NAME: Wilhelm Ostwald
DATES: 1853-1932
WORKED AT: University of Leipzig

With his activities to organize "intellectual work" Wilhelm Ostwald can be seen as a member of the bibliographic or documentation movement and as one of the predecessors of all the efforts to improve scholarly information and communication throughout the 20th century. Ostwald most important contributions and conceptions include:

  • the foundation of bibliographical institutions like the Bridge ("Brücke") in 1911 or the planned International Institute of Chemistry,
  • the proposal to fragment knowledge through cutting the printed journals and disseminating the single papers, an idea which seems to have been part of the zeitgeist before World War I and which survived in the hypertext structure of electronic journals of today,
  • the realization of the need for standardization especially expressed in his ideas on paper formats, and
  • the requirement to popularize scientific knowledge as a means of communicating science to the general public.

AWARDS: 1909 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
OFFICES: Landhaus Energie, still a museum
PAPERS AT: Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Archive

1853 - 1932

Wilhelm Ostwald, born in 1853 in Riga, Latvia, was one of the founders and organizers of physical chemistry at the end of the nineteenth century. In recognition of his role in the chemical profession, in 1887, he was appointed to the only chair of physical chemistry in Germany, at Leipzig; the other candidates withdrew in favor of Ostwald.

On the basis of thermodynamics and positivism, he developed his energetics, which he extended to his philosophy of nature (Naturphilosophie). His so-called “energetic imperative,” “Do not waste energy, but convert it into a more useful form” was an important foundation for his later efforts with regard to the organization of scholarly work. In this area he founded with others the Bridge in 1911.

He resigned from his chair in Leipzig in 1906 to devote more time to philosophy and monism as well as to the international organization of scientific work and to the development of his color theory. In 1909 he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in recognition of his work on catalysis and for his investigations into the fundamental principles governing equilibria and rates of reaction. Ostwald died in Leipzig in 1932.

Some of Ostwald's major works in the area of "information science" include:
Ostwald, W. (1919). Handbuch der allgemeinen Chemie [Handbook of general chemistry]: Vol. 1. Die chemische Literatur und die Organisation der Wissenschaft [Chemical literature and the organization of science]. Leipzig: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft.
Ostwald, W. (1912). Das Gehirn der Welt [The world brain]. Munich: Brücke.

Ostwald, W. (1913). Scientific management for scientists. “The Bridge.” The trust idea applied to intellectual production. Scientific American, 108, 5–6.
Ostwald, W. (1914). Memorial on the foundation of an International Chemical Institute. Science, N.S., 40, 147–156.
Ostwald, W. (1929) Die Pyramide der Wissenschaften: Eine Einführung in wissenschaftliches Denken und Arbeiten [The pyramid of the sciences: An introduction to scientific thinking and working]. Stuttgart: Cotta.
Ostwald, W. (1932). Quelques vues d'un savant allemand sur la documentation chimique. Chimie et Industrie, 27, 1201-1208
Ostwald, W. (1955). Berzelius’ “Jahresbericht” and the international organization of chemists. Journal of Chemical Education, 32, 373–375. (Published in German: 1910)

Further information:
Hapke, T. (1999). Wilhelm Ostwald, the "Brücke" (Bridge), and connections to other bibliographic activities at the beginning of the twentieth century. In M. E. Bowden, T. B. Hahn, & R. V. Williams (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1998 Conference on the History and Heritage of Science Information Systems (pp. 139-147). Medford, NJ: Information Today, Inc. for the American Society for Information Science and the Chemical Heritage Foundation.


Page updated 25 September 2002