Physicists in Revolution: 1848

The opening episode of Victoria on Masterpiece Theatre (PBS) this season finds the queen confronting widespread unrest among her subjects who are pressing for more freedoms and more say in government. Louis-Phillipe, former King of France, has been deposed in the February Revolution of 1848 in Paris and his presence at the Royal Palace does not help the situation.

In 1848 a wave of spontaneous revolution swept across Europe.  It was not a single revolution of many parts, but many separate revolutions with similar goals.  Two essential disruptions of life occurred in the early 1800’s.  The first was the partitioning of Europe at the Congress of Vienna from 1814 to 1815, presided over by Prince Metternich of Austria, that had carved up Napoleon’s conquests and sought to establish a stable order based on the old ideal of absolute monarchy.  In the process, nationalities were separated or suppressed.  The second was the industrialization of Europe in the early 1800’s that created economic upheaval, with masses of working poor fleeing effective serfdom in the fields and flocking to the cities.  Wages fell, food became scarce, legions of the poor and starving bloomed.  Because of these influences, European society had become unstable, supercooled beyond a phase transition and waiting for a seed or catalyst to crystalize the continent into a new state of matter. 

When the wave came, physicists across Europe were caught in the upheaval.  Some were caught up in the fervor and turned their attention to national service, some lost their standing and their positions during the inevitable reactionary backlash, others got the opportunities of their careers.  It was difficult for anyone to be untouched by the 1848 revolutions, and physicist were no exception.

The Spontaneous Fire of Revolution

The extraodinary wave of revolution was sparked by a small rebellion in Sicily in January 1848 that sought to overturn the ruling Bourbons.  It was a small rebellion of little direct consequence to Europe, but it succeeded in establishing a liberal democracy in an independent state that stood as a symbol of what could be achieved by a determined populace.  The people of Paris took notice, and in the sudden and unanticipated February Revolution, the French constitutional monarchy under Louis-Phillipe was overthrown in a few days and replaced by the French Second Republic.  The shock of Louis-Phillipe’s fall reverberated across Europe, feared by those in power and welcomed by those who sought a new world order.  Nationalism, liberalism, socialism and communism were on the rise, and the opportunity to change the world seemed to have arrived.  The Five Days of Milan in Italy, the March Revolution of the German states, the Polish rebellion against Prussia, and the Young Irelander Rebellion in Ireland were all consequences of the unstable conditions and the unprecidented opportunities for the people to enact change.  None of these uprisings were coordinated by any central group.  It was a spontaneous consequence of similar preconditions that existed across nearly all the states of Europe.

Arago and the February Revolution in Paris

The French were no newcomers to street rebellions.  Paris had a history of armed conflict between citizens manning barricades and the superior forces of the powers at be.  The unforgettable scene in Les Misérables of Marius at the barricade and Jean Valjean’s rescue through the sewers of Paris was based on the 1832 June Rebellion in Paris.  Yet this event was merely an echo of the much larger rebellion of 1830 that had toppled the unpopular monarchy of Charles X, followed by the ascension of the Bourgeois Monarch Louis Phillipe at the start of the July Monarchy.  Eighteen years later, Louis Phillipe was still on the throne and the masses were ready again for a change.  Alexis de Tocqueville saw the change coming and remarked, “We are sleeping together in a volcano. … A wind of revolution blows, the storm is on the horizon.”  The storm would sweep up a generation of participants, including the French physicist Francois Arago (1786 – 1853).

Lamartine in front of the Town Hall of Paris on 25 February 1848 (Image by Henri Félix Emmanuel Philippoteaux in public domain).

Arago is one of the under-appreciated French physicists of the 1800’s.  This may be because so many of his peers have become icons in the history of physics: Fourier, Fresnel, Poisson, Laplace, Malus, Biot and Foucault.  The one place where his name appears—the Spot of Arago—was not exclusively his discovery, but rather was an experimental demonstration of an effect derived by Poisson using Fresnel’s new theory of diffraction.  Poisson derived the phenomenon as a means to show the absurdity of Fresnel’s undulatory theory of light, but Arago’s experimental demonstration turned the tables on Poisson and the emissionists (followers of Newton’s particulate theory of light).  Yet Arago played a role behind the scenes as a supporter and motivator of some of the most important discoveries in optics.  In particular, it was Arago’s encouragement and support of the (at that time) unknown Fresnel, that helped establish the Fresnel theory of diffraction and the wave nature of light.  Together, Arago and Fresnel established the transverse nature of the light wave, and Arago is also the little-known discoverer of optical rotation.  As a young scientist, he attempted to measure the drift of the ether, which was a null experiment that foreshadowed the epochal experiments of Michelson and Morley 80 years later.  In his later years, Arago proposed the methodology for measuring the speed of light in both stationary and moving materials, which became the basis for the important measurements of the speed of light by Fizeau and Foucault (who also attempted to measure ether drift).

In addition to his duties as the director of the National Observatory and as the perpetual secretary of the Academie des Sciences (replacing Fourier), he entered politics in 1830 when he was elected as a member of the chamber of deputies.  At the fall of Louis-Phillipe in the February Revolution of 1848, he was appointed as a member of the steering committee of the newly formed government of the French Second Republic, and he was named head of the Marine and Colonies as well as the head of the Department of War.  Although he was a staunch republican and supporter of the people, his position put him in direct conflict with the later stages of the revolutions of 1848. 

The population of Paris became disenchanted with the conservative trends in the Second Republic.  In June of 1848 barricades were again erected in the streets of Paris, this time in opposition to the Republic.  Forces were drawn up on both sides, although many of the Republican forces defected to the insurgents, and attempts were made to mediate the conflict.  At the barricade on the rue Soufflot near the Pantheon, Arago himself approached the barricades to implore defenders to disperse.  It is a measure of the respect Arago held with the people when they replied, “Monsieur Arago, we are full of respect for you, but you have no right to reproach us.  You have never been hungry.  You don’t know what poverty is.” [1] When Arago finally withdrew, he feared that death and carnage were inevitable.  They came at noon on June 23 when the barricade at Porte Saint-Denis was attacked by the National Guards.  This started a general onslaught of all the barricades by Republican forces that left 1,500 workers dead in the streets and more than 11,000 arrested.  Arago resigned from the steering committee on June 24, although he continued to work in the government until the coup d’Etat by Louis Napolean, the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte, in 1852 when he became Napoleon III, Emperor of the Second French Empire. Louis Napoleon demanded that all government workers take an oath of allegiance to him, but Arago refused.  Yet such was the respect that Arago commanded that Louis Napoleon let him continue unmolested as the astronomer of the Bureau des Longitudes.

Riemann and Jacobi and the March Revolution in Berlin

The February Revolution of Paris was followed a month later by the March Revolutions of the German States.  The center of the German-speaking world at that time was Vienna, and a demonstration by students broke out in Vienna on March 13. Emperor Ferdinand, following the advice of Metternich, called out the army who fired on the crowd, killing several protestors.  Throngs rallied to the protest and arms were distributed, readying for a fight.  Rather than risk unreserved bloodshed, the emperor dismissed Metternich who went into exile to London (following closely the footsteps of the French Louis-Phillipe).  Within the week, the revolutionary fervor had spread to Berlin where a student uprising marched on the royal palace of King Frederick Wilhelm IV on March 18.  They were met by 20,000 troops. 

The March 1848 revolution in Berlin (Image in the public domain).

Not all university students were liberals and revolutionaries, and there were numerous student groups that formed to support the King.  One of the students in one of these loyalist groups was a shy mathematician who joined a loyalist student militia to protect the King.  Bernhard Riemann (1826 – 1866) had come to the University of Berlin after spending a short time in the Mathematics department at the University in Göttingen.  Despite the presence of Gauss there, the mathematics department was not considered strong (this would change dramatically in about 50 years when Göttingen became the center of German mathematics with the arrival of Felix Klein, Karl Schwarzschild and Hermann Minkowski).  At Berlin, Riemann attended lectures by Steiner, Jacobi, Dirichlet and Eisenstein. 

On the night of the uprising, a nervous Riemann found himself among a group of students, few more than 20 years old, guarding the quarters of the King, not knowing what would unfold.  They spent a sleepless night that dawned on the chaos and carnage at the barricades at Alexander Platz with hundreds of citizens dead.  King Wilhelm was caught off guard by the events, and he assured the citizens that he would reorganize the government and yield to the demonstrator’s demands for parliamentary elections, a constitution, and freedom of the press.  Two days later the king attended a mass funeral for the fallen, attended by his generals and ministers who wore the german revolutionary tricolor of black, red and gold.  This ploy worked, and the unrest in Berlin died away before the king was forced to abdicate.  This must have relieved Riemann immensely, because this entire episode was entirely outside his usual meek and mild character.  Yet the character of all the unrelated 1848 revolutions had one thing in common: a sharp division among the populace between the liberals and the conservatives.  As Riemann had elected to join with the loyalists, one of his professors picked the other side.

Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi (1804 – 1851) had been born in Potsdam and had obtained his first faculty position at the University of Königsberg where he was soon ranked among the top mathematicians in Europe.  However, in his early thirties he was stricken with diabetes, and the harsh winters of Königsberg became to difficult to bear.  He returned to the milder climate of Berlin to a faculty position at the university when the wave of revolution swept over the city.  Jacobi was a liberal thinker and was caught up in the movement, attending meetings at the Constitution Club.  Once the danger to Wilhelm IV had passed, the reactionary forces took their revenge, and Jacobi’s teaching stipend was suspended.  When he threatened to move to the University of Vienna, the royalists relented, so Jacobi too was able to weather the storm. 

The surprising footnote to this story is that Jacobi delivered lectures on a course on the application of differential equations to mechanics in the winter semester of 1847 – 1848 right in the midst of the political turmoil.  His participation in the extraordinary political events of that time apparently did not hamper him from giving one of the most extraordinary sets of lectures in mathematical physics.  Jacobi’s lectures of 1848 were the greatest advance in mathematical physics since Euler had reinterpreted Newton a hundred years earlier.  This is where Jacobi expanded on the work of Hamilton, establishing what is today called the Hamilton-Jacobi theory of dynamics.  He also derived and proved, using Liouville’s theorem of 1838, that the volume of phase space was an invariant in a conservative dynamical system [2].  It is tempting to imagine Jacobi returning home late at night, after rousing discussions of revolution at the Constitution Club, to set to work on his own revolutionary theories in physics.

Doppler and the Hungarian Revolution

Among all the states of Europe, the revolutions of 1848 posed the greatest threat to the Austrian Empire, which was a beaurocratic state entangling scores of diverse nationalities sprawled across the largest state of Europe.  The Austrian Empire was the remnant of the Holy Roman Empire that had succumbed to the Napoleonic invasion.  The lands that were controlled by Austria, after Metternich engineered the Congress of Vienna, included Poles, Ukranians, Romanians, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Slovenes, Serbs, Albanians and more.  Holding this diverse array of peoples together was already a challenge, and the revolutions of 1848 carried with them strong feelings of nationalism.  The revolutions spreading across Europe were the perfect catalyst to set off the Hungarian Revolution that grew into a war for independence, and the fierce fighting across Hungary could not be avoided even by cloistered physicists.

Christian Doppler (1803 – 1853) had moved in 1847 from Prague (where he had proposed what came to be called the Doppler effect in 1842 to the Royal Bohemian Society of Sciences) to the Academy of Mines and Forests in Schemnitz (modern Banská Štiavnica in Slovakia, but then part of the Kingdom of Hungary) with more pay and less work.  His health had been failing, and the strenuous duties at Prague had taken their toll.  If the goal of this move to an obscure school far from the center of Austrian power had been to lead a peaceful life, Doppler’s plans were sorely upset.

The news of the protests in Vienna arrived in Schemnitz on the 17th of March, and student demonstrations commenced immediately.  Amidst the uncertainty, Doppler requested a leave of absence from the summer semester and returned to Vienna.  It is not clear why he went there, whether to be near the center of excitement, or to take advantage of the free time to pursue his own researches.  While in Vienna he read a treatise before the Academy on galvano-electric effects.  He returned to Schemnitz in the Fall to relative peace, until the 12th of December, when the Hungarians rejected to acknowledge the new Emperor Franz Josef in Vienna, replacing his Uncle Ferdinand who was forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian war for independence began.

Görgey’s troops crossing the Sturec pass. Their ability to evade the Austrian pursuit was legendary (Image by Keiss Károly in the public domain).

One of Doppler’s former students from his days in Prague was appointed to command the newly formed Hungarian army.  General Arthur Görgey (1818 – 1916) moved to take possession of the northern mining towns (present day Slovakia) and occupied Schemnitz.  When Görgey learned that his old teacher was in the town he sent word to Doppler to meet him at his headquarters.  Meeting with a revolutionary and rebel could have marked Doppler as a traitor in Vienna, but he decided to meet him anyway, taking along one of his colleagues as a “witness” that the discussion were purely academic.  This meeting opens an interesting unsolved question in the history of physics. 

Around this time Doppler was interested in the dynamical properties of the pendulum for cases when the suspension wire was exceptionally long.  Experiments on such extreme pendula could provide insight into changes in gravity with height as well as the effects of the motion of the Earth.  For instance, Coriolis had published his paper on forces in rotating frames many years earlier in 1835.  Because Schemnitz was a mining town, there was ample access to deep mine shafts in which to set up a pendulum with a very long wire.  This is where the story becomes murky.  Within the family of Doppler’s descendants there are stories of Doppler setting up such an experiment, and even a night time visit to the Doppler house by Görgey.  The pendulum was thought to be one of the topics discussed by Doppler and Görgey at their first meeting, and Görgey (from his life as a scientist prior to becoming a revolution general) had arrived to help with the experiment [3]

This story is significant for two reasons.  First, it would be astounding to think of General Görgey taking a break from the revolution to do some physics for fun.  Görgey has not been graced by history with a benevolent reputation.  He was known as a hard and sometimes vicious leader, and towards the end of the short-lived Hungarian Revolution he displaced the President Kossuth to become the dictator of Hungary.  The second reason, which is important for the history of physics, is that if Doppler had performed this experiment in 1848, it would have preceded the famous experiment by Foucault by more than two years.  However, the paper published by Doppler around this time on the dynamics of the pendulum did not mention the experiment, and it remains an open question in the history of physics whether Doppler may have had priority over Foucault.

The Austrian Imperial Army laid siege to Schemnitz and commenced a short bombardment that displaced Görgey and his troops from the town.  Even as Schemnitz was being liberated, a letter arrived informing Doppler that his old mentor Stampfer at the University of Vienna was retiring and that he had been chosen to be his replacement.  The March Revolution had led to the abdication of the previous Austrian emperor and his replacement by the more liberal-minded Franz Josef who was interested in restructuring the educational system in the Austrian empire.  On the advice of Doppler’s supporters who were in the new government, the Institute of Physics was formed and Doppler was named as its first director.  He arrived in the spring of 1850 to take up his new post.

The Legacy of 1848

Despite the early successes and optimism of the revolutions of 1848, reactionary forces were quick to reverse many of the advances made for universal suffrage, constitutional government, freedom of the press, and freedom of expression.  In most cases, monarchs either retained power or soon returned.  Even the reviled Metternich returned to Vienna from exile in London in 1851.  Yet as is so often the case, once a door has been opened it is difficult to shut it again.  The pressure for reforms continued long after the revolutions faded away, and by 1870 many of the specific demands of the people had been instituted by most of the European states.  Russia was an exception, which may explain why the inevitable Russian Revolution half a century later was so severe.            

The revolutions of 1848 cannot be said to have had a long-lasting impact on the progress of physics, although they certainly had a direct impact on the lives of selected physicists.  The most lasting effect of the revolutions on science was the restructuring of educational systems, not only in Austria, but in many of the European states.  This was perhaps one of the first times when the social and economic benefits of science education to the national welfare was understood and implemented across Europe, although a similar recognition had occurred earlier during the French Revolution, for instance leading to the founding of the Ecole Polytechnique.  The most important, though subtle, effect of the revolutions of 1848 on society was the shift away from autocratic rule to democracy, and the freeing of expression and thought from rigid bounds.  The coming revolution in physics at the turn of the next century may have been helped a little by the revolutionary spirit that still echoed from 1848.


[1] pg. 201, Mike Rapport, “1848: Year of Revolution” (Basic Books, 2008)

[2] D. D. Nolte, The Tangled Tale of Phase Space, Chap. 6 in Galileo Unbound (Oxford University Press, 2018)

[3] Schuster, P. Moving the stars : Christian Doppler, his life, his works and principle, and the world after. Pöllauberg, Austria, Living Edition. (2005)