Gustav Kirchoff

There are a lot of great names in the world of science and one of the most notable ones is Gustav Robert Kirchoff. This German physicist has made massive contributions to the fundamental understanding of black-body radiation emitted by heated objects, spectroscopy, and electrical circuits. He also worked with other famous names in science and came up with other profound breakthroughs and theories. Indeed, he is a man who made great leaps and bounds in the world of physics and chemistry and there are things worth finding out about this scientist.

His Early Life

Gustav Kirchoff was born in Konigsberg, East Prussia where his father, Friedrich Kirchoff, worked as a law councilor. Friedrich Kirchoff had a very strong sense of duty to the state of Prussia and Johanna Henriette Wittke was his wife. The Kirchoff family belonged to an intellectual community of Konigsberg that was flourishing and being the most promising of his parents’ children, Gustav was raised with the mindset that serving the state was really the only open course for him. In the state of Prussia, University staff and professors were considered civil servants and so his parents believed that it was the best place for him since it was where he could put his brains to work to serve his state.


Gustav Kirchoff excelled in school and given his academic aptitude, his career flowed naturally. He went to school in Konigsberg at the Albertus University of Konigsberg. It was founded by the first duke of Prussia, Albert back in 1544. Jacobi and Franz Neumann set up a mathematics-physics seminar as a joint project in Konigsberg. In this seminar, Jacobi and Neumann used to teach their students different research methods. The seminar started in 1833 and Kirchoff attended it from 1843 to 1846. It was very unfortunate that Jacobi fell ill during the year 1843 and so it turned out to be Neumann who had had the bigger influence on Kirchoff.

At that time, Neumann was interested in mathematical physics most of all and it was at the same time that Kirchhoff began his studies at Konigsberg. Neumann was then working on electrical inductions. Neumann had, in fact, just submitted the first of two major papers he wrote on the subject of electrical induction. This happened in the year 1845 while Kirchoff was his student. At the University of Konigsberg, Kirchoff was taught by Friedrich Jules Richelot.

His Work

During the time he was studying under Neumann, he made the first of many outstanding research contributions that were related to electrical current. In 1845, he announced Kirchoff’s laws and they allowed the calculation of currents, voltages and resistances in electrical circuits that had multiple loops. This further extended German mathematician Georg Ohm’s work.

A couple of years later, Gustav Kirchoff’s work would lead to recognize this error and prod him to come up with a better and keener understanding of how the theory of electrostatics and electric currents could be and should be combined.

He graduated from university in the year 1847 and made the move to Berlin. The conditions were rather poor in the German Confederation at that time and it proved to be a difficult time. Emotions and tensions from the citizens were running high and trouble always seemed to be around the corner. Crop failures and high rates of unemployment also led to disturbances and discontent within the people. Trouble was also sparked when news came out that Louis-Philippe had been overthrown by an 1848 uprising in Paris. Not only was there revolution in several German states but people also took up arms in Berlin. The monarchy was in trouble with the socialists and the republicans. Fortunately, Kirchoff was in a privileged position and was unaffected by the events of the state so he pressed on with his chosen career. Bunsen moved to take a teaching spot in Breslau and this was where he met Robert Bunsen who also became his lifelong friend. Bunsen moved to teach at the University of Heidelberg in 1852 and he made it a point to make arrangements for Kirchoff to move to Heidelberg to teach as well.

Aside from working with electricity and currents, he also made major discoveries in the field of chemistry. In the year 1869, Gustav Kirchoff and Robert Bunsen (developer of the Bunsen burner with help from his assistant) discovered cesium and rubidium. With the use of a spectroscope they had invented together, they managed to spot these two alkali metals that the world had no previous knowledge of. Their discoveries marked the beginning of a new era, that is, they introduced a new way to look for new elements. They found that the first 50 elements found – not counting the ones known since ancient eras – were released by electrolysis or products of chemical reactions.

Personal and Later Life

Gustav Kirchoff got married to one Clara Richelot who was the daughter of Friedrich Jules Richelot, his mathematics professor in Konigsberg. Together, he and Clara had two daughters and three sons but Clara died in 1869 and he was left to raise his children. This was made all the more challenging since he had a disability that forced him to use crutches or a wheelchair most of the time. In 1872, he got married to Luise Brommel who hailed from Heidelberg.

He had numerous offers from other universities but he was quite happy and contented with Heidelberg so he turned down all offers. However, his health continued to fail him and he realized that the experimental side of the subject that he so loved was becoming impossible for him to accomplish. In 1875, he made the move to Berlin where he became chair of mathematical physics. The spot allowed him to teach and do research without having to carry out any experiments. After he took the position in Berlin, he came out with his best known treatise which is the Vorlesungen über mathematische Physik.

He died in 1887 and his final resting place could now be found in St. Matthaus Kirchoff Cemetary in Berlin. His grave is just a few meters away from those of the Brothers Grimm.