Monday, December 17, 2012

Johann Ritter

Johann Wilhelm Ritter was born on December 16, 1776 in Samitz, Purssia, which is now part of Poland. At age 14 he was apprenticed to an apothecary in Liegnitz. In his studies he acquired and interest in chemistry. After inheriting money he was able to attend the University of Jena where he studied medicine starting in 1796. He remained at the university in a teaching position after his graduation. In 1802 the Duke o f Saxe-Gotha became his patron.

Ritter's early research involved using the method of Luigi Galvani, using frog legs as an indicator of electrical current. Using a method involving two frog legs Ritter measured the activity series of metals. Ritter's explanation for the effect was closest to what we know today to be a chemical reaction where electrons are transferred from one chemical to another. These are called redox reactions because two processes are taking place, oxidation (where electrons are removed from a chemical) and reduction (where electrons are added to a chemical). For this Ritter is referred to as the father of electrochemistry. Ritter was also the first to separate the oxygen and hydrogen produced by the electrolysis of water. When an electrical current is run through water, water decomposes in to oxygen and hydrogen gases.

Ritter is most famous for his discovery of ultraviolet radiation. After William Herschel announced the discovery of infra-red radiation in 1801 Ritter believed that there was also radiation on the other end of the visible spectrum. Using silver nitrate he tested different colors of light and found that violet light caused more decomposition than red light. He also found that the greatest decomposition occurred using a wavelength of light that could not be seen. This is what today we call ultraviolet light. It is the region of the electromagnetic spectrum between visible light and x-ray radiation, with a wavelength between 4000 and 10 angstroms.

In addition to his scientific activities Ritter was also active in the German romantic movement. Because of his belief in the occult and reluctance to publish his results he was disregarded by most of his contemporaries. Beset by financial difficulties he died at the age of 33 on January 23, 1810.


Berg, Hermann; "Johann Wilhelm Ritter: the Founder of Scientific Electrochemistry"; Review of Polarography (2008)54:99-103

Davidson, Michael W., "Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776-1810)"; retrieved from

Johann Wilhelm Ritter Wikipedia Entry

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