The Travel Letters of H. C. Ørsted
edited by Karen Jelved and Andrew D. Jackson
With his discovery of electromagnetism in 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted became an immediate star of the international scientific community. His many scientific accomplishments, including the first production of metallic aluminium and his lifelong efforts to bring science and its benefits to a broad public, made him a towering figure in the Danish Golden Age. His career was spanned by eight foreign journeys covering the period from 1800 to 1846 that gave him the opportunity to meet and work with the greatest scientific minds in Europe. Michael Faraday, Sir Humphry Davy, Joseph Fourier, André Marie Ampère, Carl Friedrich Gauss, and Alexander von Humboldt — to name only a few — were members of his scientific circle.
Each of these journeys was documented by Ørsted in letters to family and friends at home, often in the form of a travel journal. Ørsted's interests and passions were far broader than science, and many passages are devoted to matters of art, theatre, literature, philosophy, and politics, which would have been of far greater interest to his intended readers. As a consequence, meetings with Goethe, Victor Hugo, and Sir Walter Scott are described in detail. In spite of his occasional protests, Ørsted enjoyed travelling. He captures the pleasures and inevitable pains of long journeys in the early nineteenth century vividly, and he frequently offers opinions of people and places that would not have been considered appropriate in a more public document.
The Travel Letters of H. C. Ørsted offers a first-person chronicle of the evolution of the world view that determined the course of his science. These letters remind us that science has been genuinely international for more than two centuries with personal contacts and collaborations largely unhindered by distance and national borders. And they demonstrate the remarkably rapid pace of scientific discoveries in the nineteenth century: The time between Ørsted's discovery of electromagnetism and Ampère's correct theoretical description of his results was a mere 16 weeks.
Some of these letters were edited by Ørsted's daughter Mathilde and published in 1870 with the title Letters from and to H. C. Ørsted. This earlier edition is flawed by textual changes and harsh abridgements apparently intended to maintain the dignity of the author. Fortunately, the holograph letters are contained in the Ørsted Collection of The Royal Library in Copenhagen, and they are presented here in unabridged form for the first time both in Danish and in an English translation. (These letters have not been available previously in English.) This edition contains extensive notes for readers less familiar with the people and places Ørsted visited. Separate textual notes can be found in the Danish edition. All of the 1300 people mentioned in the letters are listed in an extensive Index of Names, and most have been identified.
Although the present edition was conceived as a primary resource for historians and philosophers of science, the result can be read with pleasure by a far wider audience. Taken as a whole, The Travel Letters of H. C. Ørsted provides fascinating personal documentation of Ørsted's development as a scientist and as a person.
Karen Jelved and Andrew D. Jackson are widely regarded as Hans Christian Ørsted's “English-language voice”. Their previous contributions to Ørsted scholarship include:
Karen Jelved, Andrew D. Jackson, and Ole Knudsen, Selected Scientific Works of Hans Christian Ørsted, Princeton University Press (1998).
Anja Skaar Jacobsen, Andrew D. Jackson, Karen Jelved, and Helge Kragh, H. C. Ørsted's Theory of Force, Historisk-filosofiske Meddelelser 86 (2003) published by The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.
The present volumes are:
H. C. Ørsteds rejsebreve, udgivet af Karen Jelved og Andrew D. Jackson, Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica (2011) 8 vol. 2, Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab (in Danish).
The Travel Letters of H. C. Ørsted, edited and translated by Karen Jelved and Andrew D. Jackson, Scientia Danica. Series H, Humanistica (2011) 8 vol. 3, The Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters (in English).