Fragment of a letter from Lorentz to Erwin Schrödinger of 19 June 1926. In this letter 73-year old Lorentz shows his mastery of the recently developed wave mechanics, enormously impressing its creator Schrödinger. I have analyzed the correspondence between Lorentz and Schrödinger in a paper from 2013. See here >


Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853–1928) was the most famous Dutch physicist in the last decades of the nineteenth and the frst ones of the twentieth century. He received a Nobel Prize in 1902 (the second year the prize was awarded), together with his Amsterdam colleague Pieter Zeeman, for their work on the influence of magnetism on radiation phenomena. The most striking success of this research was the experimental discovery by Zeeman and the theoretical explanation by Lorentz of the phenomenon now known as the Zeeman effect: the splitting of spectral lines in several components under the influence of an external magnetic field. But it was implied that Lorentz also received the prize for his pioneering theoretical work in the field of electromagnetism. Building on the results of Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, Lorentz developed a unified theory of electromagnetism, based on a general atomistic model of matter and on the existence of small electrically charged particles, later named electrons. Lorentz’s “electron theory,” as the final version was called, provided a major conceptual clarification of the theory of electromagnetic phenomena and became the basis of all subsequent developments in this field. The electron theory was also in a sense a precursor of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity: in its final form the electron theory described electromagnetic phenomena in moving systems with the same formalism as special relativity. The foundations of the two theories, however, were as different as could be: whereas special relativity is based on the equivalence of all reference systems, in Lorentz’s theory a preferred system remained: the reference system connected to the ether. Lorentz was fully aware of the experimental impossibility to actually show the existence of the ether; nevertheless he clung to this concept until his death.

In addition to his work in electromagnetism, Lorentz made important contributions to many other fields of physics, including hydrodynamics, thermodynamics, general relativity, radiation theory, and quantum theory. He also became a revered public figure in the Netherlands, especially in the last decades of his life. He made important contributions to the Dutch public cause, through his many public lectures and his work in goverment advisory committees, the most important was the Zuiderzee Committee, which he chaired. This committee had as its task to advice the goverment on the effects of the enclosure of the Zuiderzee, an estuary of the North See, on the tides at the North Sea dikes in the northern part of the Netherlands. This project, the building of a 30-kilometer dike between the provinces of Noord-Holland and Friesland, was a unique engineering feat, giving rise to much national pride.

Because of Lorentz’s scientific eminence and his achievements for the country, his funeral on 9 February 1928 became a national event. In his honour the Dutch telegraph service was suspended for several minutes at noon on that day.


Correspondence and writings

One of my major research projects has been the editing of the scientific correspondence of Lorentz. A first volume has appeared, a second (and final) volume is in preparation. As spin-offs I have compiled a detailed bibliography of Lorentz’s writings and a database of all known correspondence to and from Lorentz (see the links below).

Some of my publications on Lorentz

  • A.J. Kox. “Hendrik Antoon Lorentz’s struggle with quantum theory.” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 67 (2013): 149–170
  • A.J. Kox, “Uit de hand gelopen onderzoek in opdracht: H.A. Lorentz’ werk in de Zuiderzeecommissie.” In L.J. Dorsman and P.J. Knegtmans, eds., Onderzoek in opdracht. De publieke functie van het universitaire onderzoek in Nederland sedert 1876, pp. 39–52. Hilversum: Verloren, 2007 (a paper on Lorentz’s work on the Zuiderzee; pdf)
  • A.J. Kox, “Hendrik Antoon Lorentz, the ether, and the general theory of relativity.” Archive for History of Exact Sciences 38 (1988): 67–78. Also in D. Howard and J. Stachel, eds., Einstein and the History of General Relativity, pp. 201–212. Boston: Birkhäuser, 1989
  • An early biographical article (in Dutch)