Born Hermann Helmholtz on August 31st, 1821, this famed scientist wrote on many different topics, including (but not limited to): theory of vision, perception of visual space and sound, physiology of perception, conservation of energy, electrodynamics, chemical thermodynamics, laws of nature, and the science of aesthetics.

Helmholtz graduated in 1842 with a medical degree, and his first significant paper [1] (Über die Erhaltung der Kraft, 1847) combined his studies with a philosophical background likely originating from his parents or personal interest. He obtained his first academic position at the Academy of Arts, in Berlin, in 1848.

His next major work, and the one that would propel him at the forefront of the European scientific community, was the invention of the ophthalmoscope – a tool composed of lights and lenses allowing an ophthalmologist to observe the inside of an eye – in 1851. Although refined by several researchers since, ophthalmoscopes are still used today in eye examinations. His publication of a Handbuch der physiologischen optik [Treatise on Physiological Optics] in 1867 shows a continued interest in eyes, vision, and perception.

After vision, Helmholtz explored sound and hearing. [2] Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik [Sensations of Tone] saw five different German editions, of which one posthumous, and four English editions between 1863 and 1912 [3]. Sensations of Tone covered multiple aspects of not just music, but sound as well – with Helmholtz himself deciding that it would be up to artists to determine what qualified as music. Our own copy seems to have once belonged to a bagpipe enthusiast, as shown by the annotations on the last flyleaf.

The first part looks at vibration within sound and music, then harmony, and finally relationship of musical tones. Helmholtz developed a set of resonators and synthesizer to help in his studies, some of which are now held at the Whipple Museum, and Sensations of Tone pictures some of his apparatus. The vibration microscope could be used to determine the frequency at which an object vibrated, or to calibrate a vibrating fork by ‘comparing’ it to another vibrating fork. The polyphonic siren, composed of two hollow and holed cylinders mounted together (one above, one below), could produce two different tones at once. Air could be blown into the cylinders, and the holes adjusted to produce the different sounds by pushing or pulling the screws visible at the front, while the little crank at the top allowed Helmholtz to adjust the position of the upper cylinder.

Helmholtz completed his study on sound by looking at the inner workings of the ear, publishing [4] Die Mechanik der Gehörknöchelchen und des Trommelfells[The mechanism of the ossicles and the membrane tympani] in 1869.

STORE 103.51

His varied interests are even more prominent in his [5][6][7] Vorträge und Reden or Populäre wissenschaftliche Vorträge [Popular lectures on scientific subjects], covering natural sciences, philosophy, theory of vision, physical sciences, and much more. The first volume seems to trace back his most well-known papers and subjects, with lectures on ‘natural forces’, theory of vision (in three parts), and a hint of his philosophy through a lecture ‘On the relation of Natural science to science in general’.

The second volume of Popular Lectures reflected his mathematical and medical background, as well as his research on colour perception through a four-part lecture ‘On the relation of optics to painting’. Another lecture, dated 1871, discusses Kant and Laplace’s theories on the origins of celestial bodies, applied to the Solar system, complete with a short mythological background on the creation of the universe.

Beyond his publications, Helmholtz’s influence extended into teaching. Throughout his five different tenures, he supervised future Nobel Prize receivers Max Planck, Gabriel Lippmann, and Wilhelm Wien, physicists Heinrich Hertz, Mihajlo Pupin and Arthur Webster, philosopher of science Émile Boutroux, and psychologist Wilhelm Wundt.

His rich career gained him many awards, firstly the Matteucci Medal (of which he was the first recipient) in 1868, then the Copley Medal ‘for his researches in physics and physiology’ in 1873. The same year, he was elected member of the American Philosophical society. In 1881 the Royal Society of Chemistry awarded him the Faraday Lectureship prize, and a couple of years later, German Emperor Wilhelm I ennobled him, adding the ‘von’ to Helmholtz’s name. Finally, he was awarded the Albert Medal ‘in recognition of the value of his researches in various branches of science and of their practical results upon music, painting and the useful arts’ in 1888, passing away six years later on September 8th, 1894.

Post written, produced and researched by Raphaëlle Goyeau, Library Assistant.


STORE 103:1. Hermann von Helmholtz. Handbuch der physiologischen optik. Leipzig: Leopold Voss. 1867.

STORE 103:51. Hermann von Helmholtz, James Hinton [trans.]. The mechanism of the ossicles and the membrana tympani. London: New Syndenham Society. 1874.

STORE 122:18. Hermann von Helmholtz, Alexander John Ellis [trans.]. On the sensations of tone as a physiological basis for the theory of music. 2nd Ed. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1885.

STORE 138:6. Hermann von Helmholtz, Edmund Atkinson [trans.]. Popular lectures on scientific subjects. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1873.

STORE 138:7. Hermann von Helmholtz, Edmund Atkinson [trans.]. Popular lectures on scientific subjects. 2nd series. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1881.


[1] Hermann von Helmholtz. On the conservation of forces: a physical memoir. In: Richard Taylor (ed.). Scientific memoirs. London: Taylor and Francis. 1853.

[2] Hermann von Helmholtz. Die Lehre von den Tonempfindungen als physiologische Grundlage für die Theorie der Musik. Fifth edition. Braunschweig: Druck und Verlag von Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn. 1896.

[3] Hermann von Helmholtz, Alexander J. Ellis (ed.). On the Sensations of Tone as a physiological basis for the Theory of Music. Third edition [based on the fourth German edition]. London and New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1895.

[4] Hermann von Helmholtz. Die Mechanik der Gehörknöchelchen und des Trommelfells. Bonn: M. Cohen. 1869.

[5] Hermann von Helmholtz. Vorträge und Reden von Hermann von Helmholtz. Braunschweig: Friedrich Vieweg und Sohn. 1896.

[6] Hermann von Helmholtz, E. Atkinson (trans.). Popular lectures on scientific subjects. New York: D. Appleton and Company. 1888.

[7] Hermann von Helmholtz, E. Atkinson (trans.). Popular lectures on scientific subjects. London: Longmans, Greens. 1893.