1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Kirchhoff, Gustav Robert

KIRCHHOFF, GUSTAV ROBERT (1824–1887), German physicist, was born at Königsberg (Prussia) on the 12th of March 1824, and was educated at the university of his native town, where he graduated Ph.D. in 1847. After acting as privat-docent at Berlin for some time, he became extraordinary professor of physics at Breslau in 1850. Four years later he was appointed professor of physics at Heidelberg, and in 1875 he was transferred to Berlin, where he died on the 17th of October 1887. Kirchhoff’s contributions to mathematical physics were numerous and important, his strength lying in his powers of stating a new physical problem in terms of mathematics, not merely in working out the solution after it had been so formulated. A number of his papers were concerned with electrical questions. One of the earliest was devoted to electrical conduction in a thin plate, and especially in a circular one, and it also contained a theorem which enables the distribution of currents in a network of conductors to be ascertained. Another discussed conduction in curved sheets; a third the distribution of electricity in two influencing spheres; a fourth the determination of the constant on which depends the intensity of induced currents; while others were devoted to Ohm’s law, the motion of electricity in submarine cables, induced magnetism, &c. In other papers, again, various miscellaneous topics were treated—the thermal conductivity of iron, crystalline reflection and refraction, certain propositions in the thermodynamics of solution and vaporization, &c. An important part of his work was contained in his Vorlesungen über mathematische Physik (1876), in which the principles of dynamics, as well as various special problems, were treated in a somewhat novel and original manner. But his name is best known for the researches, experimental and mathematical, in radiation which led him, in company with R. W. von Bunsen, to the development of spectrum analysis as a complete system in 1859–1860. He can scarcely be called its inventor, for not only had many investigators already used the prism as an instrument of chemical inquiry, but considerable progress had been made towards the explanation of the principles upon which spectrum analysis rests. But to him belongs the merit of having, most probably without knowing what had already been done, enunciated a complete account of its theory, and of thus having firmly established it as a means by which the chemical constituents of celestial bodies can be discovered through the comparison of their spectra with those of the various elements that exist on this earth.