The emergence of physics as a core discipline

Early years

The Joanneum, the forerunner of Graz University of Technology, had its roots in an extensive collection of items from various fields, such as natural history, chemistry, economics and technology, which Archduke Johann bestowed on what was then the Duchy of Styria in 1811, together with a library. Part of the collection is still housed in the Lesliehof at Raubergasse 10, which is the Natural History Museum Joanneum today. At the same time, the Archduke paved the way for the funding of teachers, who would hold lectures using items from the collection, with the aim of “raising the prosperity of the Duchy”.
The idea was to give members of the public an opportunity to learn about science and technology, which were urgently needed to drive forward economic development. Initially, some of the courses resembled those offered at adult education colleges. To begin with, the emphasis was on botany, mineralogy and chemistry, with a view to promoting the growth of agriculture and mining. Astronomy and technology were subsidiary topics. As far as physics was concerned, lectures were given by the relevant chairs of the then Lyceum – as for many years, the Lyceum and the Joanneum had given courses on particular subjects for each other. As a result, Lyceum students were among those who attended lectures at the Joanneum. For many years after it was awarded university status (in 1827, this is today’s University of Graz), the Lyceum did not have a chair of natural history.
However, Archduke Johann – who continued to influence the development of teaching activities at the Joanneum to a great extent until 1859 – soon began pushing for the extension of the curriculum to cover areas such as ironworking and forestry, but above all mathematics and physics. These two subjects were taught in Latin at the Lyceum, and as Johann put it “according to outdated principles”.
Physics only appeared on the curriculum as a subject in its own right (which was already the case at the Polytechnic Institute in Vienna and Prague) in 1834, with the inauguration of the Chair of Chemistry and Physics, first held by Anton Schrötter von Kristelli (1833-1843). He taught experimental physics as part of a chemistry degree, and had his own physics lab.

Establishment of a chair of physics

Independent chairs for chemistry and physics were instituted in 1845. However, the physics chair was initially only held on a temporary basis by assistants from other institutions or grammar school professors. Some of the most notable were Heinrich Demel (1845-1847), Franz Pless (1847-1851) and Adalbert von Waltenhofen (1851-1853). The latter is well-known in the field of physics for the pendulum that bears his name, a device that was used to demonstrate the principle of eddy current braking. He was later appointed professor at the University of Innsbruck, and in 1883 became professor of electrical engineering at Polytechnic Institute in Vienna (TU Wien).
Following a selection process, Jakob Pöschl became the first full-time holder of the Chair of Experimental and Technical Physics, remaining in the post from 1855-1887. He had studied at the Polytechnic Institute in Vienna and at the University of Vienna, and then taught at secondary vocational schools in the Austrian capital and in Brno. He was only 27 when he moved to Graz. His long tenure was marked by two key events in the institute’s history: its transformation into the Joanneum Regional and Technical College Graz in 1865, and the move to state control in 1874, when the institution was renamed the Imperial and Royal Technical College in Graz. Pöschl’s approach to teaching physics had a very pronounced experiment-based focus. Nicola Tesla, who studied at the Technical College in Graz with the aim of becoming a mathematics and physics teacher, was one of Pöschl’s students. He was also a regular visitor to Pöschl’s laboratory, where he appears to have picked up the idea of using a rotating magnetic field in an electric motor without commutators and brushes, and discussed it with Pöschl. In a telegram thanking the Technical College in Graz for its decision to award him an honorary doctorate in 1937, Tesla wrote: “... Pöschl, whose expertly conducted experiments gave me great encouragement and fruitful knowledge”.
1888 was a hugely important year for physics teaching at the Technical College. The faculty relocated to the recently completed new building on Rechbauerstrasse, and also received a range of new devices. That same year, Albert von Ettingshausen was appointed to the chair. He had previously served as an assistant and then as an associate professor at the University of Graz, and was part of a group of researchers who worked closely with Ludwig Boltzmann, alongside famous names of their day such as Svante Arrhenius and subsequent Nobel Prize winner Walter Nernst. Partly in collaboration with Nernst, Ettingshausen discovered a number of thermomagnetic and galvanomagnetic effects, one of which is named after him.

During his time at the Technical College in Graz, he was confronted with a problem that basically still affects all lecturers on introductory physics courses to this day: the huge teaching workload. In those days, and until fairly recently, all Technical College students had to take an exam in elementary physics. Ettingshausen’s situation was made all the more complicated by the fact that he was also responsible for courses in electrical engineering until he retired in 1920. Back then, the post was called the Chair of Physics and Electrical Engineering. Due to a lack of space in the new building on Rechbauerstrasse, it seemed that establishing a separate chair of electrical engineering in Graz was a non-starter. TU Wien had introduced such a chair in 1883, and by 1903 all six of Austria’s other technical universities had followed suit (TU Wien and the German Technical University in Brno actually had two each.) Due to the First World War, the planned extension of the building on Mandellstrasse was never implemented. This is covered in more detail in a separate section.
Alongside lectures in physics and electrical engineering, Ettingshausen also held wide-ranging electrical engineering practicals; initially optional, they later became compulsory for mechanical engineering students. For many years, every single one of Ettingshausen’s assistants was a mechanical engineering graduate. And as almost all of the faculty’s time was devoted to studying problems associated with electrical engineering, it is no surprise that basic physics research became less of a priority. Several of Ettingshausen’s assistants went on to build international reputations as design engineers or university professors in the field of electrical engineering. Only one of his assistants focused on telecommunications: Otto Nussbaumer, who in 1904 achieved the first-ever wireless transmission of music – in the course of one of the electrical engineering practicals mentioned above.
In order to relieve the burden on Ettingshausen, a second Chair of Physics was inaugurated in 1906. The first holder was Franz Streintz, who gave physics lectures for chemistry students and also held the majority of the physical chemistry courses. After Ettingshausen’s retirement in 1920, the Technical University in Graz established was enabled to establish a separate chair for electrical engineering. But after Streintz left the college in 1922, the post remained vacant.

Expanding physics research

Appointed in 1920, Ettingshausen’s successor was Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Kohlrausch.  (Although Friedrich was actually his first name, he preferred to use his other two given names to avoid confusion with his uncle Friedrich Kohlrausch, who helped to devise the system of physical measuring techniques and went on to become president of the Imperial Physical Technical Institute in Berlin.) He had studied at the University of Vienna, where he was a member of the Exner school which produced countless distinguished physicists, including Nobel laureates Victor Franz Hess and Erwin Schrödinger.
K.W.F. Kohlrausch was not a believer in experiment-led teaching, as he himself wrote. His lectures barely featured any experiments. But on the other hand, he was a prodigious writer. He wrote several books, including his comprehensive work Radioaktivität (Radioactivity), which appeared in Handbuch der Experimentalphysik. Immediately after the discovery of the Raman effect in 1928, he adopted this as the new focus of his research. As luck would have it, the Technical College was home to an extremely productive Institute of Organic Chemistry, headed by Professor Reinhard Seka. It synthesised countless substances for the Institute of Physics’ research into the Raman effect, which could be subjected to systematic investigation. In addition, Professor Kohlrausch developed his own theoretical mechanical model, which he used to uncover previously unknown molecular structures, such as the benzene ring. His work raised the Institute of Physics’ profile among experts worldwide. Kohlrausch also wrote several standard works on the Raman effect and received numerous honours.
The institute usually only employed two assistants, but with the help of third-party funding – which was still a rarity in the 1930s – primarily from the Rockefeller Foundation, he was able to significantly expand staff numbers.
Following Professor Seka’s death, efforts were made to continue chemical synthesis using the Physics Institute’s facilities, but this was only possible on a smaller scale. During the closing years of his tenure, Kohlrausch’s work on the Raman effect increasingly took a back seat as his health deteriorated. As employees joined the institute from outside, it focused on new research topics for a time, including theoretical analysis of topics from physical chemistry and gas-discharge physics. In 1950, the Senate of the Technical College acquired an electron microscope using funds from a special endowment. The microscope was assigned to the Institute of Physics and installed in its lab. The following year it was designated as a separate facility: the Centre for Electron Microscopy. The centre was headed by Dr. Fritz Grasenick, an extremely able director who was also an assistant in the Institute of Physics for a time, and under his leadership the working group quickly developed an outstanding reputation. He showed exceptional skill in steadily increasing the number of employees and the range of equipment at their disposal by winning contracts from industry. He built up a team of competent staff and they devised new preparation methods for the electron microscope. The working group then split from the Institute of Physics and a few years later moved into new premises, in what is now Joanneum-Research on Steyrergasse. At first, the building was primarily intended to house the electron microscope.
Professor Kohlrausch died in 1953. Over the next two years, his replacement was Professor Julius Wagner, who taught all of the physics courses. He had been Kohlrausch’s assistant and later became a professor at the Institute of Experimental Physics at the University of Graz.


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