Gustav Ludwig Hertz


There are many important and notable names in the world of physics that have done a lot to improve the way people view and understand the world. There are times when they make contributions so significant that they get the highly sought after Nobel Prize. One man who belongs to the field of physics who also nabbed a Nobel Prize is the experimental physicist Gustav Ludwig Hertz from Germany. His uncle was Heinrich Rudolf Hertz, another famous German physicist.

Early Life

Gustav Ludwig Hertz’s father was a lawyer named Gustav Theodor Hertz and his mother was Auguste Arning. Gustav Hertz attended university from 1906 to 1907 at the Georg-August University of Gottingen. From 1907 to 1908, he was at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich. Then he continued his studies at the Humboldt University of Berlin from 1908-11. It was in 1911 that he finally obtained his PhD under Heinrich Leopold Rubens.

From the year he got his doctorate until 1914, Gustav Hertz worked as Rubens’ assistant at the University of Berlin. It was during this stint that Gustav Hertz got to know James Franck and they got together to perform various studies and experiments on inelastic electron collisions that happened in gases. Their activities were named “Franck-Hertz experiments.” These experiments garnered the 1925 Physics Nobel Prize.

However, he had to take a break from his studies and experiments because he was serving in the military in 1914 during World War I. In 1915, Gustav Hertz went down with a serious wound injury from the war. He got discharged from the military in 1917 so he went back to the University of Berlin to become a Privatdozent. He got a job in Eindhoven in 1920 at the Philips Incandescent Lamp factory. His position was that of a research physicist and he held the job for a good 5 years.


In 1925, Gustav Hertz left his research physicist post in Philips Incandescent Lamp factory for a position at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg as Director of the Physics Institute and professor ordinarius. Two years after, he moved on to become an experimental physics professor ordinarius and Director of the Physics Institute of the BTH (Berlin Technische Hochschule) which was in Berlin-Charlottenberg. It was during this time at BTH that he managed to come up with a technique to separate isotopes through gaseous diffusion. It was a good time for him at BTH but it didn’t last and it as well because of the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service.

The fact that Hertz was a military officer back in World War I gave him some level of protection against National Socialist policies but as they became stricter, the laws caught up anyway. In 1934, he had to leave BTH since he fell under the classification as part-Jewish because his grandfather (paternal side) was raised in a Jewish home before his family converted to Lutheranism.

After he was forced to quit his job at BTH, he was the Research Laboratory II director at Siemens. While he held this job at Siemens, he also continued his work with ultrasound and atomic physics though he did stop his work and research on separating isotopes. He worked at Siemens until he left in 1946 USSR.

Soviet Union Years

Hertz, just like fellow Nobel Prize winner Franck, was worried over his safety in Germany and wanted to get out of Germany. It didn’t really matter where they moved as long as it was out of Germany. Hertz, Franck and colleagues of theirs then had an agreement. The agreement was that whoever got to speak to the Russians first would have to speak for the people in their party and state the following:

• To prevent the plunder of their places of work and institutes.

• To be allowed to continue their scientific works without or with very minimal interruption.

• To be given protection from criminal acts in their past.

The other members of their group were Manfred von Ardenne, Max Volmer, and Peter Adolf Thiessen. It was Thiessen who had communist contact although he was a member of the Nazi party. On April 1945, Thiessen and a Soviet Major arrived at the Institute where Von Ardenne worked and took away the other pact members to bring them to the Soviet Union. The pact members, along with other German scientists and researchers, were made to work and conduct research in different laboratories.

In 1949, Hertz worked with six other German scientists on a project called Sverdlosk- 44. It was all about the study of uranium enrichment. They had to move to a plant where the workers were getting only about 45% enrichment when they expected around 90% or even more.

By 1950, he moved to Moscow and in 1951, he was given the Stalin Prize 2nd class alongside another German scientist. In the same year, Gustav Hertz and James Franck were given the Max Planck Medal. Gustav Hertz stayed until 1955 in the USSR but eventually went back to Germany where he got a job again at the University of Leipzig as professor ordinarius.

Scientific Memberships

Being the brilliant man that he was, it was a given that Gustav Ludwig Hertz would gain membership in several scientific societies. For one, he was a German Academy of Sciences member. This organization was in Berlin. He was also a Hungarian Academy of Sciences honorary member. While he was in the Soviet Union, he became a USSR Academy of Sciences foreign member.

Personal Life

Hertz was married to Ellen nee Dihlmann. She died in 1941. Their marriage produced 2 sons whom they named Johannes Heinrich Hertz and Carl Helmut Hertz. Carl became a Nazi Soldier during World War II but was captured by US troops and brought stateside. Luckily, his father had a Nobel Laureate friend who arranged for his release. Carl Hertz later moved to Sweden where he studied physics and came up with medical ultrasonography. In fact, both of Gustav Ludwig Hertz’s sons became physicists.