- the life of Heinrich Hertz, the man who is credited with first knowingly demonstrating radio electromagnetic waves or Hertzian waves and radio communication.
It is many years now since the name Hertz was adopted as the unit of frequency.
It is fitting that this was done for a brilliant man as Heinrich Hertz, who gave so much to furthering science but died so young.
It was Heinrich Hertz who laid many of the foundations of our modern radio technology and enabled it to be what it is today.
Heinrich Rudolf Hertz was born on the 22nd February 1859 in Hamburg. His father was a successful lawyer and he also had three brothers and a sister.
The young Hertz started school at the age of six and made steady but not outstanding progress. However later in his school life an aptitude for practical subjects became apparent as did his liking for languages. At the age of 18 he moved to Frankfurt where he studied for the state examinations. A major part of these studies included science and mathematics which he soon found he liked.
After Frankfurt Hertz spent a year in Berlin for his military service. Then he moved on to Munich and entered University to study science. This he greatly enjoyed, but in order to further his studies he transferred to Berlin. Here he met the famous Herman von Helmholtz who was to have a great influence on him.
Hertz at university
After Hertz arrived in Berlin it did not take him long to get himself noticed. He did this by winning a competition which had been set by Helmholtz. He did this by showing that electricity had no inertia.
During his time in Berlin, Hertz built up a good relationship with Helmholtz who recognised him to be a very good student. The result of this was that after he graduated with a Ph.D. magna cum laude, Hertz became an assistant to Helmholtz. During this time Hertz laid the foundations for his career very well. He published a number of papers on a variety of subjects and became well known and respected amongst the scientific community.
Research starts for Hertz
Despite the fact that Hertz was enjoying his time in Berlin, he felt he wanted more independence and this would require him to move. This he did when he moved to Kiel University. Unfortunately there were very poor facilities here and so Hertz had to content himself with a theoretical approach to his research. He looked into Maxwell's famous equations, and saw how he could extend the scope of their application. In doing this he prepared much of the way for his future discoveries.
Again Hertz felt he had to move on. This he did in 1885 when he moved to Karlsruhe Polytechnic to take up the post of professor of physics. However Hertz soon found that there were other attractions to Karlsruhe as he met his future wife. The couple were very happy together and they were soon married. Later Hertz was to have two daughters from the marriage.
At Karlsruhe, Hertz soon set about his research. He based his work on his previous studies of Maxwell's equations. However he was now able to perform practical experiments to prove his work. This was particularly important because many people had concurred with Maxwell's equations and had agreed about the presence of electromagnetic waves but nobody had been able to prove they existed experimentally.
Hertz performed many experiments, but the one which is most often described today is the one in which he placed two loops of wire within a few metres of one another. Each loop had a small spark gap and he showed that a spark across the gap in the first caused a spark to jump across the gap in the second. He also showed that for the experiment to work the two loops had to have the same dimensions.
Hertz did not stop here. He went on to investigate the properties of these waves. He deduced the their velocity and found that it was almost exactly the same as that of light waves. He performed other experiments and showed that they could be reflected and refracted in the same way as light. From these results he concluded that beyond any reasonable doubt they were the electromagnetic waves that Maxwell had discovered mathematically.
Fame for Hertz
With the publication of the results of his experiments and the many demonstrations he made, Hertz soon became famous. He was offered the position of professor of physics at the University of Bonn which he took up in 1889. Here he continued his research, but this time he started to investigate the discharge of electricity in rarefied gasses. He continued to publish papers on his work and reinforced his reputation as one of the foremost researchers of his time.
In addition to this he received a number of honours from the various scientific bodies. One of these was from the Royal Society in London.
However whilst Hertz was still at his prime he started to suffer from ill health. He frequently had headaches and was often depressed. However despite the fact that his doctors could not diagnose the problem he still continued to work.
Slowly Hertz's health began to decline further and at the end of 1893 he completed his last book. Then on 1st January 1894 at the age of only 36 he died. This was without doubt one of the greatest losses the scientific world had ever known.
Hertz had given so much to forward the scientific knowledge of the day. In fact radio waves were called Hertzian waves for many years afterwards, but as they came into more common use the term slowly slipped away. Fortunately his name has not been lost because in the late 1960s his name was given to the unit of frequency. A fitting but late honour to one who gave so much to the discovery and establishment of radio.
The fruits of the research which Hertz had performed were soon to be felt by the world as a whole. People like Marconi were quick to see the value of Hertzian or radio waves. They refined the experiments which Hertz had performed and made systems which could be given practical uses. In fact it was only ten years after the death of Hertz that Marconi set up the first link between England and America for the swift transmission of news. After this the whole idea of radio snowballed and it became part of modern life. One thing is certain. If it had not been for the insight of Hertz our radio technology would not be where it is today.
By Ian Poole
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