Heinrich Rudolf Hertz was born in 1857 in Hamburg, then a sovereign state of the German Confederation, into a prosperous and cultured Hanseatic family. His father Gustav Ferdinand Hertz (originally named David Gustav Hertz) (1827–1914) was a barrister and later a senator. His mother was Anna Elisabeth Pfefferkorn.
Hertz's father converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1834. His mother's family was a Lutheran pastor's family.
While studying at the Gelehrtenschule des Johanneums in Hamburg, Hertz showed an aptitude for sciences as well as languages, learning Arabic and Sanskrit. He studied sciences and engineering in the German cities of Dresden, Munich and Berlin, where he studied under Gustav R. Kirchhoff and Hermann von Helmholtz. In 1880, Hertz obtained his PhD from the University of Berlin, and for the next three years remained for post-doctoral study under Helmholtz, serving as his assistant. In 1883, Hertz took a post as a lecturer in theoretical physics at the University of Kiel. In 1885, Hertz became a full professor at the University of Karlsruhe.
In 1886, Hertz married Elisabeth Doll, the daughter of Dr. Max Doll, a lecturer in geometry at Karlsruhe. They had two daughters: Johanna, born on 20 October 1887 and Mathilde, born on 14 January 1891, who went on to become a notable biologist. During this time Hertz conducted his landmark research into electromagnetic waves.
Hertz took a position of Professor of Physics and Director of the Physics Institute in Bonn on 3 April 1889, a position he held until January 1894. During this time he worked on theoretical mechanics with his work published in the book Die Prinzipien der Mechanik in neuem Zusammenhange dargestellt (The Principles of Mechanics Presented in a New Form), published posthumously in 1894.
In 1892, Hertz was diagnosed with an infection (after a bout of severe migraines) and underwent operations to treat the illness. He died of granulomatosis with polyangiitis at the age of 36 in Bonn, Germany in 1894, and was buried in the Ohlsdorf Cemetery in Hamburg.
Hertz's wife, Elisabeth Hertz née Doll (1864–1941), did not remarry. Hertz left two daughters, Johanna (1887–1967) and Mathilde (1891–1975). Hertz's daughters never married and he has no descendants.
Hertz always had a deep interest in meteorology, probably derived from his contacts with Wilhelm von Bezold (who was his professor in a laboratory course at the Munich Polytechnic in the summer of 1878). However, Hertz did not contribute much to the field himself except some early articles as an assistant to Helmholtz in Berlin, including research on the evaporation of liquids, a new kind of hygrometer, and a graphical means of determining the properties of moist air when subjected to adiabatic changes.
In 1886–1889, Hertz published two articles on what was to become known as the field of contact mechanics. Hertz is well known for his contributions to the field of electrodynamics (see below); however, most papers that look into the fundamental nature of contact cite his two papers as a source for some important ideas. Joseph Valentin Boussinesq published some critically important observations on Hertz's work, nevertheless establishing this work on contact mechanics to be of immense importance. His work basically summarises how two axi-symmetric objects placed in contact will behave under loading, he obtained results based upon the classical theory of elasticity and continuum mechanics. The most significant failure of his theory was the neglect of any nature of adhesion between the two solids, which proves to be important as the materials composing the solids start to assume high elasticity. It was natural to neglect adhesion in that age as there were no experimental methods of testing for it.
To develop his theory Hertz used his observation of elliptical Newton's rings formed upon placing a glass sphere upon a lens as the basis of assuming that the pressure exerted by the sphere follows an elliptical distribution. He used the formation of Newton's rings again while validating his theory with experiments in calculating the displacement which the sphere has into the lens. K. L. Johnson, K. Kendall and A. D. Roberts (JKR) used this theory as a basis while calculating the theoretical displacement or indentation depth in the presence of adhesion in 1971. Hertz's theory is recovered from their formulation if the adhesion of the materials is assumed to be zero. Similar to this theory, however using different assumptions, B. V. Derjaguin, V. M. Muller and Y. P. Toporov published another theory in 1975, which came to be known as the DMT theory in the research community, which also recovered Hertz's formulations under the assumption of zero adhesion. This DMT theory proved to be rather premature and needed several revisions before it came to be accepted as another material contact theory in addition to the JKR theory. Both the DMT and the JKR theories form the basis of contact mechanics upon which all transition contact models are based and used in material parameter prediction in nanoindentation and atomic force microscopy. So Hertz's research from his days as a lecturer, preceding his great work on electromagnetism, which he himself considered with his characteristic soberness to be trivial, has come down to the age of nanotechnology.
During Hertz's studies in 1879 Helmholtz suggested that Hertz's doctoral dissertation be on testing Maxwell's theory of electromagnetism, published in 1865, which predicted the existence of electromagnetic waves moving at the speed of light, and predicted that light itself was just such a wave. Helmholtz had also proposed the "Berlin Prize" problem that year at the Prussian Academy of Sciences for anyone who could experimentally prove an electromagnetic effect in the polarization and depolarization of insulators, something predicted by Maxwell's theory. Helmholtz was sure Hertz was the most likely candidate to win it. Not seeing any way to build an apparatus to experimentally test this, Hertz thought it was too difficult, and worked on electromagnetic induction instead. Hertz did produce an analysis of Maxwell's equations during his time at Kiel, showing they did have more validity than the then prevalent "action at a distance" theories.
After Hertz received his professorship at Karlsruhe he was experimenting with a pair of Riess spirals in the autumn of 1886 when he noticed that discharging a Leyden jar into one of these coils would produce a spark in the other coil. With an idea on how to build an apparatus, Hertz now had a way proceed with the "Berlin Prize" problem of 1879 on proving Maxwell's theory (although the actual prize had expired uncollected in 1882). He used a Ruhmkorff coil-driven spark gap and one-meter wire pair as a radiator. Capacity spheres were present at the ends for circuit resonance adjustments. His receiver was a simple half-wave dipole antenna with a micrometer spark gap between the elements. This experiment produced and received what are now called radio waves in the very high frequency range.
Between 1886 and 1889 Hertz would conduct a series of experiments that would prove the effects he was observing were results of Maxwell's predicted electromagnetic waves. Starting in November 1887 with his paper "On Electromagnetic Effects Produced by Electrical Disturbances in Insulators", Hertz would send a series of papers to Helmholtz at the Berlin Academy, including papers in 1888 that showed transverse free space electromagnetic waves traveling at a finite speed over a distance. In the apparatus Hertz used, the electric and magnetic fields would radiate away from the wires as transverse waves. Hertz had positioned the oscillator about 12 meters from a zinc reflecting plate to produce standing waves. Each wave was about 4 meters long. Using the ring detector, he recorded how the wave's magnitude and component direction varied. Hertz measured Maxwell's waves and demonstrated that the velocity of these waves was equal to the velocity of light. The electric field intensity, polarity and reflection of the waves were also measured by Hertz. These experiments established that light and these waves were both a form of electromagnetic radiation obeying the Maxwell equations. Hertz also described the "Hertzian cone", a type of wave-front propagation through various media.
Hertz helped establish the photoelectric effect (which was later explained by Albert Einstein) when he noticed that a charged object loses its charge more readily when illuminated by ultraviolet radiation (UV). In 1887, he made observations of the photoelectric effect and of the production and reception of electromagnetic (EM) waves, published in the journal Annalen der Physik. His receiver consisted of a coil with a spark gap, whereby a spark would be seen upon detection of EM waves. He placed the apparatus in a darkened box to see the spark better. He observed that the maximum spark length was reduced when in the box. A glass panel placed between the source of EM waves and the receiver absorbed UV that assisted the electrons in jumping across the gap. When removed, the spark length would increase. He observed no decrease in spark length when he substituted quartz for glass, as quartz does not absorb UV radiation. Hertz concluded his months of investigation and reported the results obtained. He did not further pursue investigation of this effect, nor did he make any attempt at explaining how the observed phenomenon was brought about.
Hertz did not realize the practical importance of his radio wave experiments. He stated that,
"It's of no use whatsoever
[...] this is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right—we just have these mysterious electromagnetic waves that we cannot see with the naked eye. But they are there.
Asked about the ramifications of his discoveries, Hertz replied,
"Nothing, I guess
Hertz's proof of the existence of airborne electromagnetic waves led to an explosion of experimentation with this new form of electromagnetic radiation, which was called "Hertzian waves" until around 1910 when the term "radio waves" became current. Within 10 years researchers such as Oliver Lodge, Ferdinand Braun, and Guglielmo Marconi employed radio waves in the first wireless telegraphy radio communication systems, leading to radio broadcasting, and later television. Today radio is an essential technology in global telecommunication networks, and the transmission medium underlying modern wireless devices.
In 1892, Hertz began experimenting and demonstrated that cathode rays could penetrate very thin metal foil (such as aluminium). Philipp Lenard, a student of Heinrich Hertz, further researched this "ray effect". He developed a version of the cathode tube and studied the penetration by X-rays of various materials. Philipp Lenard, though, did not realize that he was producing X-rays. Hermann von Helmholtz formulated mathematical equations for X-rays. He postulated a dispersion theory before Röntgen made his discovery and announcement. It was formed on the basis of the electromagnetic theory of light (Wiedmann's Annalen, Vol. XLVIII). However, he did not work with actual X-rays.
Heinrich Hertz was a Lutheran throughout his life and would not have considered himself Jewish, as his father's family had all converted to Lutheranism when his father was still in his childhood (aged seven) in 1834.
Nevertheless, when the Nazi regime gained power decades after Hertz's death, his portrait was removed by them from its prominent position of honor in Hamburg's City Hall (Rathaus) because of his partly Jewish ethnic ancestry. (The painting has since been returned to public display.)
Hertz's widow and daughters left Germany in the 1930s and went to England.
Heinrich Hertz's nephew Gustav Ludwig Hertz was a Nobel Prize winner, and Gustav's son Carl Helmut Hertz invented medical ultrasonography. His daughter Mathilde Carmen Hertz was a well-known biologist and comparative psychologist. Hertz's grandnephew Hermann Gerhard Hertz, professor at the University of Karlsruhe, was a pioneer of NMR-spectroscopy and in 1995 published Hertz's laboratory notes.
The SI unit hertz (Hz) was established in his honor by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1930 for frequency, an expression of the number of times that a repeated event occurs per second. It was adopted by the CGPM (Conférence générale des poids et mesures) in 1960, officially replacing the previous name, "cycles per second" (cps).
In 1928 the Heinrich-Hertz Institute for Oscillation Research was founded in Berlin. Today known as the Fraunhofer Institute for Telecommunications, Heinrich Hertz Institute, HHI.
In 1969 (East Germany), a Heinrich Hertz memorial medal was cast. The IEEE Heinrich Hertz Medal, established in 1987, is "for outstanding achievements in Hertzian waves [...] presented annually to an individual for achievements which are theoretical or experimental in nature".
A crater that lies on the far side of the Moon, just behind the eastern limb, is named in his honor. The Hertz market for radio electronics products in Nizhny Novgorod, Russia, is named after him. The Heinrich-Hertz-Turm radio telecommunication tower in Hamburg is named after the city's famous son.
Hertz is honored by Japan with a membership in the Order of the Sacred Treasure, which has multiple layers of honor for prominent people, including scientists.
Heinrich Hertz has been honored by a number of countries around the world in their postage issues, and in post-World War II times has appeared on various German stamp issues as well.
On his birthday in 2012, Google honored Hertz with a Google doodle, inspired by his life's work, on its home page.