Gustav Ludwig Hertz: Biography, Inventions & Contributions

Instructor: Nicholas Pieri

Nicholas holds a BS in Geology and a master's degree in education. He has taught secondary Earth space science.

In this lesson, we will look at the life of German physicist Gustav Ludwig Hertz. Recipient of the Nobel Prize and the Max Planck medal, Hertz made great contributions to the field of theoretical physics and our understanding of electron interactions with atoms.

Gustav Ludwig Hertz

You may already know of Heinrich Rudolf Hertz for whom the unit of frequency for electromagnetic waves was named. But did you know that his nephew Gustav Ludwig Hertz was also a Nobel Prize-winning physicist?

Gustav Hertz
Gustav Hertz

Early Life

Gustav Ludwig Hertz was born July 22, 1887 in Hamburg, Germany. After attending the Johanneum school in Hamburg, Hertz went on to study at universities in Göttingen (1906-1907), Munich (1907-1908), and Berlin (1908-1911). Upon receiving his doctorate in 1911, he went on to work as an assistant to Heinrich Leopold Rubens at the University of Berlin.


His early work in Berlin would be some of his most influential. From 1911 to 1914, Gustav Hertz paired himself with James Franck to conduct a series of experiments now known collectively as the Franck-Hertz experiment. These experiments were the first to demonstrate clearly the quantum nature of atoms, which before had only been theorized. Their work would later earn both scientists the 1925 Nobel Prize in physics.

James Franck
James Franck

Unfortunately for Franck and Hertz, their work together ended abruptly in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I as Gustav Hertz enlisted with the German military. Severely wounded in 1915, he returned to Berlin to work in academia. He would later work as a research physicist for the Philips Incandescent Lamp Factory in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

From 1925 to 1928, Hertz headed the Physics Institute at Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. Afterward, he took a position at the Technical University of Berlin where he worked on a method to separate isotopes through gaseous diffusion.

An Unsure Future

During his years at the Technical University of Berlin, political instability in Germany was mounting. By 1930, the Nazi party was the second largest in Germany, and by 1933, Hitler was constructing concentration camps for German Jews. Even though Hertz had fought for Germany during World War I, he was indeed part Jewish. As a result, Hertz was forced from his post at the university and took a research position with Siemens.

Hertz held this position throughout the war but made a pact with three other German scientists to flee to the Soviet Union as allied troops closed in on Berlin. Soviet forces sought and captured a number of German scientists and research facilities to promote their own nuclear interests. When the German scientists in the pact made contact with the Soviets, they requested to be taken to the Soviet Union on the grounds that their research would go on mostly uninterrupted, that their institutes would not be destroyed, and that they would be protected from prosecution of past political acts.

Research in the Soviet Union

All of Hertz's lab equipment and lab personnel were taken to a new institute constructed for Hertz's research. While working in Institute G in Agudseri, Hertz led research involving the separation of isotopes by diffusion in a flow of inert gasses. The Soviets were particularly interested in separating uranium isotopes to advance their nuclear weapons program and keep up with the Americans.

German scientists in Soviet Russia
German scientists in Soviet Russia

Hertz remained in the Soviet Union until his return to East Germany in 1954. He was made director of the Physics Institute at the Karl Marx University in Leipzig. Hertz retired in Berlin where he lived until his death on October 30, 1975.

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