Popular Science Monthly/Volume 82/April 1913/Goethe and the Chemists

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WE learn from "Dichtung und Wahrheit" that when the young Goethe came home ill from the University of Leipzig in 1768, he fell under the influence of a physician who claimed to have found an infallible panacea which he did not dare use because he was afraid of legal action against him. His young patient was suddenly seized with an attack of violent illness which threatened his life, and the physician was persuaded to use his mysterious drug, with the result that the young man at once began to mend and soon recovered. This experience was the beginning of Goethe's infatuation for alchemy, which began fantastically enough—although we have no occasion to quarrel with it when we remember its influence on "Faust" and "Die Wahlverwaudschaften"—but became in the course of time a serious and profitable interest in chemical investigation. Although he was never a thoroughly grounded chemist himself, his marvelous skill in forming mutually profitable partnerships with specialists made his chemical activity of real and great significance.

Established at Weimar as an official member of the government, he early made friends with the interesting court apothecary, Wilhelm Heinrich Sebastian Buchholz. This gentleman had studied medicine and received his medical degree, but after leaving school had devoted himself to pharmacy and had bought what was then the only apothecary shop in Weimar. He was a prosperous and jovial man of the world and played an important part in the social life of the little capital, but he was none the less a genuine scientist, and Goethe's debt to him was a considerable one, as he himself admits in the narrative entitled "Geschichte meines botanischen Studiums" which closes the "Metamorphose der Pflanzen." Buchholz kept up a large garden which contained, we are told, "not only the herbs which he needed for his business, but rare and newly discovered plants." He seems to have kept himself well informed as to new discoveries and developments in his own and related sciences, and when the Montgolfier brothers sent up their balloon from Avignon in 1783, Buchholz tried a similar experiment at Weimar; but Goethe wrote his friend Knebel, describing the first attempt: "He torments the air in vain; the balls refuse to rise." His later efforts seem to have been crowned with success, to the astonishment of the multitude and the distress of the pigeons; and Goethe, delighted with this and later flights which he witnessed in Cassel, seems to have finally reached the point of performing the feat himself. He worked also with Buchholz at the analysis of water and its purification by the use of powdered charcoal; and the pharmacist remained until his death, which occurred in 1798, an active and honored member of Goethe's celebrated "Freitaggesellschaft."

A brother of Goethe's friend Friedrich Hildebrand von Einsiedel had studied mining and metallurgy, secured the title of Bergrat (counsellor of mines) and established a laboratory in Weimar. Goethe appears to have visited him frequently, but we learn of nothing in the way of genuine additions to the world's knowledge that developed from his labors. Current references to him indicate that he occupied himself largely with marvelous chemical exhibitions for lady visitors; and Wilhelm Bode describes him as a man of natural gifts, who, "although he knew more about chemistry, geology, even of the history of countries and races, than all the masters, doctors, scribes and priests," nevertheless accomplished nothing of serious importance. In 1785 he was sent to North Africa by the French government to study mining conditions there, and Goethe mentions the enterprise several times in his letters; not, however, so much for its scientific importance as because of the fact that he took with him one of the most prominent lady members of Weimar Court society, after she had succeeded in spreading the report of her death and had had a dummy buried in her place. On his return, he gave up his scientific investigations, and Goethe purchased his apparatus for his fosterling, the University of Jena; so that in spite of his lack of energy, August von Einseidel played a very essential part in the scientific activity of the Duchy of Weimar, after all.

One of the assistants of the talented apothecary Buchholz was a young Saxon, Friedrich August Göttling, who was destined to surpass his master. The son of a poor minister, beginning life as an apothecary's assistant, he published in 1778 an "Introduction to Pharmaceutical Chemistry," and so interested Goethe that the latter made it possible for him to study at Göttingen from 1784 till 1787, and to travel and observe industrial conditions in Holland and England. Shortly after his return his powerful patron secured his appointment to a professorship at Jena, where he was very profitably active for many years. Göttling will be remembered longest for his part in the phlogiston discussion. It was about 1700 that Stahl promulgated his theory that combustion involved a loss of substance. Although Lavoisier (1743-1794) proved conclusively that burning is oxidation, i. e., an addition instead of a subtraction, German chemists of Göttling's time, partly perhaps for patriotic reasons, still clung to the exploded theory, and Göttling, who published between 1794 and 1798 a "Contribution toward the Justification of Antiphlogistic Chemistry," stood almost alone among his countrymen in his views on this question. It is true that he was not entirely free from the influence of the old method of reasoning, as is shown by the fact that he tried to explain the burning of phosphorus in nitrogen—which of course occurred only because he did not in that day have instruments which made it possible to exhaust all the oxygen—by the assumption of a new and mysterious substance which was in itself the essence of light and heat.

He and Goethe worked together at the extraction of sugar from beets and at other enterprises, and Goethe was his regular and faithful student as well as his colleague and his patron. The great poet became an enthusiastic champion of the new chemistry, and published in Schiller's "Musenalmanach" in 1797, an epigram which ran:

Schon ein Irrlicht sah ich verschwinden, dich Phlogiston! Balde,
O Newtonisch Gespenst, folgst du dern Brüderchen nach.
(Will o' the Wisp, Phlogiston, I see thou hast vanished. And shortly
Newton's vague specter shall flee; flee as his brother has fled.)

But even Goethe's eloquent fulminations were not powerful enough to banish the Newtonian specter.

After Göttling's death Goethe continued to interest himself in the chemist's widow and little son. The latter, Karl Wilhelm Göttling, became librarian and professor of philology at Jena, and was later to repay in some measure his old patron's kindness to himself and his father, by assisting in preparing the complete edition of his works.

Dr. Alexander Nikolaus von Scherer, born in Russia in 1771, was recommended to Goethe in 1797 by Wilhelm von Humboldt. The poet furnished the newcomer a laboratory and equipment, and both he and Duke Karl August took the warmest interest in him. He made some interesting discoveries with phosphorus, and from 1798 he edited in Jena the Allgemeine Journal der Chemie. He died in Russia in 1824, a member of the St. Petersburg Academy.

One of Scherer's assistants in the conduct of the Journal was the somewhat younger Johann Wilhelm Ritter, a Silesian, who came to Jena penniless in 1795. He entered the university, and at once attracted general attention by his scientific aptitude. Ritter made some discoveries of great value. He discovered the chemically active dark rays in the solar spectrum, and accomplished some interesting results with galvanism. He obtained hydrogen and oxygen by disorganizing water with the electric current, he decomposed sulphate of copper, and he constructed a "charging pile" which was a precursor of the modern accumulator. Goethe studied and worked with him a great deal, especially during the years 1800 and 1801. He was inclined to be somewhat speculative and mystical, and especially after his call to the University of Munich in 1804, he gave himself up to various lines of fantastic theorizing. He became deeply interested in animal magnetism, experimented with divining rods for the location of minerals and water below the surface, and developed a theory of siderism that for a time enjoyed considerable notoriety. His writings continued to exert an influence over Goethe, and their effect is traceable in the latter's novel "Die Wahlverwandschaften."

But the most notable of all Goethe's chemical helpers was the young Bavarian, Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner. The son of poor parents, this young man secured education enough to become a pharmacist's assistant, and even came so far at one time as to own a small establishment of his own. But the fates seemed working against him. Although he had published a number of monographs which had made him nationally known, it seemed for a time as if he would be unable to gain even the most meager living for himself and his family. In 1810 he was penniless and unable to secure the humblest position as an apothecary's assistant, when Duke Karl August and Goethe, whose attention had been attracted to him by his publications and who were confident that he would be competent and useful in spite of his irregular education, called him to Jena to replace the deceased Göttling.

This was the beginning of a long and useful period of forty years at Jena, ending only with his death, although in the course of his activity there he received at least five more favorable offers from other institutions. His was a faithful, affectionate nature, and he felt such gratitude to his Weimar patrons for having come to his assistance at the time of his greatest need that he refused to leave on any terms. He showed his idealistic turn of mind very strikingly at other points. Although he is responsible for several inventions which have great industrial value, he always refused—and in this matter Goethe was heartily at one with him—to impose any restrictions on their use, but threw them open to the world and allowed others to reap the profits. He was always ready to give free advice to industrials, and made large fortunes for others, while he himself was struggling along on the utterly inadequate salary which was all his little university was able to spare him.

Döbereiner did useful work in stoichiometry and atomic measurements; as Gay-Lussac had established the laws of proportion in inorganic chemical compounds of gases, so the young German was able to develop the proportions for organic compounds. His discussions "On Pneumatic Chemistry" were valuable additions to the chemistry of gases in general. His measurements of the amount of carbonic acid gas which escapes in the alcoholic fermentation of sugar and the publications which he based on the data thus obtained, extended knowledge of a process which Lavoisier had already established in a general and partially only theoretical fashion. In 1829 appeared his "Attempt at a Grouping of the Elements according to their Analogy." Here occurred for the first time the celebrated arrangement into triads—chlorine, bromine, iodine, etc. It was too early for his assertions with regard to atomic weights to be verified, but it is surprising how nearly accurate his system was.

Döbereiner, between the years 1820 and 1830, made some remarkable discoveries with platinum. He heated the double chloride of platinum and ammonium to a glow and obtained what he called platinum sponge. He found that this light, porous substance, when slightly warmed and placed in contact with alcohol, becomes red hot, and that if it is set in a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen, it grows hot without the application of heat from without. He drove hydrogen against a piece of the platinum sponge surrounded by atmospheric air, and found that the platinum was heated and the hydrogen ignited by the process. He found also that metallic platinum, in contact with hydrogen gas, causes it to unite with oxygen to form water. These experiments excited attention and admiration throughout the chemical world. The great Swede Berzelius termed his discoveries "the most brilliant of the generation," and the most celebrated of Döbereiner's pupils, Runge, the discoverer of aniline, ranked his master as "the most famous of living chemists."

We have said that a great deal of Döbereiner's work has industrial importance. He saw how to derive acetic acid from alcohol, and he was able to hasten the process of vinegar formation by the help of powdered platinum. He applied his discovery of the ignition of hydrogen by contact with platinum sponge, to the construction of an instrument called the "Döbereiner igniter," which enjoyed great popularity until it was superseded by friction matches. But this quality of platinum is still utilized in gas tips and in the manufacture of sulphuric acid.

Döbereiner experimented with the possibilities of coal-gas for illuminating purposes, obtaining his gas by the action of steam on coal at a very high temperature; and he was the first to discover the usefulness of the mixture of hydrogen and carbonic oxide called "water-gas." There has been some discussion on this point, but a letter of Goethe's dated December 5, 1819, proves that Döbereiner had studied the mixture seven years before a process for the production of water-gas was patented in England.

The poet and the chemist were faithful correspondents, and we have sixty-five letters of Goethe to Döbereiner and five of those written by the chemist in return, which prove that they were on very intimate terms. The two would spend entire days together in the laboratory at Jena, and other days together in Weimar, where Goethe maintained a laboratory especially equipped for his friend's use. We have a poem of Goethe's dedicated to the scientist on the occasion of the latter's birthday, and we find again and again that the chemist's patron tried to secure an increase in salary and better equipment for his faithful friend and helper. It was due to Goethe's influence that Döbereiner was nearly or quite the first chemistry professor in Germany who was able to give practical as well as theoretical class instruction in his subject.

Döbereiner made mistakes which are traceable to Goethe's influence. The two were certain, for example, that electricity is the source of life, and this belief led to some strange and quaint theories which smack a little of the old days of alchemy. Both were inclined to undervalue equipment, and to look upon the fields and the hills as an adequate laboratory. But on the whole, Goethe gave as much and as usefully as he took. Alexander von Humboldt had said that the immortal poet-philosopher's views of natural phenomena had "elevated him, equipped him as it were with new organs." And Döbereiner showed his gratitude not only in words, but in every tangible way that came within his reach. He was always ready to give time and thought to assisting his master wherever his talents made him useful, from the preparation of a tooth powder to the deciphering of a Latin epigram of the old poet Antonius dealing with a poison and an antidote—an epigram which was absolutely dark to the scholars, but became light as day with the help of the chemist.

Döbereiner was the youngest of the famous Weimar group, and many years after the death of the great chief and center of that group, the old Jena scientist found his greatest pleasure in telling the younger generation of the golden age of German intellectual activity.