During a university lecture in 1820, Hans Christian Ørsted discovered that an electric current running in a metal wire had an effect on a compass needle. Ørsted waited a few months before he started a very detailed investigation into this completely unexpected interaction between forces. He described his findings in a short article in Latin and sent it to prominent scientists around the world. Ørsted's discovery was accepted immediately, and no one doubted its importance to science.
In the years 1822-23, he was on a victory trip through Germany, France and England. The visit to England became extremely important for Ørsted. Here, for the first time, he was made aware of the existence of literally hundreds of small societies and associations for the dissemination of natural sciences. When he returned to Denmark, Ørsted began to gather support for creating a similar society in Denmark, and the society for the Dissemination of Natural Science (SNU) was founded in 1824. The aim of the society was to support general education and welfare and to create more interest in science. The society was (and is still today) a volunteer organisation and without public financial support. This event changed Ørsted's life as a scientist. Public duties demanded an increasing part of his attention and powers.
At this point, SNU had a twofold objective. On the one hand, it was supposed to take on the teaching of science at an elementary level. On the other hand, SNU would also have to deal with a myriad of practical questions, such as starch and vinegar production, fermentation, distillation and tanning. The most visible of Snui'S many activities were a magnificent series of public lectures and courses held both in Copenhagen and in the province. In the first year, more than 200 people followed lectures in chemistry and physics. Ørsted itself stood for these lectures five evenings a week. At the same time he continued his normal university education to an unchanged extent. The lecturers (especially those in the province) were obliged to make an annual visit to Copenhagen, where they themselves had to learn about the latest scientific and practical discoveries. Ørsted knew what he wanted from these lecturers:
"The scientist might then beware of wanting to teach the art-flirted citizen what this better understanding: his own art diligence; But the scientist must teach the citizen something that is outside their subjects, and yet he is most important... When the scientist and the nourishment and art-trader right understand the obstacle, then hiin thee this useful proposal for a review; In its communications, this will often give rise to new studies. Their relationship is a friendly and liberal message and advice, not just a one-sided doctrine and forecry from the scientist's Side. If all our fellow citizens were to be aware of this fact, then surely the company met even more widely than the other, and thereby benefit Destomere. "
In addition to these public lectures, SNU created training opportunities for craftsmen in many different disciplines, including ceramics, dyeing, and the latest techniques in silver and gold coating. The program was very extensive and the budget was dependent on voluntary contributions. But Ørsted's biggest problem was finding qualified lecturers.
In 1829, G. F. Ursin came up with a proposal for the creation of a polytechnical college to provide practical training for Danish craftsmen. Ørsted considered Ursin's proposal as "too narrow" and made it inadmissible. There was soon a new proposal for a more academic institution with access exams and with more emphasis on basic science. The new proposal was quickly approved and the Polytechnical College opened with Ørsted as director. The new institution, with a staff of full-time trainers, could now take over many teaching assignments from the SNU.
Freed from its heavy educational duties, the SNU could now concentrate on bringing science to the public. SNU sought to solve many different technical problems, e.g. in connection with the salting of butter and meat, the processing of platinum and the improvement of building materials. In 1838, new dairy techniques allowed the long-term storage of 1,800 kg of cheese. This cheese was sold at auction with great attention and at record high prices.
Her public lectures now assumed a more popular character. A number of Sunday lectures were started for members (and their wives), and there was another lecture series about new technology for the whole family. There are all possible showings, including steam engines and electric motors. The demonstration of the telegraphers in 1839 was reported by H. C. Andersen. Printed summaries of these lectures were always published. The lectures were well attended, with up to 2,000 guests per month. The content was often referred to in the daily press.
SNU published a number of different publications, including a book on "Runkelrower and Runkelroe Sugar" in 1836. Although it initially met contempt among the Danish peasants, it soon became clear that this was an economically exciting alternative to the dependence on West Indian cane sugar. A profitable production followed soon afterwards. In the 1830s, SNU supplied schools with scientific instruments and enabled schoolchildren to follow physics and chemistry lectures at the university and at the Polytechnic College. This role in school education ended in 1845, when science became an independent discipline in the Danish schools.
Given the importance of H. C. Ørsted's role in Danish society – not least through the society of the Naturalteacher – it is not strange that thousands of Danes participated in a factorial train at his death in 1851.
Andrew D. Jackson
Niels Bohr Institute
12 February 2004
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