History of the Physics Department

Physikalisches Institut vom Herrengarten aus gesehen
Festschrift zur Feier der Eröffnung der Erweiterungsbauten am 23. Juli 1908
Die Grossherzogliche Technische Hochschule zu Darmstadt
The physical institute as seen from the Herrengarten. The picture was taken from an old book published for the opening of the new buildings on July 23rd, 1908.

The roots of the Department of Physics at Darmstadt University of Technology can be traced back to the nineteenth century, and has a rich history. The Institute of Physics was founded in 1869 as part of the division of general studies of the then Technische Hochschule together with other non-technical disciplines. In 1921 this division was granted the right to grant doctoral degrees. In 1934, the Department of Mathematics and Physics, which also included mechanics and meteorology, was founded.

Physics in Darmstadt began even earlier than that. Johann Nörrenberg, Professor of Mathematics and Physics at the Grand Ducal Military School (1823-1833), was famous outside the city of Darmstadt for his experiments on crystal optics. Friedrich Kohlrausch (1871-1975), professor at the Polytechnical School at Darmstadt, showed that Ohm´s law is also valid for hydrous solutions. He developed a general theory of electrolytes and was the author of a textbook on applied physics well known to physicists of many generations. When the new building that houses physics was finished in 1894, Karl Schering was head of the Institute of Physics. Among his most important instruments were a standard clock and a seismograph. The magnetic land surveying that he performed, together with Konrad Zeißig (head of the new Institute of Technical Physics in 1920), was esteemed for decades as a standard model in magnetic land surveying. The precision experiments of Hans Rau (1922-1950) on the excitation of helium atoms by electron impact were interpreted as proof of quantum mechanics. On the basis of these methods and findings, Gerhard Herzberg (Nobel Laureate 1971) succeeded in establishing molecular spectroscopy at the institute in around 1930. In the same period an institute of x-ray physics and technology was founded. This institute was famous for its high performance x-ray tubes. Research in theoretical physics was highlighted by the pioneering work on electron microscopy of Otto Scherzer, head of the Institute of Theoretical Physics from 1935.

During the Second World War about 95 percent of the laboratories were destroyed. They have since been completely reconstructed. In the mid-fifties institutes and directions of research were established and these are still reflected in current structures of the department. Two final items worth noting are the establishment of the Deutsches Kunststoff Institut, which came about through the initiative of Richard Vieweg, and the famous tables of Landolt-Börnstein, which were edited for many years by Karl Heinz Hellwege.