The Laboratories of Romantic Science: Hans Christian Oersted’s Ethnography of European Experimental Cultures

The Laboratories of Romantic Science: Hans Christian Oersted’s Ethnography of European Experimental Cultures

Robert Brain

The project examined the experimental work of the Danish physicist and philosopher Hans Christian Oersted, the well-known discoverer of electromagnetism and pioneer in acoustics and high-pressure physics. The project considered the ways in which Oersted turned his position on the periphery of scientific Europe into an advantage, through his fluency in all major European languages, and his deep personal acquaintance with all of the important scientists of Germany, France, and Britain, gained through extensive travel and sojourns with his colleagues. Oersted came of age during the French revolution and Napoleonic wars, in the romantic aftermath to the republic of science, when scientists communicated little and understood even less of what the scientific labours of their foreign colleagues. Along with his friend Alexander von Humboldt, Oersted was one of a small number of European scientists who knew well more than one scientific locality. But Oersted was both a more highly skilled experimentalist and a more rigorous philosopher than Humboldt. Through close collaboration with German physicists such as Johann Ritter and Jakob Winterl, for example, he understood the special experimental culture of German Naturphilosophie, which combined the industrial culture of physics with the spiritual aims of romantic philosophy. Through collaboration with Arago and Fourier, and eventually as the founding professor of the Danish Ecole Polytechnique, he knew the analytic experimental methods and mathematical prowess of French savants.

This project used Oersted as a “probe” into the different experimental cultures of Europe, principally Copenhagen, Jena, Berlin, Paris, and London, with some excursions to other places. Primary research focused on Oersted’s visits to Berlin and Jena, and his collaboration with Ritter, Friedrich Schlegel, and Novalis. Together with a Danish colleague, Ole Knudsen of the University of Aarhus, an international team of historians and philosophers from Denmark, Germany, France, Britain, the USA, Canada, and Brazil was brought together to study the other localities and to consider the results of their combined efforts.

Each of the scholars considered Oersted’s interactions and collaborations in one or more of the different sites, or reported in depth on the local experimental culture at work in Jena, Paris, etc. The key thematic foci were specific approaches to instrumentation and the skills involved in experiment; the relations between “head and hand,” i.e,. between philosophical, literary, or theological thinking and experimental practice; or the international relations between scientists working within these different scientific cultures.

Robert Brain's own contribution was a lengthy introduction to the volume and an article, “The Romantic Experiment as Fragment.” This paper examined Oersted’s close relations with Ritter, Novalis, and Friedrich Schlegel developed during his time at the University of Jena, and argues that Oersted and his Jena friends attempted to reconceptualize experiments in galvanic (electric) phenomena and acoustics as works of art, produced by the human hand, which produced the conditions for an intellectual intuition of the Absolute in the experimentalist.