Letter 420c

420c. Johann Wilhelm Ritter letter to Hans Christian Örsted in Copenhagen: Munich, 19 January 1807 [*]

Munich, 19 January 1807

I received your letter of 3 January, my dearest friend, on the 17th. It was not that I had died, quite to the contrary, for I was more alive than ever even while I was silent toward you and so many others. I was in Italy. [1] The object of my journey was a new metal and water dowser à la Pennet. [2] His name is Francesco Campetti. He is and has lived in Gargnano on Lago di Garda. [3]

Our Weiss gave me the first news of him, though even he had only heard about him. I learned more from letters from Dr. [Benigno] Canella in Riva, who has already been especially active in performing experiments with him. I immediately applied to our administration for support to undertake a journey there, and such was indeed quickly authorized, especially as a result of Baader’s help. My pro memoria to this end will remain forever remarkable for me. [4] For it was solely in an anticipatory fashion that I had promised everything in it that has now been fulfilled.

The opposition of people to this journey, once they had caught wind of it, was considerable enough to prompt Geheimer Rat von Schenk, my official adviser, to prevent my pro memoria from even being filed, it being communicated instead privatim [5] to the minister (Montgelas), and entered into the official applications and rescripts with a completely different reason for the journey. In the meantime, however, everything went well. The journey cost 1300 s., all of which the administration covered.

As far as the success of this journey is concerned, it has been as great or even greater that I myself expected. Two weeks of uninterrupted experiments in Gargnano and Riva with Campetti not only confirmed his unusual sensitivity for discovering metals through feeling, but also found that he has an excellent ability to cause the baguetta divinatoria, [6] Fortis’s, [7] Grey’s, and Schäffer’s pendulums to pulse and swing. He possesses many other remarkable talents as well. Commensurate with the wishes of the government if deemed necessary, I brought him back with me to Munich.

He is now living with me in my room, and since 4 January, the day of my return, we have been engaged in incessant experiments. Sword rotation between his hands, indeed everything, everything succeeds for him — — — and me. The latter is a great gain for me personally, since, after all, it enables me to move forward with and guarantee the experiments without outside help.

My dear friend, you cannot believe how valuable this new conquest is for physics. You can guess this significance even from the mere name I gave this phenomenon before the journey, a name I am even more inclined to use after it as well. Siderism is the appropriate name, and thus also will be the title of the periodical I will shortly begin publishing concerning the whole phenomenon. [8]

When I have more time than today, I will send you an excerpt from my diary, from what I wrote about these things before the journey. That will explain everything for you. What gives me the greatest joy, however, is that the most recent issues of my Beyträge contain almost everything I need to unite this new subject matter with previous physics. [9]

Please do not be annoyed by my brevity today. I am already so used up by so many other letters and tasks that I am hardly able to write down anything but the dry, essential facts. You will, however, soon see me again otherwise, to wit, in my full Italian costume. —

God, how wonderful it was in Italy. Few people, surely, have encountered as much kindness and cordiality there as did I. I was also in Milan, Pavia, and Como with Volta, the latter of whom received me more graciously than any other person in the world. I will have much yet to write you about him. In Pavia, Scarpa especially comported himself in an infinitely noble fashion. [10]

Configliacchi, Volta’s successor in experimental physics, was similarly quite gracious. Dito [11] also with regard to Brugnatelli. In Milano, the grandest was Abbot Amoretti, editor of the Opuscoli scelti, now the Nuova scelta d’opuscoli interessanti. [12] He himself is a rhabdomancer, almost as good as Campetti, moreover more learned, and a keen-eyed experimenter. You will be astonished when I am able to write you about what he alone has discovered! And we have long since left him behind us.

I am currently on precisely the terms with Schelling that you have so long wanted me to be. He really is a magnificent and upright person, just a bit gullible with his wife, which on the other hand speaks well of his love. He, Schelling, and Madame as well, are utterly taken by the new findings. And what person utterly familiar with them could not be? And yet I am perhaps the calmest of everyone. It is just my way. I have been quite looking forward to your physics for some time now. But send it to me only in Danish and German. I might genuinely have a new chapter for it now. And who knows, I might yet genuinely write it. . . .

In general I now have so much to do that I am actually glad to be restricted in my writing. It is simply unbelievable what an enormous piece of new work I now have with the rod and pendulum swinging. But it is already correctly integrated into traditional physics, which was no small feat this time.

You will be surprised at the collection of all the long-familiar but unacknowledged, paradoxical phenomena I will disclose on this occasion. I am truly sorry that I am not in a position today to provide you with some of the more important details. But I am already so completely besotten with the plethora of new experiences that it will require some considerable hours for me to extract the quintessence of it all. In the meantime, that is something for you to look forward to. It will not be in vain.

My fraternal gratitude for the understanding you have of my future physics. God knows when I will consider it complete, and it seems I will not get around to writing it before that is the case. But I do have a plan. (1) Chemistry, (2) physics, (3) mechanics, (4) coherency disruption by external means. There is still no proper term for number 4. I do know that the whole always almost provides its own commentary. I brought along an Italian physics by Moratelli that is more or less following the right path, though solely by instinct, i.e., without even knowing it. [13]

On 11 January of this year I had a young daughter. She has not been baptized yet, but her name will be Olivia. [14] . . .

I, too, gained much from this brief but rich journey. More than a letter, especially one today, allows. I have greatly changed, namely, with regard to life, which should, after all, also not be allowed to fall behind. I have even become better with regard to science. How much would I have to tell you in person! . . .

Your old,

Everyone, including Campetti, sends their warmest regards. I am currently living vor dem Karlsthor, to the right, no. 3. [15]


[*] Source: 420c. Correspondence de H. C. Örsted avec divers savants, 2 vols., ed. M. C. Harding (Copenhagen 1920), 2:184—88.

Concerning the episode involving the alleged dowser Francesco Campetti, see the supplementary appendix on Caroline and Schelling’s interest in Francesco Campetti; also Schelling’s letter to Hegel on 11 January 1807 (letter 420a); Karl Schelling to Schelling on 15 January 1807 (letter 420b); and Caroline’s letter to Luise Wiedemann on 31 January 1807 (letter 421). Back.

[1] Ritter had travelled to Italy on 21 November 1806, found Campetti in Gargnano on Lake Garda, and returned with him to Munich in January 1807. Schelling had written Carl Joseph Windischmann from Munich on 7 January 1807 (Plitt 2:110; Fuhrmans 3:398): “Campetti, the rhabdomancer, is here, and Ritter has brought along wondrous things from Italy, where this art has already reached a high degree of perfection — albeit very quietly.” Back.

[2] Joseph Pennet, an alleged dowser. Back.

[3] Ca. 400 km south of Munich (“Central Europe: Wars of the Third Coalition 1805–7,” Cambridge Modern History Atlas [Cambridge 1912]):



[4] Pro memoria, here: memorandum. Back.

[5] Latin, “privately.” Back.

[6] Italian, divining rod. Back.

[7] Alberto Fortis [1741–1803], e.g., Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire naturelle et principalement à l’oryctographie de l’Italie et des pays adjacents, 2 vols. (Paris 1802). Back.

[8] From Greek σιδηρος, sideros, “iron.” Ritter’s new periodical bore the title Siderismus, ed. by J. W. Ritter, vol. 1, no. 1 (Tübingen 1808). Back.

[9] Beyträge zur nähern Kenntniss des Galvanismus und der Resultate seiner Untersuchung, ed. Johann Wilhelm Ritter (Tübingen 1800–1805). Back.

[10] A noteworthy remark to some extent insofar as Antonio Scarpa was known for his severe and at times ruthless personality. Back.

[11] Italian, variant of detto, “said,” here: “ditto, the same (as said above).” Back.

[12] Carolo Amoretti’s Opuscoli scelti sulle scienze e sulle arti (Milan 1778–1803); Nuova scelta d’opuscoli interessanti (Milan 1804–7). Back.

[13] Because the Italian physicist Giambatista Moratelli had published several volumes on physics, it is difficult to determine which Ritter is referencing here. Perhaps his recent Lezioni di fisica moderna, 4 vols. (Venice 1803). Here several illustrations from the first two volumes; note the Harmonika in the fourth illustration and the Voltaic piles in the final one:







[14] In 1804 Ritter had married Dorothea Catherine, née Münchgesang (1785–1823) (Taschenbuch auf das Jahr 1805 für edle Weiber und Mädchen, Inhaltsverzeichnis deutscher Almanache, Theodor Springmann Stiftung):



[15] The Schellings also lived in the relatively new complex of buildings just outside the Karlsthor (Karl’s Gate) in Munich, namely, in building no. 7 “on/to the right”; concerning these buildings on the western edge of the old town walls of Munich, see the supplementary appendix on Karlsthor 7.

Ritter lived several buildings over, in the corner building at no. 3 (Königlich Baiersche Haupt und Residenzstadt München am 1. Januar 1809 [Munich 1809]; Bayerisches Landesvermessungsamt München, Nr. 558/03; illustration [Ritter’s apartment is just out of the picture at the right]: Joseph von Eisenmann, Beschreibung der Haupt- und Residenzstadt München und ihrer Umgebungen in topographischer, geschichtlicher und statistischer Hinsicht [Munich 1814], 18):




Translation © 2018 Doug Stott