Wilhelm Ostwald – Complete Biography, History and Inventions

Wilhelm Ostwald by Nicola Perscheid

Wilhelm Ostwald – Complete Biography, History and Inventions

Wilhelm Ostwald

Who Was Wilhelm Ostwald?

Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald, known throughout his life as Wilhelm Ostwald, was born on September 2nd, 1853. He is best known as a scientist, one of the most important founders of classical physical chemistry, and a Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry in 1909. This work made him known as the father of physical chemistry.

He devoted his resources to many other endeavors, including The Bridge, an organization devoted to creating a system of all intellectual work. This organization created technical standards, known as the monographic principle, that can be considered an early version of hypertext. He referred to this endeavor as creating a world brain.

Quick Facts

Full Name
Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald
September 2, 1853
April 4, 1932
Net Worth
  • Faraday Lectureship Prize
  • Nobel Prize for Chemistry
Latvian, Became a German Citizen in 1888
Place of Birth
Riga, Russian Empire (now Latvia)
Leipzig University
Ostwald Dilution Law, Early Hypertext Principles

Early Life

Wilhelm was born in Riga, Latvia, though at the time the city was part of the Russian Empire. His father, Gottfried Wilhelm Ostwald, was a master cooper and was married to Elisabith Leuckel. Both his parents are descended from German immigrants.

He attended a rigorous gymnasium for his education until he enrolled in Dorpat University in 1872. He studied chemistry there and graduated after three years. He worked with Professor Arthur von Oettingen at the Physics Institute as an assistant and then under Carl Schmidt at the Chemistry Laboratory after graduation.


After his work as an assistant in various departments at Dorpat University, Wilhelm became an unpaid academic lecturer at Dorpat University. This position was short-lived and he soon was offered the position of full-time Professor of Chemistry at the Polytechnicum in Riga. He held this position for six years until he became a Professor of Physical Chemistry at Leipzig University.

Professor of Physical Chemistry

Wilhelm held this position until his retirement. From 1887 to 1906, he made significant progress in the field. He pioneered work in electrochemistry, discovered a law of dilution, and taught many students for decades at Leipzig University, including pupils who went on to win the Nobel Prize. He also invented a viscometer named after himself. His contribution to chemistry earned him many awards, distinctions, and scientific terms named on his behalf.

During his time at Leipzig, he organized the Department of Physical Chemistry and founded the German Electrochemical Society, which later became the German Bunsen-Society for Applied Physical Chemistry. He published many textbooks, research papers, and other academic works, becoming known as the father of physical chemistry.

Retirement Years

While Wilhelm Ostwald officially retired as a professor in 1906, his academic achievements remained impressive. He continued to explore his roles as scientist, inventor, scholar, and writer. As a writer, he produced many works about philosophy and organizational studies. He even studied color theory and shapes near the end of his life, publishing books on scientific standardization processes.

What Is Wilhelm Ostwald Known for?

Wilhelm is remembered as a pioneer in physical chemistry and the organization of intellectual knowledge. He perhaps best fits into the history of computers for his role in the organization of The Bridge.

Physical Chemistry

He not only devoted his career to teaching physical chemistry but also wrote extensively on the subject. He made discoveries about the ways a catalyst affects the speed of a chemical reaction, earning him not only a Nobel Prize but the honor of scientific terms named after him, like the Ostwald theory. He is known as the father of physical chemistry thanks to his achievements.

The Bridge

In 1910, Ostwald was in Brussels and met Paul Otlet. They discussed the methods of organization of knowledge. Ostwald had a long-standing interest in the organization of science, the relationship between science and society, and the effective publication and use of scientific literature. He was very interested in the efforts of Otlet and his partner, LaFontaine, to create their Universal Decimal Classification and Universal Bibliographical Repertory, a catalog of all documents of all kinds, including images.

Ostwald was so inspired by Otlet’s institute that he decided to establish a similar initiative in Germany. He invited Adolf Saager, a German writer, and Karl Wilhelm Buhrer, a Swiss businessman, to work with him.

In 1911, using his Nobel Prize money, they founded “The Bridge: International Institute for the Organizing of Knowledge Work”. The founders believed that scientific and intellectual work was more the result of the efforts of individuals who are geographically and otherwise isolated from each other, so bridges were needed to connect them. Ostwald, just like Goldberg and Otlet, believed in the need for creative interaction between science and society.

Ostwald and his friends advanced a modernist approach to the management of knowledge by seeking to atomize literature into small components of recorded thoughts, much smaller than books, articles, and reports. They believed that these small pieces of knowledge could be arranged and linked in multiple ways using expanded decimal classification. They intended to use printed cards as units of recorded knowledge sets.

A complete set of all cards would provide a comprehensive, dynamically updated, easily distributed encyclopedia of all recorded knowledge. Ostwald described this comprehensive encyclopedia as a “world brain.” Anyone could then assemble, selectively, the set of cards, that would constitute a concise summary of any field of interest.

Ostwald and his friends called their approach to manipulate and rearrange knowledge the monographic principle. Their use of this principle was a form of hypertext and the sophisticated structure of links between documents.

Prior to the use of digital computers, hypertext was cumbersome and laborious. Unfortunately, after a brief but vigorous existence, the Bridge collapsed when Ostwald’s prize money ran out. His world brain project didn’t see significant success, though its ideas would live on in the invention of the internet.

Wilhelm Ostwald: Marriage, Divorce, Children, and Personal Life

Ostwald’s life was devoted to scientific and organizational endeavors. He did marry and have five children, one of whom became a famous colloid chemist in his adult years.


Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald married Helen von Reyher in 1880. In 1888, they both decided to become German citizens. The couple had two daughters and three sons. Helen von Reyher outlived her husband, dying in 1946.


Wilhelm and Helen had five children in total: Grete, Wolfgang, Elisabeth, Walter, and Carl Otto. Wolfgang Ostwald went on to become a famous colloid chemist.

Wilhelm Ostwald: Awards and Achievements

Wilhelm Ostwald won many awards and achievements throughout his life. From the Ostwald theory to the Ostwald viscometer, his name has left a mark on the field of physical chemistry.

Faraday Lectureship Prize, 1904

In 1904, Ostwald was awarded this coveted prize by the Royal Society of Chemistry. It’s awarded approximately every two years and was given in recognition of his contribution to chemistry, like the Ostwald theory.

Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1909

This prestigious award was granted to Ostwald in recognition of his work on chemical equilibria, reaction velocities, and catalysis. The Ostwald theory and other important scientific terms still bear the name of this important scientist. Not only was this honor important but the prize money allowed him to found The Bridge during his retirement years.

This honor, and the accomplishments it represented, also led to a list of honorary titles and degrees. He was made a Heheimrat by the King of Saxony in 1899 and received honorary doctorates from universities in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain.

Wilhelm Ostwald Published Works and Books

As a professor, Ostwald published a significant number of works. He continued to publish books, articles, and scientific papers on everything from physical chemistry to organization, to color theory. Here are some of the more notable works he published:

  • Textbook of General Chemistry (Lehrbuch der Allgemeinen Chemie), 1884
  • Outline of General Chemistry (Grundriss der Allgemeinen Chemie), 1889
  • Handbook and Manual for Physicochemical Measurements (Hand- und Hilfsbuch zur Ausführung physikalisch-che


Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Wilhelm Ostwald?

Wilhelm Ostwald won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in recognition of his work in physical chemistry, particularly catalysis. He also helped found The Bridge, an organization that worked on a precursor to hypertext.

What did Wilhelm Ostwald invent?

Wilhelm Ostwald wrote extensively and discovered many laws, theories, and processes in physical chemistry. He also invented a viscometer. He worked toward a universal process of organizing intellectual works, which he named the world brain.

When was Wilhelm Ostwald born?

Wilhelm Ostwald was born on September 2nd, 1853. He was born in Riga, which was formerly part of the Russian Empire, and is now in Latvia.

When did Wilhelm Ostwald die?

Wilhelm Ostwald died on April 4th, 1932. He died in Leipzig, Germany.

What contributions did Wilhelm Ostwald make to society?

Wilhelm Ostwald’s contribution to chemistry, particularly working with catalysis and dilutions, earned him recognition as being the father of physical chemistry. He also helped advance the idea of an international collection of scientific knowledge using an early form of hypertext and color theory.

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