portal into an invisible world of energy that buzzed and vibrated all around him. He couldn't resist the temptation to plug into that world and discover its secrets, to expose himself to the stinging bite of its current.

Ritter had previously used his body in galvanic experiments, such as when he connected his tongue in an electrical circuit with a dead frog, but the voltaic pile generated far more force. In fact, it was a punishing mistress, though he was willing to endure its lash. The language of romantic play is not simply an affectation. Ritter used it himself. In January 1802, shortly before commencing work on the construction of a massive, 600-disc pile, he wrote to his publisher: 'Tomorrow I marry - my battery!' His publisher probably didn't realize, at least initially, how literally Ritter meant that phrase.

Ritter began his voltaic self-experiments by stacking between sixty and one hundred discs in the column - an amount that generated a powerful jolt. Then he systematically touched the wires from the pile to each of his sensory organs.

First he clenched both wires in his hands, allowing the current to tingle all the way up to his shoulders. His arm muscles twitched and jerked. He was intrigued by how the positive and negative poles of the pile produced different sensations. For instance, the longer he remained within the closed circuit - sometimes for up to an hour - the more the hand connected to the positive pole grew warm and flexible, whereas the negative side chilled and stiffened, as if exposed to a cold draught.

Next he carefully placed the wires on his tongue. The positive pole produced an acidic flavour - after a few moments his tongue felt as if it were bursting out with welts - whereas the negative pole tasted alkaline and produced an empty feeling, as if an enormous hole had formed in the centre of his tongue. Sticking both wires up his nose caused him to sneeze. When the wires were in his ears, he heard a sharp, crackling buzz on the negative pole and a muffled noise, as if his head was full of sand, on the positive pole. Finally, he touched the wires gingerly to his eyeballs. Strange colours swam in his vision. In one eye, shapes bent and warped. He saw blue flashes. Objects shimmered and bowed outward. In the other eye, everything he gazed at became sharper and smaller, veiled in a red haze.

However, Ritter wasn't done with his testing. There was a sixth sensory organ, that part of the body, as he wrote, 'in which the personal sense of self comes to a peak in its concentration and completeness'. This was his zeugungsorgan - his genitals. Ritter was far too thorough a researcher to neglect them.

He waited for darkness to conduct these experiments. Carefully he locked the door. This was not only so that no acquaintance would burst in and catch him in a compromising position, but also, so he said, because he needed to be in a complete state of relaxation to allow him to focus entirely on the interaction between himself and the battery.

His organ began in a state of medium swelling. He wrapped it in a piece of cloth moistened with lukewarm milk - he must have thought milk would be gentler on his skin than brine. Then, delicately, he touched the wire from the positive pole to the cloth, while, with his other hand (moistened for better conduction), he closed the circuit on the other side. A shock jolted him, followed by a pleasant tingling. Not surprisingly, his zeugungsorgan responded by swelling. And then it swelled more. The sensation, he admitted, was rather agreeable. Warmth spread out from his groin. Soon he reached a state of maximum tumescence, but dutifully he kept the current flowing. The pleasure built and built, washing over him in waves, until finally - consummation. At this point, he terminated the experiment. He judged it a resounding success.

If Ritter had stopped there, his self-experiments might be remembered as merely a little eccentric, somewhat beyond the pale of normal scientific practice. But given his habit of always going to extremes, he didn't stop. He pushed onward, piling more and more discs onto his voltaic pile - 150, 175, 200. At these strengths, he was able to do serious damage to his body, and he did.

As a result of his brutal self-experimentation, his eyes grew infected. He endured frequent headaches, muscle spasms, numbness, and stomach cramps. His lungs filled with mucus. He temporarily lost much of the sensation in his tongue. Dizzy spells overcame him, causing him to collapse. A feeling of crushing fatigue, sometimes lasting for weeks at a time, made it difficult for him to get out of bed. At one time, the electric current paralysed his arm for a week. But instead of stopping, he merely expressed frustration at the inability of his body to endure more, and despite the difficulty of the experiments, he noted, 'I have not shrunk from thoroughly assuring myself of the invariability of their results through frequent repetition.'


Pendulum studies

Ritter studied the pendulum in Italy. He concluded that everything contained a special signature, as the pendulum almost always acted in a specific fashion when held over different objects.

T C Lethbridge came to exactly the same conclusion and it is interesting to compare the work the two  – see Dowsing using pendulums.  Ritter’s research naturally led him to study the polarities of the human body, so he could arguably claim to be the first ‘radiesthetist’. It was also Ritter’s perseverance in the face of ridicule that encouraged Professor Antoine Gerboin of the University of Strasbourg to publish a book that contained 253 tests that could be done with a pendulum.


Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

Ritter was born on 16 December 1776 in the small town of Samitz, Silesia, in what is now modern-day Poland. His father, a Protestant minister, did his best to encourage young Johann to pursue a respectable career, but the boy must have caused him concern. Johann was smart, that was obvious, but he was also a dreamer. He always had his nose in books reading about the strangest things - astronomy, chemistry, and who knows what else. In 1791, when Johann turned fourteen, his father arranged for him to apprentice as a pharmacist in the neighboring town of Liegnitz, but although Johann mastered the necessary skills in no time at all, there were rumblings of complaint from his employer. Couldn't the boy be nicer to the customers? Why was he always so brooding and taciturn? Couldn't he be tidier? The minister feared for his son's future.


If only Ritter senior had known what thoughts were tumbling through his son's head, he would have been far more worried. All kinds of book learning had poured into the boy's mind - science, history, poetry, mysticism - and there they'd swirled together into strange, exotic fantasies. Johann had no interest in preparing lotions and powders to ease the medical complaints of the bourgeois townsfolk of Liegnitz. Instead, he burned with an intense desire to peer deep into the mysteries of Nature. He dreamed of being a scholar, or a poet, steeped in arcane, hidden forms of knowledge. Such ambitions, however, were completely impractical for a minister's son of modest means.

Luigi Galvani's experiments with frogs, which had demonstrated an intriguing link between electricity and the movement of muscles, had particularly inflamed young Johann's imagination. Galvani's work suggested to Ritter that electricity might be the animating fluid of life itself. The same idea simultaneously occurred to many others, for which reason the closing years of the eighteenth century saw researchers throughout Europe busy dissecting frogs and making the limbs of amphibians perform macabre electric dances in their labs.

The form of electricity Galvani had uncovered, a kind that seemed to flow within (and perhaps was created by) bodies, became popularly known as Galvanic electricity or Galvanism, to differentiate it from static electricity. To Ritter, it was a mystery that called out to him. He yearned to know more about it, but as long as he was stuck behind the counter of a pharmacy in Liegnitz, he was powerless to satisfy his hunger for knowledge.

Then fate intervened. In 1795, Ritter's father died, leaving him a small inheritance. Ritter promptly quit his job, packed his bags, waved goodbye to his mother, and took off for the University of Jena in central Germany to fulfill his dreams…..

…..when Ritter first arrived he scarcely took advantage of the city's resources. He was so excited by his newfound freedom, and so eager to pursue his galvanic studies, that instead he holed himself up in a rented room with his books and a smattering of scientific equipment (frogs, metal rods, etc.) and began conducting self-guided experiments. There was no separation between his living space and his laboratory. Dishes, dirty clothes, dead frogs, and empty bottles of wine - they all cohabited together. By his own admission, he barely left his room for months at a time since he 'didn't know why he should and who was worth the bother to visit'.


After he had published his book, on galvanism,  Ritter finally ventured out of his room and met some of the artists and intellectuals of Jena. At first they didn't know what to make of him. He completely lacked the social skills of the cosmopolitan town's cultured residents.

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

Ritter was really more at home with dead frogs than with people, but there was something about him - his brooding intensity combined with his encyclopedic, self-taught knowledge - that intrigued them. Soon he acquired a reputation as Jena's resident tortured genius and, undeterred by his eccentricities (or perhaps attracted to them), a number of prominent intellectuals befriended him, including the poets Friedrich von Hardenberg (more widely known by his pen name Novalis) and Friedrich Schlegel **. This was lucky for Ritter, since he had quickly burnt through his inheritance, leaving him penniless and reliant on handouts from his new friends to survive.

Ritter could never do anything in moderation. His behaviour always went to extremes, and tales of his strange habits became legendary. There were stories about his epic bouts of partying, followed by his equally gruelling stints of complete isolation during which he submerged himself in his work. He was constantly begging for money, and yet whenever he came into funds he spent lavishly on books, scientific equipment, and gifts for his friends. Once he didn't change his shirt for six weeks, until the odour of it became overpowering, and then he wore no shirt at all while it was being laundered. His lack of hygiene was so severe that his teeth started to fall out. And yet, despite this behaviour, he remained incredibly productive, churning out scientific articles that regularly appeared in journals such as Ludwig Gilbert's Annalen der Physik.  Even as his lifestyle teetered on the edge of chaos, his scientific reputation was growing steadily.


**Schlegel was a German poet, translator and critic. He was also the first professor of Sanskrit in Continental Europe and produced a translation of the Bhagavad Gita

As we have seen above a large proportion of his time was spent in experimenting using the voltaic pile.  His obsessive relationship with his voltaic pile monopolized increasingly large amounts of his time.

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

Like a lover in a dysfunctional romance, he was always by its side, tending to its every need. However, his lover hurt him, so to ease the pain he self-medicated with alcohol and opium. This in turn fed the self-destructive cycle, allowing him to endure even more time with his metal partner. He noted once in his journal that he had just completed a stretch of five continuous days 'in the battery'.

Ritter had once been the golden child of German science. But when people heard of his self-experiments, they shook their heads disapprovingly. He seemed to have crossed an invisible line past which no one should go, and from which there was no turning back. His behaviour might have been tolerated if it hadn't affected his scientific productivity, but his submissions to journals had grown increasingly incoherent, requiring the heavy intervention of editors to tease out any meaning. 'Never has a physicist experimented so carelessly with his body,' one reviewer later remarked and warned others not to follow his example. Ritter himself noted, …that there was little likelihood of this happening since few people would be willing to replicate the torments he had put himself through.


It was now 1804. Ritter had been a student for eight years and had been living with Dorothea for a year.  It was time, the administrators decided, for him to leave. Recognizing Ritter couldn't afford to pay his graduation fees, they offered to reduce them by half. At first, Ritter resisted. But then he reconsidered. Perhaps it was time, he thought, to move on and start a new chapter in his life. So he accepted the university's offer. Then, to prove his commitment to a new way of life, he married Dorothea and began looking for gainful employment.

Ritter's self-experiments hadn't completely damaged his reputation. He landed a position at the Royal Bavarian Academy in Munich. It paid 1,800 gulden per year, which was a fortune to him, and had the added bonus of no teaching requirements. Joyfully the couple packed their bags and headed off to Munich, with a newborn baby to round out the happy scene.


Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

The one portrait that exists of Ritter dates from this period.

It's a woodcut depicting a young man dressed in a ceremonial military uniform, made on the occasion of his entry into the Royal Bavarian Academy.

In it he looks clean-cut and respectable. His mouth is curved in a slight smile. He probably hadn't looked that presentable in years.



In Munich, Ritter found it harder than he had anticipated. He disliked the conservative attitudes of the Bavarians and his colleagues didn't tolerate his eccentricities. Living expenses were more than he had expected. Even with a regular salary, he struggled to make ends meet. Then another child arrived......


The breaking point occurred in 1809 when the Napoleonic Wars arrived in Bavaria. The general disruption prompted the Academy to suspend his salary, which hit him brutally hard. With no resources to fall back on, he had no means to support his family. He grew desperate. He didn't know what to do. Finally he sent his wife and, by that time, four children away to live with friends in Nuremberg, while he moved into a small apartment with whatever books and scientific instruments he could carry. Ritter retreated into the darkness of his room. In December 1809, an old acquaintance, Karl von Raumer, paid him a visit.

Electrified Sheep -  Alex Boese

I came upon Ritter in a vile and dismal room in which everything possible: books, instruments, wine bottles - lay indiscriminately about. He himself was in an indescribably agitated state, full of sullen hostility. One after another he guzzled wine, coffee, beer, and every sort of drink, as though he were trying to extinguish a fire inside of him ... . I felt the deepest sympathy to see this once so gifted man in such torment, in such bodily and mental suffering.

Ritter was starving. He fell sick with tuberculosis and couldn't drag himself out of bed to beg for food. He wrote to members of the Academy, pleading for their help: 'At noon I'll have nothing to eat, unless some relief shows up.' And then again, 'Please have mercy with me, and please don't be cross, because I call upon you again before receipt of your undoubtedly kind answer.' His letters went unanswered.

On 23 January 1810, a rescue party pounded on his door. 'Ritter! Johann! Open up!' There was no answer. By some means, the door was opened. Holding their sleeves over their noses to ward off the smell, the men entered, picking their way across soiled garments, wine bottles, and scattered pieces of paper. In the midst of this disorder, they found Ritter's body, cold and lifeless, lying sprawled on the bed.


Ritter’s accomplishments were only credited to him years after his death, as historians -  with the benefit of hindsight -  realized the significance of his work. During his lifetime he achieved little recognition beyond a small circle of his ardent supporters. In fact, his contemporaries viewed him as a strange, difficult man - brilliant, but troubled.

Such is genius.  May he rest now in peace.



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