Heinrich Friedrich Weber

Quick Info

7 November 1843
Magdala, Thuringia, Germany
24 May 1912
Zürich, Switzerland

Heinrich Friedrich Weber was a German physicist who was important in the history of the Zürich Polytechnic. His most famous student was Einstein.


Heinrich Friedrich Weber was born in Magdala, a little town close to Weimar. He had five brothers; their father was a merchant. After completing his school education at the Gymnasium in Weimar, Weber moved to Jena in order to study physics, mathematics and philosophy at the university there. Among his lecturers the physicist Ernst Abbe and the philosopher Kuno Fischer had the biggest influence on him. In 1865 Weber received his doctorate for a thesis entitled Neue Probleme der Diffraktionstheorie des Lichtes , supervised by Abbe. Afterwards he continued to do research, under Kirchhoff, but he earned his living as a private teacher in the house of the German politician August Dennig in Pforzheim.

In 1870 Weber moved to Karlsruhe, where he worked as assistant to Gustav Wiedemann (1826-1899) at the Polytechnic School. A year later he became Helmholtz's assistant in Berlin, and in 1874 he moved to Hohenheim, where he taught physics and mathematics at the Royal Academy of Württemberg. A year later he was offered a professorship at the Polytechnic in Zürich [5]:
When he noticed a short elderly gentleman among his students [at the Academy], he did not pay much attention to him; however he was quite surprised when, directly after the lecture, that gentleman asked him whether he would like to accept a professorship in Zürich. It was Kappeler, the former president of the School Board, who had attended the lecture incognito. When appointing new members of staff, Kappeler wanted to consider only his direct personal opinion.
At the Polytechnic Weber mainly lectured on technical physics. He also supervised more than forty-three doctoral students; quite a few of them became professors at universities across Europe [5]. His most famous student, however, was Einstein, who often worked in Weber's laboratories. But despite being a 'lecturer beyond comparison' [5], he also had his shortcomings: As a 'typical representative of classical physics' [4] he did not teach Maxwell's theories, nor 'the foundations of physics, as he did not teach theoretical or mathematical physics' [3]. Therefore, Einstein often skived his lectures, on which Weber commented: "You are a clever boy, Einstein, a very clever boy indeed. But you have a great shortcoming: you don't listen to anyone!" [4]. However, 'he and his institute at least helped further sensitise Einstein to the importance of measurement for testing theory and for finding the best fit between theory and empirical reality' [3].

In fact, as 'a pioneer in electrical engineering in Switzerland and Germany' [4] he helped to establish a system of units of measurement, together with physicists such as Lord Rayleigh, Silvanus Thompson, Friedrich Kohlrausch, Eletuhère Mascart, and Lord Kelvin. The latter was a good friend of Weber's. Among other things he experimented with alternating and direct current, with heat conduction, with blackbody radiation and with specific heat.

Among Weber's publications, Die spezifische Wärme der Elemente Kohlenstoff, Bor und Silizium (1874), Der absolute Wert der Siemensschen Quecksilbereinheit (1884), and Die Entwicklung der Lichtemission glühender fester Körper (1887) are of particular importance. His 1874 paper inspired Einstein to develop the Einstein solid in 1907.

Weber was also interested in meteorology. He joined the Federal Meteorological Commission in 1881; in 1902 he became vice-president and eight years later president. However, Weber's most important achievement was the physics institute at the Polytechnic, which opened in 1890. The previous physics laboratories were too small and the equipment was out of date. For several years Weber tried to get the Swiss government's permission to build at least an extension of the existing institute, though he really wanted laboratories that could cater for any future developments in (electrical) engineering. It was only when Werner Siemens declared his support for "Weber's vision [which] proved decisive in winning the backing of Kappeler and Geiser" [3] that the government gave in and provided the necessary funds. Weber's ideas turned out to be highly successful: for a number of years the institute was the finest of its kind in the world and thus added to the Polytechnic's growing reputation. It was "especially designed to train electrical engineers or applied physicists [which] was what the Swiss wanted their tax money spent on" [3].

Weber joined the organising committee of the first International Congress of Mathematicians at the preliminary meeting in July 1896. He did not attend all the committee meetings though and did not get assigned any particular jobs (based on the minutes). He was the only physicist and only one of two non-mathematicians on the committee.

Weber married Anna Hochstetter in 1875. The couple had three daughters and five sons, all of which became academics: Oskar: chemist; Friedrich: geologist; Ernst: civil engineer and astronomer; Helmut and Richard: physicians [5].

References (show)

  1. S U Eminger, C F Geiser and F Rudio: the men behind the First International Congress of Mathematicians St Andrews PhD thesis (2014) 134-137 /Publications/Eminger.pdf
  2. Biographisches Dossier Heinrich Weber, ETH Library Archive
  3. D Cahan, The Young Einstein's Physics Education: H.F. Weber, Hermann von Helmholtz, and the Zurich Polytechnic Physics Institute, in: D Howard and J Stachel (eds.), Einstein: The Formative Years, 1879-1909, Birkhäuser, Boston, 2000, 43-82
  4. W Kummer, Vom Physik-Unterricht am Eidg. Polytechnikum vor der Jahrhundertwende, Schweizerische Bauzeitung 76 (52), 1958, 787-788
  5. P Weiss, Prof. Dr. Heinrich Friedr. Weber, Verhandlungen der Schweizerischen Naturforschenden Gesellschaft 95, 1912, 44-53

Additional Resources (show)

Written by Stefanie Eminger, University of St Andrews
Last Update August 2015