AIP History Center Newsletter
Volume XXXI, No. 2, Fall 1999


The Archive of the German Physical Society
By R. Hahn and D. Hoffmann

German Physical SocietyThe German Physical Society is one of the oldest associations for physicists. It was founded in Berlin in 1845 as a local organization of young scholars, most of them students of Gustav Magnus, who taught physics at the University of Berlin and trained his students in a private laboratory of his house. The Physical Society of Berlin was soon well established as an association for all physicists in Germany, and it was renamed the German Physical Society in 1899. The society played a central role for the organization of physics and the physics community in Germany, and there are many highlights in the history of the society which reflected the development of physics in general. In 1847, for instance, the young Hermann Helmholtz reported on the law of conservation of energy in a meeting of the society; similarly in the fall of 1900 Max Planck presented his famous radiation law, which founded the quantum theory; and in 1939 Otto Hahn announced the discovery of nuclear fission. After World War II the society was reorganized. In the western zones of occupation several local organizations quietly came into being and formed the Union of German Physical Societies (Verband Deutscher Physikalischer Gesellschaften) in 1950; in 1963 the VDGP was renamed as the German Physical Society. In East Germany the Physical Society of the German Democratic Republic was founded in 1952. After Germany’s unification in 1990 the two societies were reunited to form today’s German Physical Society.*

Despite the fact that the society has such a long and extensive history, there was no regular archive until recently. There were only some documents collected more or less at random by the managers of the society and the founder and longstanding editor of the Physikalische Blätter, Ernst Brüche (1900-1985). This means that there are many gaps in the historical documentation of the society, especially for the early periods before 1945. The preserved documents have been cataloged in recent years and now form the archive of the German Physical Society. It is located in the old Magnus House right in the center of Berlin and is now accessible for research.

The archive’s resources are structured as follows:

1) Records of the Physical Society of Berlin (701 folders covering the period from 1845 to 1994)
2) Records of the German Physical Society (1382 folders between 1919 and 1996)
3) Records of the Physical Society of the GDR (about 450 binders from 1952 to 1990) — these constitute the largest and most consistent holdings in the collection
4) Records of several local Physical Societies (about 200 files from 1921 to 1973)
5) Varia
6) Audiovisual materials (more than 3,200 pictures and about 100 tape recordings and films)

The documents have been cataloged on a computer, so that the user can search them electronically. A supplementary printed guide of about 450 pages also exists. Although there are many gaps, particularly in the pre-1945 years, anyone who is dealing with the history of physics in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries should look through these unique sources and is invited to use them. To gain access to the archive, it is necessary to write a letter to the Board of the German Physical Society (DPG-Geschäftsstelle, Hauptstraße 5, D-53604 Bad Honnef, Germany) with a short description of the research topic. The archivist of the Society, a voluntary position, will then prepare the relevant documents for use at the Magnus House in Berlin. He can be also reached directly by e-mail:

*See Th. Mayer-Kuckuk, “150 Jahre Deutsche Physikalische Gesellschaft,” Physikalische Blätter 51 (1995), 1.

German Physical Society's meeting, 1900 meeting notes
Page from a Protokollbuch of the meetings of the German Physical Society with the minutes of Planck's famous talk on December 14th, 1900, the "birthday" of the quantum theory. (please click on photo to see a larger version.)

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