Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
(Pseudonyms Emanuel Candidus and Conrad Photorin)
b. July 1, 1742, Oberramstadt, near Darmstadt, Hesse, Germany
d. February 24, 1799, Göttingen, Hanover, Germany

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was an experimental physicist, an astronomer, a mathematician, a practicing critic both of art and literature. As satirical writer, he is the best known for his ridicule of metaphysical and romantic excesses. He discovered in 1777 the basic principle of modern xerographic copying; the images that he reproduced are still called "Lichtenberg figures."


Lichtenberg's father

Lichtenberg's brother

The house of Lichtenberg's family
where Georg was born in 1742, Oberramstadt


Darmstadt  Gymnasium where
Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
received his primary education

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg  was the 17th child of a Protestant pastor, who taught him mathematics and natural sciences. His formal primary education Georg received in Gymnasium in Darmstadt. In 1763 he entered Göttingen University, where he studied mathematics and natural sciences under supervision Prof. Kästner (1719 1800) till 1766. In 1769 he became extraordinary professor of physics and in 1775 ordinary professor of the University of Göttingen. This post he held until his death. Lichtenberg did research in a wide variety of fields - including geophysics, volcanology, meteorology, chemistry, astronomy, and mathematics - but most important were his investigations into physics.

Lichtenberg's work in the area of electricity held the most promise. Lichtenberg put up the first lightning rod in the town of Göttingen, and his experiments with electricity attracted many other scientists, including Volta (for whom our electrical word "volt" is named). Lichtenberg's only true scientific discovery related to electricity: in 1777, he found that discharges of static electricity can form remarkable patterns in bits of dust. The basic principle behind these so-called "Lichtenberg figures" is employed in modern photocopying machines, but Lichtenberg himself found no use for the discovery.

Original Lichtenberg figure

Original Lichtenberg figure

Notably, Lichtenberg constructed a huge electrophorus and, in the course of experimentations, discovered in 1777 the basic principle of modern xerographic copying; the images that he reproduced are still called "Lichtenberg figures." These are radial patterns formed when sharp, pointed conducting bodies at high voltage get near enough to insulators to discharge electrically. They look a bit like pressed basket-fish, and are now of some interest because they are fractals.


Lichtenberg's big electrostatic machine

Lichtenberg taught chemistry, geology, physics, meteorology and astronomy. Lichtenberg lectured well enough that people came to hear Lichtenberg (doubtless being one of the first to add demonstrations with apparatus to his lectures helped), and apparently talked very well.

Lichtenberg's experiment with static electricity

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg


Lichtenberg caricature

As a satirist and humorist Lichtenberg takes high rank among the German writers of the 18th century. His biting wit involved him in many controversies with well-known contemporaries, such as Johann Kaspar Lavater, whose science of physiognomy he ridiculed, and Johann Heinrich Voss, whose views on Greek pronunciation called forth a powerful satire, Über die Pronunciation der Schöpse des alten Griechenlandes (1782; "On the Pronunciation of the Muttonheads of Old Greece").



In 1769 and again in 1774/75 Lichtenberg resided for some time in England where he visited the court of King George III, and his Briefe aus England (1776-78; "Letters from England") are the most attractive of his writings. He contributed to the Göttinger Taschenkalender ("Göttingen Pocket Almanac") from 1778 onward and to the Göttingisches Magazin der Literatur und Wissenschaft ("Göttingen Magazine of Literature and Science"), which he edited for three years (1780-82) with J.G.A. Forster. He also published in 1794-99 an Ausführliche Erklärung der Hogarthschen Kupferstiche ("Full Explanation of Hogarthian Copper Engravings"). He wrote on just about everything, especially Hogarth; like many recipients of the Enlightenment on the Continent, he was a pronounced Anglophile; his sex life is described by his translator as "very irregular,'' and today would almost certain have put him in jail.


Lichtenberg is most celebrated, however, for the casual notes and aphorisms that he collected in what he called his Waste Books. With unflagging intelligence and encyclopedic curiosity, Lichtenberg wittily deflates the pretensions of learning and society, examines a range of philosophical questions, and tracks his own thoughts down hidden pathways to disconcerting and sometimes hilarious conclusions. Lichtenberg's Waste Books have been greatly admired by writers as very different as Tolstoy, Einstein, and André Breton, while Nietzsche and Wittgenstein acknowledged them as a significant inspiration for their own radical work in philosophy. The record of a brilliant and subtle mind in action, The Waste Books are above all a powerful testament to the necessity, and pleasure, of unfettered thought. Nietzsche credited Lichtenberg as the greatest German aphorist. The Waste Books, a collection of 1,085 aphorisms written over the course of Lichtenberg's adult life, amply attests to that. The pieces cover every conceivable topic - from science, religion and philosophy to daily observations ("An amen face") and meditations about girls: "Even the gentlest, most modest and best of girls are always better, gentler and more modest if their mirrors have told them they are looking more beautiful than ever."

These are gems of the aphorist's art, endlessly quotable and very trenchant, but strangely little-known in English (the last translation before Hollingdale's was in 1959, and has long been out of print). A few quotations of the shorter ones may give some idea of the flavor of the whole.

He marvelled at the fact that cats had two holes cut in their fur at precisely the spot where their eyes were.
Certain rash people have asserted that, just as there are no mice where there are no cats, so no one is possessed where there are no exorcists.
We must not seek to abstract from the busts of the great Greeks and Romans rules for the visible form of genius as long as we cannot contrast them with Greek blockheads.
Courage, garrulousness and the mob are on our side. What more do we want?
Why are young widows in mourning so beautiful?
Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.
The construction of the universe is certainly very much easier to explain than is that of a plant.
The most perfect ape cannot draw an ape; only man can do that; but, likewise, only man regards the ability to do this as a sign of superiority.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was married on
Margarethe Kellner and the couple had a son born in 1786.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and his family
lived in this house from 1789.


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, 1790

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, 1791


Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was a charming, hunchbacked, lecherous hypochondriac. His friends and admirers included Goethe, Kant and England's King George III. He had many ideas, an insatiable curiosity and wrote about art, philosophy, psychology, morality, but rarely brought books or inventions to completion. For science, therefore, he remains a mere historical footnote. But he is well remembered for thousands of creative aphorisms he jotted in his notebooks.

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg died in Göttingen in 1799. His grave and the grave of his wife, Margarethe Lichtenberg (nee Kellner) are on the cemetery of Göttingen.

"There are two ways of extending life: firstly by moving the two points "born" and "died" farther away from one another... The other method is to go more slowly and leave the two points wherever God wills they should be, and this method is for the philosophers" (Lichtenberg).


Lichtenberg's statue near the city library

Two bronze statues commemorating Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, were erected in Göttingen on the Markt Platz and also in the Hof of the Library in about 1997. Both statues are unique reflecting the character of Lichtenberg.

Lichtenberg's statue on the Market square

This text has been compiled from the biographies of Lichtenberg available in the Internet:
( 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 )