Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach

Ernst Mach was a physicist. He was involved in the description and photographs of spark shock-waves. Later on he was involved in ballistic shock-waves. He described the passing of sound through a barrier caused by the compression of air in front of bullets and shells. He used “schlierenmethode” along with his son to photograph the shadow of the invisible shock waves. Ernst studies, in the field of experimental physics, concentrated on the interference, diffraction, polarization and refraction of light in different media under external influences

Early Life and Career:

Ernst Mach was born on February 18th, 1838 in Chirlitz, a part of Brno in the Czech Republic. His father was a graduate from Prague University. He was a tutor to the noble Brethon family in Zlin. Ernst was an Austrian physicist and philosopher and he is remembered for his contributions to physics such as the Mach number and the study of shock waves. As a philosopher of science, he influenced logical positivism and through his criticism of Newton, a forerunner of Einstein’s relativity. Mach received his education at home from his parents. He then entered a Gymnasium in Kremsier , where he studied for three years. In 1855, he became a student at the University of Vienna. He received his doctorate in physics in 1860. There he conducted studies on kinesthetic sensation, the feeling associated with movement and acceleration. Between 1873 and 1893 he developed optical and photographic techniques for the measurement of sound waves and wave propagation.


Mach also made many contributions to psychology and physiology including his anticipation of gestalt phenomena, the discovery of Mach bands, an inhibition-influenced type of visual illusion, and his discovery of a non-acoustic function of the inner ear which helped control human balance.

Mach also became well-known for his philosophy, a type of phenomenal recognition sensations as real. This position seemed incompatible with the view of atoms and molecules as external, mind-independent things. Mach was reluctance to acknowledge the reality of atoms was criticized by many as being incompatible with physics.

One of the best-known of Mach’s ideas is the so-called “Mach’s principle,” concerning the physical origin of inertia. This was never written down by Mach. However it was given a graphic verbal form, attributed by Philipp Frank to Mach himself.

Mach contributed to knowledge of perception, especially in his Beiträge zur Analyze der Empfindungen (1897; trans. C. M. Williams, The Analysis of Sensations; and the Relation of the Physical to the Psychical, 1959). He was among the first to use visually ambiguous figures as research tools, for separating what we now call it ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ processing. Mach’s views on mediating structures inspired B. F. Skinner’s strongly inductive position, which paralleled Mach’s in the field of psychology

Mach’s principal works in English

  • The Science of Mechanics (1893)
  • The Analysis of Sensations (1897)
  • Popular Scientific Lectures (1895)
  • The Principles of Physical Optics (1926)
  • Knowledge and Error (1976)
  • Principles of the Theory of Heat (1986)


In 1898 Mach suffered from cardiac arrest. In 1901 he retired from the University of Vienna and was appointed to the upper chamber of the Austrian parliament. On leaving Vienna in 1913 he moved to his son’s home in Vaterstetten, near Munich, where he continued writing and corresponding until his death on February 19th, 1916.