The Galileo Project
site map

Guericke [Gericke], Otto von

1. Dates
Born: Magdeburg, 20 Nov. 1602
Died: Hamburg, 11 May 1686
Dateinfo: Dates Certain
Lifespan: 84
2. Father
Occupation: Aristocrat
Hans Gericke descended from a patrician family long established in Magdeburg. The mother, née Anna von Zweidorff, came from a similar family. The father, Hans, died in 1620 when von Guericke was eighteen.
It is clear that the family was wealthy. Von Guericke inherited extensive property both in the city and in the countryside around it.
3. Nationality
Birth: German
Career: German
Death: German
4. Education
Schooling: Leipzig, Helmstedt, Jena, Leiden
Studied in the Faculty of Arts in Leipzig, 1617-20.
With the early stages of the Thirty Years War threateninng Leipzig, his parents moved him to Helmstedt. He was there only briefly before the death of his father called him home.
In 1621-2 von Guericke studied law at Jena.
1622-5, enrolled in the Faculty of Law at Leiden; according to his own account, he also studied mathematics and fortification there.
Von Guericke did not take any degree in all of this--in accordance with his standing and needs.
After Leiden he spent nine months on a tour of parts of France and England before returning home in 1626.
5. Religion
Affiliation: Lutheran
6. Scientific Disciplines
Primary: Natural Philosophy, Physics
Subordinate: Astronomy, Electricity, Meteorology
As a convinced Copernican, von Guericke was concerned with the nature of space and the possibility of empty space and the means of action across it. He constructed a physical world view, embodying Copernicanism, based on empty space across which mag netic action controls the movements of the planets. Each celestial body has its own finite sphere of activity.
Von Guericke's experiments with the famous hemispheres led him to recognize the elasticity of air, which he investigated. When he learned of the Torricellian experiment, he repeated it, made barometric forecasts of the weather based on systematic obs ervations over a period of years, and proposed a network of stations to make systematic reports of the barometer and weather.
In addition to his interest in astronomy as a Copernican, von Guericke owned a telescope, which he apparently did not use extensively. He did observe the comet of 1664.
He experimented with what we know to have been static electricity, although he did not recognize it as such.
7. Means of Support
Primary: City Magistrate, Personal Means, Merchant
Secondary: Government, Engineering
When von Guericke returned home after his education, he was elected alderman of Magdeburg almost immediately, and he served the city continuously over the following fifty years. In 1630, he became city contractor.
After the destruction of Magdeburg in 1631, as part of the Thirty Years War, when he had lost everything for the moment, von Guericke became an engineer (really military engineer) in the service first of Sweden, though the locale of the work was most ly Magdeburg, and then when control of the city passed into the hands of the Elector of Saxony in 1635, in his service. In this capacity, and also in his capacity as a magistrate of the city, von Guericke played a large role in its reconstruction. He fu nctioned as a diplomatic representative of the city to the occupying powers, and later he represented the city at the peace negotiations that led to the Peace of Westphalia.
Von Guericke attended the Imperial Diet at Regensburg (in the 50's). Diplomacy consumed much of his time from 1642 until 1666. He was elected one of the four rotating mayors of Magdeburg in 1646 and remained one of the mayors until 1676.
He was enobled in 1666. Although I have been calling him von Guericke, this name is really correct only from 1666 on. Until then he was Otto Gericke.
Von Guericke was also a brewer in Magdeburg. Although little is said about it, I tend to think that this must have contributed considerably to his income.
8. Patronage
Type: Court Official
Von Guericke dedicated his Experimenta nova, 1672, to the Elector of Brandenburg. He received no money became, as a letter explicitly stated, he was known to be wealthy.
In 1663 he built one of his Wettermännchen in Berlin for the Great Elector. His relation to the Great Elector, who became sovreign over Magdeburg as a result of the Peace of Westphalia, is intriguing. Von Guericke's son was an official in Hamburg i n the service of the Great Elector. Apparently the son arranged the construction of the Wettermännchen, and that incident raises the speculation that the clientage of von Guericke, who was a wealthy men, was performed for the benefit of his son.
9. Technological Involvement
Types: Instruments, Military Engineering, Civil Engineering, Cartography
He made his first suction pump in 1647 and continued in the following years to work at improving it into a real air pump.
He also made what might be called the first static electric machine, a sulfur globe mounted on an axle. It is necessary here to note that von Guericke did not recognize the effect he generated as static electricity.
He made a special barometer in which the column of mercury moved the arm of a man, which thus pointed out rising and falling pressure. This was the Wettermännchen.
Von Guericke was an important man in rebuidling the city, both its fortifications and its bridges over the Elbe.
After the destruction of Magdeburg, he drew up a map of the city for the Swedish authorities.
10. Scientific Societies
Membership: Non
Through his diplomatic activity, which involved much travel, von Guericke came into contact with intellectual and scientific circles in Germany.
He corresponded with Schott, Lubieniechy, Leibniz, et al. Some of the correspondence is published in the Schimank volume. Krafft's 1978 article publishes a catalogue of the correspondence.
  1. Hans Schimank, tr. and ed., Otto von Guerickes Neue (sogenante) Magdegruger Versuche über den leerer Raum, (Düsseldorf, 1968).
  2. Alfons Kauffeldt, Otto von Guericke, (Leipzig, 1977).
  3. Fritz Krafft, Otto von Guericke, (Darmstadt, 1978).
Not Available and Not Consulted
  1. Fritz Krafft, "Die Correspondenz des Otto von Guericke (d. ).
  2. Eine Übersicht," Technikgeschichte, 45 (1978).
Compiled by:
Richard S. Westfall
Department of History and Philosophy of Science
Indiana University

Note: the creators of the Galileo Project and this catalogue cannot answer email on geneological questions.

©1995 Al Van Helden
Last updated
Home | Galileo | Biography | Chronology | Family | Portraits |
Science | Christianity | Library | About | Site Map | Search

Please note: We will not answer copyright requests.
See the copyright page for more information.