He was not a giant in the field of physics like Newton; indeed, his severe hunchback made him small even by 18th Century standards, but Georg Christoph Lichtenberg deserves mention as one of the interesting footnotes of Science.
He was born on July 1, 1742, the seventeenth child of a German pastor in the city of Darmstadt. Although an intelligent child with an interest in mathematics, his family could not afford lessons for him. In 1763, he received a grant from the Landgrave of Hesse-Darmstadt, Ludvig VIII, allowing him to attend Göttingen University. In 1769 he became an extraordinary professor in physics at the university and six years later received the physics chair.
He was known for his entertaining lectures, and he was one of the first professors to incorporate physics experiments and apparatus into his lectures. He constructed a huge electrophorus, a hand-cranked device for generating static electricity, over that was 6 feet (2m) in diameter and capable of generating sparks 15 inches (38 cm) long. With this device he discovered principles used in modern Xerographic copiers and used it to record tree-like, branching discharge patterns that became known as "Lichtenberg figures" in his honor.
But he wasn't just a hunchbacked mad scientist with a German accent and a powdered wig. He was also a noted wit and satirist and wrote on a variety of subjects. He kept a succession of journals, which he called his Sudelbücher or "Waste Books", notebooks in which he jotted down anything that was of interest to him, so that he could compile these thoughts into more polished works later. Among the jottings of his Sudelbücher, he wrote down musings on the Scientific Method, human natures and many witty and entertaining epigrams.
He visited England twice, once in 1770 and again from 1774-1775, where he met King George III as well as members of Captain Cook's scientific expeditions. Lichtenberg became quite an anglophile as well as a fan of the engravings of artist William Hogarth.
He had numerous romantic liasons, including one with a teenaged girl named Maria Stechard who lived with him from 1780-1782. In 1789 he married a woman named Margarethe Kellner who bore him six children.
Game and Story Use
- He was a skirt-chasing, hunchbacked mad scientist with a German accent and wearing a powdered wig. The hard part won't be including him in your campaign, it will be convincing your players you didn't make him up.
- That said, he would make an interesting NPC encounter, in a historical or time travel campaign set in the 18th Century.
- He might be the former professor of a scientific or gadgeteer character.