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Heinrich Rudolf Hertz: Google Doodle for a guy who rode a wave

February 22, 2012|By Amy Hubbard
  • A little boy watches TV in 1950. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz's work laid the groundwork for later inventions including radio and TV.
A little boy watches TV in 1950. Heinrich Rudolf Hertz's work laid… (V. Prazak / FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty…)

Heinrich Rudolf Hertz -- who, like Van Gogh and Mozart, was a rare genius not fully appreciated during his lifetime -- is honored with a Google Doodle today, his 155th birthday. And perhaps the reason the German physicist wasn't valued for his work was that no one at that point was smart enough to do so.

Even Hertz didn't get it.

The German physicist, who was the first to broadcast and receive radio waves, did not realize at the time the broader implications of his work -- which laid the groundwork for the invention of the wireless telegraph, radio and TV.

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"I do not think that the wireless waves I have discovered will have any practical application," Hertz once wrote, according to Scotland's University of St. Andrews.

Hertz made his discoveries young -- he began exercising his smarts early and was beginning his groundbreaking work at age 28. But his life was short, likely depriving the world of a host of amazing efforts. 

Contemplating the accomplishments he did make is enough to give those with more average brains a headache.  

He was the first to broadcast and receive radio waves, and he established "beyond any doubt" that light and heat were electromagnetic radiations. 

At age 6, the boy wonder -- son of a barrister who later became a senator -- began his studies under the eye of a "taskmaster" teacher and a mother who was "determined that he should be -- as he was -- first in his class," according to St. Andrews.

Heinrich learned modern and classical languages with ease, took Arabic and technical drawing with a private tutor in addition to his regular schooling, and in woodworking fashioned an "apparatus with which he carried out experiments."

In 1886, Hertz married the daughter of a colleague, Elizabeth Doll. They had Johanna and Mathilde.  As soon as three years later, he was showing signs of serious health problems.

Hertz died at age 36 or 37 (accounts vary), and he did achieve fame during his lifetime for his research in electromagnetic theory, St. Andrews notes. But it was later that his work truly came to fruition. It was for him that the "hertz" -- or unit of frequency -- was named.

According to several accounts, Hertz's daughters never married and he had no direct descendants, but he did have a nephew -- Gustav Ludwig Hertz -- who won a Nobel in physics in 1925.  

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