Baron von Reichenbach's Experiments

Reprinted from Chamber's Journals, No. 115, Vol. V, New Series, March 14, 1846.

Karl von Reichenbach (1788-1869) deutscher Chemiker und Erfinder, lithograph by Josef Kriehuber, 1832.
Baron von Reichenbach (1788-1869)

We were made aware, some time ago, that a German periodical, devoted to chemistry had presented last summer a long and carefully prepared paper, detailing certain experiments of Baron Reichenbach of Vienna respecting hitherto undescribed phenomena-connected with magnetism. We were informed that conducted as they had been by a rigidly scientific investigator, and one whose writings were statements of dry facts, they might be considered as entitled of respectful notice; and yet they were of such a nature as we have been accustomed to regard with the greatest suspicion.

They appeared in short, as tending toward the domain of animal magnetism, and yet as promising to bring that theme of marvels within the scope of exact science. This is a subject, of course, on which curiosity will be greatly excited; and we are therefore glad to obtain an opportunity of conveying some account of it to our readers, in consequence of the appearance of a very readable abstract of Reichenbach's papers in the Dublin Quarterly Journal of Medical Science.

The writer sets out as follows, strictly following, we believe, the statements of the Viennese chemist, but condensing his language:

If the poles of a strong magnet, capable of supporting a weight of about ten pounds, be passed over the bodies of fifteen to twenty persons, there will always be some individuals among them who are affected by it in a very peculiar way. The number of such persons is greater than generally supposed. Of the above number, there will be three or four at least. The nature of this impression on sensitive persons, who in other respects may be looked upon as perfectly healthy, is not easily described, being rather disagreeable than pleasant, joined with a slight sensation, now of cold, and now of heat, as if the person were blown upon by a cold or lukewarm current of air. Sometimes they feel contractions in the muscles and a prickling sensation, as if ants crawled over the body; many persons even complain of sudden headaches. Not only women but even young men are sensible to this influence; in young children, the sensation is often very strong. Susceptibility amongst the healthy, however, is strongest in sedentary persons and those suffering from secret grief and deranged digestive organs. Persons afflicted by nervous complaints as epilepsy, catalepsy, hysteria, and paralysis are peculiarly sensitive, and still more so are lunatics and somnambulists.

To pursue the abstract of our Dublin contemporary: Actually or apparently healthy, sensitive individuals discover, in their relation to the magnet, nothing besides the sensation just described. But the case is very different with the sick sensitive. Its action on them is sometimes agreeable, sometimes unpleasant - often disagreeably painful to such a degree that fainting, cataleptic fits and spasms, at times violent and sometimes dangerous, ensue, according to the nature and degree of their disease. In this latter class, to which the somnambulists also belong, an extraordinary increase takes place in the sensitiveness of the senses. The patient sees, tastes and feels better than others and often hears what is said in the next room. This is however a fact well known and is not by any means unnatural.

The hypothesis that the aurora borealis is an electrical phenomena, produced by the magnetism of the earth, the real nature which is at present unknown, owing to our not having been as yet able to detect an emanation of light from the magnet, led Reichenbach to try persons, in a state in which the senses were thus sharpened, could detect such an emanation from the poles of a magnet.

He was enabled to make trial on a young woman named Nowotny, aged twenty five, who suffered from continual headache, accompanied by catalepsy and spasms. So sensitive was she that she could distinguish all things in her room, and even the colour of objects, on a dark night. The magnet acted on her with extraordinary force; and though by no means a somnambulist, she was equally sensitive with one.

The experiment was made in a perfectly dark room. At the distance of about ten feet from the patient was placed a horse shoe magnet of nine plates [a magnet of nine plates of alternate metals, bent into a horse shoe form, so as to make the ends or poles approach], and weighing about 80 pounds, with its poles directed toward the ceiling.

Whenever the armature of this magnet [a piece of iron, clapped upon the poles of the magnet] was removed, the girl saw both poles of the magnet surrounded by a luminosity, which disappeared whenever the armature was connected with the poles. The light equally large on both poles and without any apparent tendency to combine. The magnet appeared to be immediately encircled by a fiery vapour, which was again surrounded by a brilliant radiant light. The rays were not still but continually flickered, producing\cuing a scintillating appearance of extreme beauty. The entire phenomena contained nothing which could be compared to a common fire; the colour was much purer, almost white, sometimes mixed with iridescent colours, and the whole being more similar to the light of the sun [22] than to that of the common fire. The rays were not uniformly bright: in the middle of the edges of the horse shoe they were more crowded and brilliant than at the angles, where they were collected into tufts, which extended further out than the other rays.

The light of the electric spark she considered much bluer. It left an impression on the eye similar to, but much weaker than, that left by the sun, and which did not disappear for several hours, and was transferred to all substances upon which she looked for some time in a painful manner.

Reichenbach endeavored to verify these results by trials on other persons, particularly a woman named Reichel, who was rendered sensitive in consequence of an accidental hurt, but was nevertheless healthy. In her case the appearance of the light along the four longitudinal edges of each plate composing the magnet was extremely curious, even where the edges of two contiguous plates fitted one another exactly; and where one would think rays of light given off from each plate must necessarily merge into one another at their bases, they could be distinguished with great accuracy. Reichenbach, in order to be certain that there was actual light given off in these cases, made some very careful experiments with the daguerreotype, the result of which was that an iodized plate was acted upon when placed opposite the poles of a magnet. He was also able to concentrate it with a lens; but the focal length was found to be fifty four inches, while, for a candle is was only twelve inches. He could discover no action of heat with the most delicate thermoscope. In some cases the patients declared they could see the surrounding objects by means of this light, and that any substance stopped its passage, as it would ordinary light, thus, for example, when the hand was placed before the poles, it streamed through the fingers. From the similarity of this light, in many respects to the aurora borealis, Reichenbach considers them identical. We may add here, from another source, that the Baron contrived to subject his patients an effectual test in these lens experiments; for he caused the lens to be shifted about, and the theoretically proper place for the focus on the opposite wall was invariably and at once pointed out.

Continuing his abstract, the Dublin journalist says: from the observations of Petelin, made at Lyons in 1788, and which were afterward verified by many others, we know that, in catalepsy, the hand is capable of being attracted by a powerful magnet, just like a piece of iron, and as, Mesmer observed, that water, over which a magnet had been several times passed, can be distinguished from ordinary water, by sensitive patients. Reichenbach has fully verified these facts in a large number of persons. He found that this effect took place not only during perfect catalepsy, but even afterwards, when the persons were in full possession of their senses. Miss Nowotny described the sensation to him as an irresistible attraction, which she felt obliged to obey, although against her will: that is was a pleasant feeling combined with a cool gentle aura, which flowed over the hand from the magnet, the former feeling as if tied and dawn to the latter by a thousand fine threads; and that she nothing similar to it in ordinary life, it being a peculiar indescribable feeling of refreshing and extraordinary pleasure, particularly if the magnet attracted the right hand and was not too strong.

He did not however verify Thilorier's observation that nervous patients can convert needles into magnets and he considers in fact the attraction of the hand by the magnet to be of a totally different nature from that between iron and the magnet. This opinion we shall see verified further on.

We have had no instance hitherto of the form or arrangement of the molecules of the body rendering it capable of it exerting force on other bodies at a distance; but Reichenbach, by a series of experiments on magnetic water that is, water over which a magnet had been several times passed, was led to suppose that other bodies could, in all probability, be also rendered magnetic. This he soon found to be the case in a less or greater degree; but he also observed that many substances, which were never in contact with a magnet, affected the nerves and by extending his experiments he arrived at the law that amorphous bodies possess no power similar to that possessed by the magnet, but that crystals are capable of producing all the phenomena resulting from the action of a magnetic on cataleptic patients. This is true however, only of single perfect crystals and not of an agglomeration of crystals, such as lump sugar. Thus, for instance, a large prism of rock crystal, placed in the hand of a nervous patient affects the fingers so as to make them grasp the crystal involuntarily and shut the fist.

This power is not equally distributed over every part of the surface of the crystal, but is found to concentrate in two points or poles corresponding to the principal axes of the crystal. Both poles were found to act similarly, but one was generally somewhat stronger than the other, with the exception that one gave out a cool and the other a gentle lukewarm aura. Notwithstanding the apparent resemblance of the magnetic powers in crystals to ordinary magnetism, Reichenbach satisfied himself that there is a difference, because crystals do not attract iron filings, or affect the compass or needle. It appears that the ordinary magnetic power is of two kinds, one of which is this peculiar power resident in crystals and in the living body.

The learned chemist also found that a charge of this power, can be communicated to bodies, as is the case with a charge of electricity. The readiness with which the situation of the poles could be detected by those sensible to their influence, was striking. Many of the patients could detect all the ores, even in the most complicated crystalline forms, with unerring accuracy, by their effects on them as of course it is unnecessary to observe, they could have no knowledge of crystallography. By extending his experiments he soon discovered that the poles of a crystal gave out light exactly as the magnet does. Miss Sturman described it as a tulip formed flame blue at the base, passing off to perfect white at the top, with scattered rays or stripes of a reddish colour, passing upward from the blue toward the white. The flame scintillated and flickered and threw on the support on which the crystal rested, for a space of about 18 inches all around, a certain degree of brightness. Miss Reichel describes the flame similarly but in addition she saw a peculiar star-like light in the interior of the crystal, which evidently resulted from reflection, produced by the structure of the mineral. It may be necessary to remark that, in order to observe these phenomena, [23] the room must be perfectly dark, and the crystal very large, not less, at least than eight inches thick, and proportionately long. Smaller crystals will however, answer with exceedingly sensitive persons.

The curious results produced on cataleptic patients which we have already mentioned, excited some attention in the last century, and it was soon found that similar results could be produced, without a magnet, by the hand alone. It was impossible from the then state of physical science, to show the connection between these phenomena and the ordinary physical ones of the magnet; and the subject was therefore passed over by philosophers, and gradually grew into disrepute, principally by the use made of it by Mountebanks, and from the unsuitable name - animal magnetism - which it received. From the similarity of some of the phenomena observed by Reichenbach, with those described by the elder magnetisers, he was led to think they might be the results of the same cause. As a magnet affects the human body, he thought that the magnetism of the earth cannot be without some influence of a similar kind, and in this he was not mistaken, for he found that in all positions that a nervous invalid can lie or sit, the best is in the magnetic meridian, with the head toward the north; the opposite direction is not quite so good; but the worst possible is at right angles to the magnetic meridian, with the head toward the west. He found that patients placed in the first position slept better at night, suffered less from headaches, and in general found themselves much better; while, with the head toward the west, the same patients suffered greatly, their pulse increased in frequency, hectic fever often resulted catalepsy was sometimes occasioned; but the moment the patient was restored to the first position, all these symptoms ceased and were in general replaced by an agreeable feeling of well being. In some of the cases which were tried, the most extraordinary effects were produced on the patient by this change of position, and he hence concluded that the various and contradictory effects which have been attributed to the application of electricity and magnetism to the cure of diseases, have arisen from the neglect of the influence exerted by the magnetism of the earth on the patients; and to the same cause he also attributes the little success which has hitherto attended the treatment of nervous diseases.

In extending his experiments, he found that soft iron, which loses its magnetism when removed from the inductive power of a magnet, does not lose the power of acting on the nerves; and he hence concludes that magnetism, properly so called, is perfectly distinct from this new power, as we have already seen in other instances, when speaking of the crystal. We have also mentioned that bodies placed in contact with a crystal or magnet, such as water, etc., became possessed of the same power of affecting the nerves of those bodies and could be distinguished from portions of the substances not magnetised. But we have now to learn that the same properties can be communicated to the human body; or in other words, that a man rubbed, or in mere contact with a magnet or crystal, is capable of producing the same affect as the nerves on those bodies; nay more, that a man has these properties even when he has not touched a magnet or crystal; in fact, that we are a source of this peculiar power ourselves. It is unnecessary to give here the mode in which he arrived at this remarkable conclusion, as the experiments are all similar to those made with the magnet and crystal - a man merely being substituted for these latter. Like them, the hand produces an aura, attracts the limbs of cataleptic patients, and communicates a charge to other bodies, which, as in the case of the magnet and crystal, disappears again in a short time; and is capable of passing through all bodies, is little influenced by the magnetism of the earth and like them, is polar, the principal axis being across the body, the ends of the fingers being the poles. The head and genitals very likely form secondary poles.

But the most extraordinary part of the whole investigation is that the tops of the fingers of healthy men continually give off tufts of light, just as the poles of crystals, while those of women give of none or at most appear slightly luminous. The patients who were able to observe these phenomena described the flame as being from one to four inches long, according as if they were more or less sensitive and of an extremely beautiful appearance.

Baron Reichenbach has also attained what he considers as conclusive evidence that magnetism exists in the sun's light. All bodies exposed for a time to sunlight retain a magnetic light for sometime after. One of his experiments is so curious that we shall give it a try here: To a piece of thick copper wire, about thirty feet long, he fastened a piece of sheet copper, about nine inches square. The end of this wire was placed in the patient's hand and the plate exposed to the direct rays of the sun outside the window. This was scarcely done, when an exclamation of intense pleasure, was heard from the patient; she instantly felt the peculiar sensation of warmth, which gradually spread from her arm to her head. But in addition to this, she described another and hitherto totally unknown sensation; namely, a feeling of extreme well being, as the patient said, similar to the sensation produced by a gentle May breeze. It flowed from the end of the wire to the arm and spread itself over the whole body, producing a sensation of coolness the patient feeling at the same time strengthened and refreshed. In some of his experiments, Reichenbach substituted various bodies and among them a man for the plate of copper and still obtained the same results. What is extremely curious, the yellow part of the ray of light produces an agreeable and refreshing feeling while the violet part causes the disagreeable feeling sometimes experienced from the cation of the magnet and this violet part we know to be that at which the greatest chemical action takes place. In heat, friction and artificial light the baron found various modifications of the same surprising effects.

It equally appears, in every case of chemical action, even where it consists of nothing more than the water of crystallization, with a salt or mere solution of a body in some solvent, this power is set free. If we recollect, says our journalist, how manifold are the circumstances under which chemical action takes place on the earth, we will be able to see what an inexhaustible source of this power must be. In the animal body there is series of such changes continually going on; we eat food, it is digested in the stomach and converted into blood which is again further changed into muscle, fat, etc. and these in turn are again decomposed to yield fuel for animal heat and motive power. This [24] continual chemical action is therefore the generator of the peculiar force which we find developed in man, as in the magnet and crystal. But not only does the chemical action going on in the living body generate this power, but the decomposition which ensues immediately after death is also an abundant source of it. Reichenbach, on going into church graveyards, on dark nights, with some of his patients, discovered that graves were always covered by a lurid phosphorescent glow, about six or eight inches high, and in one case Miss Reichel saw it four feet in height in a graveyard in Vienna where a large number of persons were daily buried. When she walked through this graveyard, the light reached up to her neck, and the whole place appeared covered with some dense misty luminous fog. This the Baron conceives, explains in a very satisfactory manner the appearance of light and ghosts etc. which have been observed over graves.

After thus discovering several sources of the power, Reichenbach was led to the detection of it, in a certain measure, in all bodies whatever. From this flowed some observations, the curious nature of which must be our apology for borrowing so largely from our contemporary. Every one says he is aware that there is a large number of persons upon whom certain substances have a certain peculiar effect, generally of a disagreeable kind, which sometimes appears to be absurd and ridiculous, and is often attributed to eccentricity; thus there are some who cannot bear to touch fur, others who do not like to see feathers; nay some who cannot bear the look of butter.

The invariable nature of this feeling and the similarity of circumstances attending its existence among the most different races, and in the most distant countries, led Reichenbach to examine it closer, and he found that these antipathies occurred, for the most part, among persons apparently healthy, but more or less sensitive, and that they increase in degree, according as persons suffer from nervousness, etc. and that hence, hence, there was evidently some connection between these sensations and the effects he had in so many instances found to attend the action of magnetic crystals, and on similar persons.

We have already seen that in certain cases the action of the crystal was attended by a disagreeable feeling, which sometimes produced painful spasmodic affections of the limbs; and that this property could be could be communicated to various bodies, though in different degrees; and it is never totally absent from bodies which form perfect crystals. On this subject, we have however, said enough; and it only remains to say a few words on the sensation of apparent difference of temperature, the disagreeable feeling, as it were of disgust, and the apparent mechanical agitation of darting pains through the body, sometimes produced by most dissimilar substances. Some of these sensations were felt by healthy persons, but highly sensitive individuals felt them all more or less strongly, according the nature and extent of their disease.

On making a number of experiments on the most different substances, he arrived at the conclusion that all amorphous bodies which do not possess the peculiar power resident in crystals, possess, in different degrees, according to the nature of the body, and with a great degree of constancy, the property of giving rise to disagreeable sensations, sometimes accompanied by heat and sometimes by a feeling of coolness. In the crystal we had a power depending on the state of aggregation, or form, while in the case before us, the nature of the substance is the determining cause of some dynamical effect of another kind.

Many curious observations remain, but our space is exhausted. Most readers, we think, will join us in wishing the experiments of the Viennese philosopher should be repeated and be subjected to every imaginable test, as in the first place they seem worthy of these pains; and, in the second, it is impossible to receive such extraordinary matters into the book of science without the strongest of attainable proofs. It would now, we think, be wrong to treat such things with the indifference of mere incredulity. It is far from likely that so many persons as have now testified to peculiar effects of a zoo-magnetic nature, should have been entirely mistaken, or altogether possessed by a spirit of deception. Nor is there any improbability that we are tending toward the discovery of some new form of the imponderables, in which the human organization is strangely concerned and which therefore promises to possess medicative power. Where a prospect, however shadowy, holds out so much temptation, men will venture to follow it and surely it were well for a few genuine men of science to go into the inquiry, if only to prevent the multitudes of the unlearned from breaking their heads upon it. It sometimes appears to us as if the spirit of incredulity overreached itself; and perhaps there is an instance here. Forty six years ago, many cures by magnets, called "metallic tractors" were announced: they were suddenly quashed by two physicians, who simulated the application but used bits of wood and iron disguised as "tractors" instead. What, however, if it should prove that the cures were real cures in both cases, only produced by a cause different from the tractors and which resided in the bodies of the operators and connected with an earnest exertion of the will in both cases? Things as strange have happened.

Many thanks to Associate Ralph Cameron for the transcription of this article.

Ready to go further with your Odic research? Look up "Dynamics of Vital Force" (#B0437) and "The Od Force" (#B0202), two required texts by Reichenbach that present and explain his experimental observations, as originally performed and documented in the mid-19th century. What do you see?