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Heinrich Friedrich Weber

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Heinrich Friedrich Weber

H.F. Weber
Heinrich Friedrich Weber
Born 7 November 1843
Magdala, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Germany
Died 24 May 1912
Zurich, Switzerland
Residence Germany, Switzerland
Nationality German
Fields Physicist
Institutions ETH Zurich
Alma mater University of Jena
Doctoral advisor Ernst Abbe
Known for Work on specific heats

Heinrich Friedrich Weber (1843–1912) was a physicist born in the town of Magdala, near Weimar. Around 1861 he entered the University of Jena, where Ernst Abbe became the first of two physicists who decisively influenced his career (Weiss 1912, pp. 44–45). Weber soon discovered, however, that he lacked sufficient mathematical talent, and so he abandoned mathematics entirely (Weiss 1912, p. 44).

Returning to physics, Weber found in Abbe a young and dynamic scientist, one who successfully focused much of his research efforts on re-thinking optical theory. Abbe not only instructed Weber in the lecture hall and laboratory, he also served as a role model for him in several other ways: through his emphasis on the importance of laboratory work in general and precision instrumentation in particular; through his view that science should be closely related to practical life; and through his embodiment of the idea that a single individual could accomplish much in life. This last point, according to Pierre Weiss, Weber’s obituarist and successor at the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, as the Zurich Polytechnic came to be called after 1911, was “the mainspring of his [Weber’s] life, the source of his most beautiful successes” (Weiss 1912, p. 44).

Weber received his doctorate under Abbe in 1865 with a dissertation on the theory of light diffraction. He spent the second half of the 1860s as a private tutor in Pforzheim, publishing only one article during this period. Pforzheim was close to both the University of Heidelberg, where Weber came into contact with Gustav Kirchhoff, one of the leading theoretical physicists of the day, and to the Polytechnische Schule in Karlsruhe, where in 1870 he became Gustav Heinrich Wiedemann’s assistant (Weiss 1912, p. 45). At the same time, Weber also managed to meet the professor of physiology at Heidelberg, Hermann von Helmholtz, perhaps through Kirchhoff or Wiedemann, since both of them were close friends of Helmholtz’s. When Helmholtz left Heidelberg in 1871 to accept the call as professor of physics at the University of Berlin, he took Weber along as his first assistant. Helmholtz now became the second formative, and decidedly primary, influence on Weber’s career.

During his three years as Helmholtz’s assistant in Berlin (1871–1874), Weber helped Helmholtz set up and equip the Berlin laboratory and also helped him direct the student laboratories.

In 1872 and 1875, Weber published two noteworthy papers in the Annalen der Physik on determining the specific heats of carbon, boron, and silicon at various temperatures (Weber 1872, 1875). Working in Helmholtz’s refurbished Berlin laboratory, Weber measured the specific heats of these three elements and showed them to be noticeably smaller at low temperatures than predicted by the Dulong–Petit law; moreover, he found that, with an increase in temperature, their specific heats increased extraordinarily rapidly. Only when he increased the temperature beyond 1,000 degrees Celsius did the specific heats again follow the predictions of Dulong and Petit. For nearly thirty years Weber’s empirical findings remained an anomaly until one of his students presented a new explanation (Weiss 1912, pp. 49–50; Pais 1982, pp. 391–392).

Einstein and Weber

Weber was Albert Einstein's initial doctoral advisor. Following a bitter disagreement with Weber, Einstein switched to Alfred Kleiner as his advisor. Einstein also famously once commented that Weber's lectures were 50 years out of date and did not contain Maxwell's equations.

See also


  • Pierre Weiss "Prof. Dr. Heinrich Friedr. Weber. 1843–1912," Schweizerische Naturforschende Gesellschaft. Verhandlungen, 95 pp. 44–53, (1912).
  • Heinrich Friedrich Weber at the Mathematics Genealogy Project
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