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Gustav Robert Kirchhoff

Gustav Kirchhoff
Born 12 March 1824(1824-03-12)
Königsberg, East Prussia
Died 17 October 1887 (aged 63)
Berlin, Germany
Residence Germany
Nationality German
Fields Physicist
Institutions University of Berlin
University of Breslau
University of Heidelberg
Alma mater University of Königsberg
Doctoral advisor Franz Ernst Neumann
Doctoral students Max Noether
Ernst Schröder
Known for Kirchhoff's circuit laws
Kirchhoff's law of thermal radiation
Kirchhoff's laws of spectroscopy
Notable awards Rumford medal

Gustav Robert Kirchhoff (12 March 1824 – 17 October 1887) was a German physicist who contributed to the fundamental understanding of electrical circuits, spectroscopy, and the emission of black-body radiation by heated objects. He coined the term "black body" radiation in 1862, and two sets of independent concepts in both circuit theory and thermal emission are named "Kirchhoff's laws" after him. The Bunsen-Kirchhoff Award for spectroscopy is named after him and his colleague, Robert Bunsen.


Life and work

Gustav Kirchhoff was born in Königsberg, East Prussia, the son of Friedrich Kirchhoff, a lawyer, and Johanna Henriette Wittke. He graduated from the Albertus University of Königsberg in 1847 where he attended the mathematico-physical seminar directed by Franz Ernst Neumann and Friedrich Julius Richelot. He married Clara Richelot, the daughter of his mathematics professor Richelot. In the same year, they moved to Berlin, where he stayed until he received a professorship at Breslau.

Kirchhoff formulated his circuit laws, which are now ubiquitous in electrical engineering, in 1845, while still a student. He completed this study as a seminar exercise; it later became his doctoral dissertation. He proposed his law of thermal radiation in 1859, and gave a proof in 1861. He was called to the University of Heidelberg in 1854, where he collaborated in spectroscopic work with Robert Bunsen. Together Kirchhoff and Bunsen discovered caesium and rubidium in 1861. At Heidelberg he ran a mathematico-physical seminar, modelled on Neumann's, with the mathematician Leo Koenigsberger. Among those who attended this seminar were Arthur Schuster and Sofia Kovalevskaya. In 1875 Kirchhoff accepted the first chair specifically dedicated to theoretical physics at Berlin.

In 1862 he was awarded the Rumford Medal for his researches on the fixed lines of the solar spectrum, and on the inversion of the bright lines in the spectra of artificial light.

He contributed greatly to the field of spectroscopy by formalizing three laws that describe the spectral composition of light emitted by incandescent objects, building substantially on the discoveries of David Alter and Anders Jonas Angstrom (see also: spectrum analysis)

Kirchhoff died in 1887, and was buried in the St Matthäus Kirchhof Cemetery in Schöneberg, Berlin.[1]


Kirchhoff's three laws of spectroscopy

  1. A hot solid object produces light with a continuous spectrum.
  2. A hot tenuous gas produces light with spectral lines at discrete wavelengths (i.e. specific colors) which depend on the energy levels of the atoms in the gas. (See also: emission spectrum)
  3. A hot solid object surrounded by a cool tenuous gas (i.e. cooler than the hot object) produces light with an almost continuous spectrum which has gaps at discrete wavelengths depending on the energy levels of the atoms in the gas. (See also: absorption spectrum)

Kirchhoff did not know about the existence of energy levels in atoms. The existence of discrete spectral lines was later explained by the Bohr model of the atom, which helped lead to quantum mechanics.

See also

Spectroscope of Kirchhoff and Bunsen

References and notes

  1. ^ Kirchhoff is buried only a few meters from the graves of the Brothers Grimm.

Further reading

Grave of Gustav Kirchhoff

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

GUSTAV ROBERT KIRCHHOFF (1824-1887), German physicist, was born at Konigsberg (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 deter mination 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 fiber 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.

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