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Romantic science’s electric moment: the speculative physics of Ørsted, Ampère and Faraday


In 1864 James Clerk Maxwell published his essay, A dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field[1], which contained what are now known as Maxwell’s equations: the four basic equations of the electromagnetic field[2]. In doing so he bought to a satisfactory pause an intense period of experiment and theorizing on the nature of electricity and magnetism. This period, I suggest, started in 1800 with the invention, by Alessandro Volta, of the voltaic pile, enabling, for the first time, the production of a continuous electric current. The following six decades were a fascinating montage of experiments and theories. This essay is not going to address the nature or ontology of the various fluid, wave, and field theories that emerged, and were argued over, in this period. I am going to discuss the speculation and experiments on electricity and magnetism carried out by three people: Hans Christian Ørsted (pictured above), André-Marie Ampère, and Michael Faraday, whose work launched a second industrial revolution, based on electric motors, generators, and the use of ‘electricity’.[3]

Prior to this period a change occurred, particularly in France, Germany, and Scotland, where experimental science was developed with an emphasis on quantitative and mathematical approaches. In France this became a dominant orthodoxy led by Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and, in particular, Pierre-Simon de Laplace.[4] In response to this arose ‘Romantic’ approaches to natural philosophy[5]. The Romantic Movement, particularly those influenced by the Naturphilophie of Frederich Schelling[6], believed (amongst a number of key concepts) that speculation, not just mathematical reasoning, was a crucial part of experimental science. This essay will explore this role of speculative theorizing in the experimental pursuits of Ørsted, Ampère, and Faraday, with the intention of illustrating how these three very different personalities arrived at their great discoveries through ‘disciplined speculation’.

Ørsted and the ‘Unity of Nature’: a Discovery by chance?

There is a substantial argument in the literature whether Kant’s philosophy[7] or Schelling’s Naturphilosophie[8] had the greater impact on Ørsted’s scientific work. While this essay is not intended to address this unresolved discussion it is relevant to understand both these influences. Hans Christian Ørsted and his younger brother Anders Sandøe Ørsted had immersed themselves in Kantian philosophy as undergraduates at the University of Copenhagen.[9] After graduating in Pharmacy, including practical training in his father’s shop, Hans Christian submitted a doctoral thesis critiquing Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, coming out in favour of his dynamical theory; the universe was a product of polar forces in perpetual interplay, and against the atomic theory of the world being constructed out of substantial entities (atoms). Ørsted’s thesis was not totally in agreement with Kant’s, his disagreement rested on Kant’s tracing his main concepts from empirical observation:

Kant had stopped at the outermost limit of reason: the mechanical-mathematical concept of matter was empty, but scientifically productive; the dynamical system by contrast offered concepts that made sense but were unable to be scientific.”[10]

By 1799 Ørsted had already defined his life’s scientific project; going on step further than Kant and making the dynamical theory scientific.

Ørsted spent three periods during 1801-2 with the German physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter. This near six weeks of discussing galvanism and conducting experiments together laid the foundation of a friendship for life[11]. Ritter was a self-made scientist, influenced by, but not an acolyte of, Schelling, “who can be and in fact was in his time the prototype of a Romantic physicist,”[12] who nonetheless made significant contributions to science. He developed the accumulator, proved the existence of ultra-violet light after speculating that it must exist, because of nature’s polarity, and the recent discovery of infra-red light by Herschel, and demonstrated the unification of electricity and chemical changes – creating the new science of electrochemistry[13]. While Ritter’s experimental work was providing plausibility for the philosophical work of the Romantics, his continual imaginative, and in some cases wildly biased, speculations stimulated both excitement and caution in Ørsted.

After spending 1803 in Paris, Ørsted returned to Copenhagen in 1804 and was appointed a professor at the University in 1806. Ørsted continued to develop his experimental techniques as well as his theoretical ideas: in 1806 he published his theory of the “conflict of electricities”, in 1812 a book, Consideration of the Physical Laws of chemistry Deduced from the New Discoveries, which by analogy linked his “conflict” theory with the polarity of magnetism and chemical affinities work of Ritter, and in 1816 he developed a new, high current, galvanic cell, which he subsequently used in all his experiments.

Ørsted’s discovery was made during a series of lectures he gave from November 1819 to May 1820. The audience were not casual passers-by, rather they were men, advanced amateurs, with a sound foundation in natural philosophy – familiar with his thought experiment that strong electrical forces may affect a magnet. In the April lecture, he took a risk, and tried the experiment to the live audience. His thought experiment was vindicated when the switching on of the galvanic circuit deflected the magnetic needle. Once he managed time to confirm his results in July 1820, his results were published in a brief article, Experimenta, in the Danish journal Hesperus.[14] This he then sent to a selection of scholars in Europe to claim his priority over the discovery. The primary account of these events come from Observations on Electro-magnetism, an 1821 article that was simultaneously published in journals in London, Nuremburg, Geneva, and Paris.[15]

1-1239115-radio-hans-christian-orsted-1400086434028By the first week in September Biot and Arago in Paris could report complete verification of Ørsted’s results. Already Ampère had begun to build on Ørsted’s discovery, and on September 25 had announced to the Academie his discovery of the mutual forces between two parallel electric currents. On the first Monday in December, Ampère announced his theoretical description of the effect. As a consequence of his lack of mathematical training, Ørsted neither understood nor appreciated Ampère’s contribution. With uncharacteristic sarcasm, he later wrote:

The ingenuity with which this clever French mathematician has gradually changed and developed his theory in such a way that it is consistent with a variety of contradictory facts is very remarkable.[16]

What Ørsted was reacting to was Ampère’s own speculative nature. Never a follower off the dominant Laplacian orthodoxy that “electrical and magnetic phenomena are due to two different fluids which act independently of each other,”[17] Ampere had now found a question worthy of his attention.

Ampère’s Electrodynamics

In a manner similar to Ørsted’s discovery Ampère’s theoretical description was a result of a near lifetime of mental preparation. Ampère is generally acknowledged, despite Ørsted’s admonition, as the man who created the science of electrodynamics[18]. His achievements however are deeply rooted in his broader philosophical interests. Ampère was not representative of his era, particularly in French scientific circles. His idiosyncratic approach to his professional life meant that he had little impact on the society in which he lived. This is in marked contrast to both Ørsted and Faraday whose impact went far beyond their immediate contributions to science.

Born in Lyon on January 20, 1775, Ampère had an idyllic youth, growing up between the commercial bustle of Lyon and rural life of the small village Poleymieux where the family moved to in 1782. His father, Jean-Jacques Ampère, was guided partially by Rousseau’s educational philosophy, and Andre-Marie had no formal education (except in Latin), instead he was allowed to “learn from things and to do so according to spontaneous interest.”[19]

Contrary to Rousseau’s advice Andre-Marie was given early access to his father’s library and early impressions were made by French Enlightenment masterpieces such as Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon’s Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, Rousseau’s popular essays on botany, developing an interest in science and mathematics from Antoine Leonard Thomas’ Éloge de René Descartes and Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie. His early felicity in Latin and Italian enabled the young Ampère to master the works of Leonhard Euler and Daniel Bernoulli and Joseph Louis de Lagrange’s Mechanique analitique.[20] This intellectually invigorating childhood was bought to an end on November 23, 1792 when his father was guillotined during the Reign of Terror.

The next ten or so years were spent in provincial tutoring roles, marrying and starting a family. In 1802 Ampère was appointed professor of physics at the Bourg École Centrale. It was in these years that Ampere displayed his early gift for speculative experimentation, particularly in physics and chemistry. Immediately prior to his move he gave a lecture at the December 24, 1801 meeting of the Academie de Lyon reveals his speculative scope, which included a “sketch of a vast system that connects all parts of physics” “examination of the influence of electricity on affinities and on the theory of light and colors.”[21] His ideas were highly speculative and underwent change when he moved to Paris in 1804, however they still retained the optimistic convictions of his youth. He believed that “scientific research would eventually reveal the true causal structure of nature” and that “science could at least reach a deeper level of reality than that described by phenomenological laws.”[22] Ampère held a central philosophical and methodological attitude that a fundamental fact would emerge from a tentative “explicative hypothesis” followed by experimental confirmation. Ampère called this indirect synthesis, and demanded that this experimental confirmation should include and emphasize the prediction of new phenomena that might not have been noticed otherwise.[23]

230_ff74d22e3eBetween 1804 and 1820 Ampère advanced to the front in all three fields of mathematics, chemistry and physics, this despite being at methodological odds with the Laplacian mathematical and experimental program of science[24] that dominated in France at the time. For example Ampère was one of the few French scientists to take seriously Avogadro’s 1811 hypothesis that equal volumes of gas contain equal number of particles.[25] The doyen of French chemistry and co-chair with Laplace of the famous Societe d’Arcueil , Berthollet, resisted any atomic theory or speculation, maintaining that “for progress in [physics and chemistry]….to be real, one must bring to them a great deal of precision in facts.”[26] Ampère’s interest in Chemistry was concluded in 1816 with a publication of his classification scheme for elements, all 48 of them, increased from the 33 in Lavoisier’s 1787 list, with light and caloric no longer recognised as elements.[27]

Remembering that Arago repeated Ørsted’s experiment on September 4, 1820 to a sceptical French audience. The observation revealing two glaring exceptions to Laplacian physics; firstly electric and magnetic phenomena were not independent and secondly the perceived force acted tangentially to the current flow. In the same September and October Ampère produced attractions and repulsions between wires conducting electric currents. In 1826 Ampère produced a polished argument in his most influential publication, his Théorie des Phénomènes électro-dynamiques, describing the electrodynamic force[28].

Ampère was convinced that there existed two electric ‘fluids’, and argued that his theory was preferable to the Laplacian theory of Jean-Baptiste Biot and Siméon-Denis Poisson “because it could account for all magnetic, electromagnetic, and electrodynamic phenomena without postulating the existence of the magnetic fluids.”[29] Driven by this speculation Ampère proceeded over the next six years in a frenzy of iterations of experiment, measure, speculate, report. In the years 1820-1822 this was nearly on a fortnightly basis to the Académie in a race with Biot and his protégé Félix Savart. Most notable here was that Ampère’s experimental activities were guided by predetermined goals, only with rare exceptions did Ampère experiment in pursuit of novelty for it own sake. After 1827 Ampère’s attention shifted to other topics, although he did take note of Faraday’s discovery of induction in 1831.

Speculative Theorizing at the Royal Institution; Michael Faraday the greatest Experimental Philosopher

Sir Humphrey Davy was in his day, a star, one of the most famous chemists of the nineteenth century and a captivating lecturer at the Royal Institution. Davy was also a Romantic Scientist. He was committed to the view that “mere organization of matter could not give rise to life”[30] furthermore his lectures could only be understood in the context of the politics of the day: revolution and conservative reaction. This influence cannot go unnoticed when considering his successor at the Royal Institution; Michael Faraday. Faraday came from a poor background, but was nonetheless, akin to Ampère, a well- if self-educated man. By 1812 when he made Davy’s acquaintance he had well developed ideas on the nature of imponderable fluids and the nature of matter.[31]

1833_1_1Faraday was undoubtedly a brilliant and extraordinarily persistent experimentalist and in contrast to Ampère was extremely organized in documenting his experiments[32]. In the year following Orsted’s discovery he had repeated Orsted’s experiments and in doing so had, like Ampère, made his own discovery – that of electromagnetic rotation – leading to the invention of the electric motor in 1821.[33] The value of these experiments lie as much in the speculation that Faraday made of them. For example in his diary he wrote[34]:

The motion evidently belongs to the current, or what ever else it be, that is passing through the wire, and not the wire itself, except as the vehicle of the current.

From this point Faraday experimentally examined Ampère’s theory and, in addition, developed his own ideas on the nature of electricity. This led to his discovery in 1831 of the induction of electric current by magnetism in 1831. This discovery was not only the culmination of a long search it was the starting-point for almost thirty years of brilliant researches in electricity. These include his discovery of the ability of magnetic fields to change the polarization of light in 1845, which finally gave an experimental link to the unity of nature that was speculated on by for by Kant and Schelling. There is no doubt that Faraday was driven by a search for this unity of nature, as he wrote in 1845 :

I have long held an opinion, almost amounting to a conviction, in common I believe with many other lovers of natural knowledge, that the various forms under which the forces of matter are made manifest have one common origin; or in other words, are so directly related and mutually dependent that they are convertible, as it were, one into another, and possess equivalents of power in their action.[35]

Like Ørsted and Ampère, Faraday’s speculations drove his experimental directions even when they at first, or in the end, appeared unfruitful (from July 19, 1850):

Here ends my trial for the present. The results are negative. They do not shake my strong feeling of the existence between gravity and electricity, though they give no proof that such a relation exists.[36]

Disciplined Speculation

By examining the approaches of three key scientific figures, Ørsted, Ampère, and Faraday, I have attempted to illustrate the role that ‘disciplined’ speculation has played in the development of electromagnetism in the early half of the nineteenth century. In particular showing the influence of Kant and Schelling on all three physicists in conceptualizing their experiments, and at the same time illustrating that speculative science could be manifest in many nuanced forms as shown by the differing personalities and methods of the three examples given here.


[1] Maxwell, James Clerk, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, ed. Thomas F. Torrance (1982), pp. 33-104.

[2] Torrance, Thomas F., Preface, in Maxwell, James Clerk, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, ed. Thomas F. Torrance (1982), pp. xi-xii.

[3] Holten, Gerald, Foreword, in Brain, Cohen, and Knudsen (2007), pp. vii-viii.

[4] Frankel, Eugene, J. B. Biot and the Mathematization of Experimental Physics in Napoleonic France, (1977), pp. 34-47.

[5] Knight, David, Romanticism and the sciences, in Cunningham and Jardine (1990), pp. 13-24.

[6] Morgan, S. R., Schelling and the origins of his Naturphilosophie, in Cunningham and Jardine (1990), pp. 25-37.

[7] Nilsen, Keld and Andersen, Hanne, The influence of Kant’s philosophy on the young H. C. Ørsted, in Brain, Cohen, and Knudsen (2007), pp. 97-114.

[8] Stauffer, Robert C., Speculation and Experiment in the background of Ørsted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism, (1957), pp. 33-44.

[9] Christensen, Dan Charly, Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature’s Mind, (2013), pp. 40-51.

[10] Christensen, Dan Charly, Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature’s Mind, (2013), pp. 70-71.

[11] Christensen, Dan Charly, Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature’s Mind, (2013), pp. 108-121.

[12] Wetzels, Walter D., Johann Wilhelm Ritter: Romantic physics in Germany, in Cunningham and Jardine (1990), pp. 199.

[13] Wetzels, Walter D., Johann Wilhelm Ritter: Romantic physics in Germany, in Cunningham and Jardine (1990), pp. 199-212.

[14] Ørsted, Hans Christian, facsimile of Experimenta front page ,in Christensen, Dan Charly, Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature’s Mind, (2013), pp. 348.

[15] Ørsted, Hans Christian, Observations on Electro-magnetism, in Jackson, Jelved, and Knudsen (1998), pp. 430-449.

[16] Jelved, Karen and Jackson, Andrew D., The Other side of Ørsted: Civil Obedience, in Brain, Cohen, and Knudsen (2007), pp. 15.

[17] Wilson, Andrew D., Introduction, in Jackson, Jelved, and Knudsen (1998), pp. xvii.

[18] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 2.

[19] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 11.

[20] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 7-23.

[21] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 50-66.

[22] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 144-145.

[23] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 164.

[24] Frankel, Eugene, J. B. Biot and the Mathematization of Experimental Physics in Napoleonic France, (1977), pp. 34-47.

[25] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 192.

[26] Frankel, Eugene, J. B. Biot and the Mathematization of Experimental Physics in Napoleonic France, (1977), pp. 44-45.

[27] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 206-212.

[28] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 309-350.

[29] Hofman, James R., Andre-Marie Ampère, (1995), pp. 309.

[30] Lawrence, Christopher, The power and the glory: Humphry Davy and Romanticism, in Cunningham and Jardine (1990), pp. 213-227.

[31] Williams, L. Pierce, Michael Faraday, (1965), pp. 80-89.

[32] Faraday, Michael, Experimental Researches in Electricity, (1965).

[33] Williams, L. Pierce, Michael Faraday, (1965), pp. 151-168.

[34] Faraday, Michael, quoted in Williams, L. Pierce, Michael Faraday, (1965), pp. 165.

[35] Faraday, Michael, Experimental Researches in Electricity, (1965), (paragraph 2146), vol. 3, pp. 1-2.

[36] Faraday, Michael, Experimental Researches in Electricity, (1965), (paragraph 2717), vol. 3, pp. 168.


Brain, Robert M., Cohen, Robert S. and Knudsen, Ole, (editors), Hans Christian Ørsted and the Romantic Legacy in Science: Ideas, disciplines and practices, Springer, Dordrecht, 2007.

Christen, Dan C., Hans Christian Ørsted: Reading Nature’s Mind, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.

Cunningham, A. and Jardine N., (editors), Romanticism and the Sciences, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.

Faraday, Michael, Experimental Researches in Electricity Volumes 1&2 and Volume 3, Dover Publications Inc, New York, 1965.

Frankel, Eugene, J. B. Biot and the Mathematization of Experimental Physics in Napoleonic France, Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, 8, (1977), pp. 33-72.

Hofman, James R., André-Marie Ampère, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 1995.

Jelved, Karen, Jackson, Andrew D. and Knudsen, Ole, (translators and editors), Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1998.

Maxwell, James Clerk, A Dynamical Theory of the Electromagnetic Field, ed. Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh, 1982.

Stauffer, Robert C., Speculation and Experiment in the background of Ørsted’s Discovery of Electromagnetism, Isis, 48(1), (1957), pp. 33-50.

Williams, L. Pierce, Michael Faraday, Chapman and Hall, London, 1965.

This essay was first presented in November 2014, by the author, as an assessment task for HPSC10001 “From Plato to Einstein” as partial requirements for the award of a Post Graduate Diploma Arts (History and Philosophy of Science) at the University of Melbourne.

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