Reichenbach, Baron Karl von (1788–1869)
Nineteenth-century German chemist, expert on meteorites,
and discoverer of kerosene, parrafin, and creosote. He also
spent over two decades experimenting with the mysterious
force which he named ‘‘od’’ (also known as odic force or odyle
in various translations). This claimed force, which has its intellectual
roots in mesmerism, had particular relevance to concepts
of the human aura.
Reichenbach was born on February 12, 1788, at Württemberg
and died at Leipzig on January 22, 1869. He was educated
at the gymnasium (high school) in Württemberg and afterward
at the State University of Tübingen, where he studied natural
science, political economy, and law. During Reichenbach’s student
days, Germany was under the military control of Napoleon’s
France, and at the age of sixteen Reichenbach founded
a secret society to set up a German state in the South Sea Islands.
However, he was arrested by the Napoleonic police and
detained for some months as a political prisoner. After his release
he continued his studies and obtained his Ph.D.
He later traveled in France and Germany investigating the
construction and operation of ironworks, and in 1815 he set up
his own plant at Villigen in Baden. He later built a large charcoal
furnace at Hausach in Baden. He established a beet-sugar
factory, steelworks, and blast furnaces and devoted much time
to experimental research. He discovered paraffin in 1830 and
other coal-tar products such as eupion, creosote, and pittacal
(pitch) in the following years. Between 1835 and 1860, he also
published a long series of scientific papers on meteorites. His
many contributions earned him a well-deserved reputation as
a brilliant scientist and industrialist.
Meanwhile his experiments in human sensitivity from 1839
onward were not as well received by his colleagues; in fact, he
was harshly criticized. These experiments involved attempts to
demonstrate a mysterious vital force which he named ‘‘od,’’ for
the Norse deity Odin, indicating a power, like the animal magnetism
conceived by Franz A. Mesmer, which permeates the
whole of nature.
Detection and demonstration of this force depended upon
sensitives—specially gifted individuals rather like psychics, although
Reichenbach’s sensitives were ordinary people from all
walks of life. These individuals experienced specific reactions
to the proximity of other people—feelings of pleasant coolness
and drowsiness or, on the other hand, disagreeable, numbing,
or exciting feelings. They also manifested a special right-hand/
left-hand polarity, which affected their reactions to other people
standing or sitting near to their right or left sides, and particularly
to sleeping positions with partners. They were also
sympathetic to the color blue, and antipathetic to yellow; they
had particular food fetishes; were sensitive to certain metals;
and unpleasantly affected by mirrors.
In a long series of experiments with some two hundred individuals,
Reichenbach documented the reports of sensitives to
seeing emanations from crystals and magnets in total darkness
and detecting alternations of electric current. They could also
perceive an aura surrounding the human body.
Reichenbach studied the various manifestations of this vital
force in its relationship to electricity, magnetism, and chemistry.
He experimented with its connection to water-witching (or
dowsing), mesmerism, and similar psychic subjects. He tried
to show that the force could move objects without conscious effort,
as in the table-turning of the Spiritualists.
However, Reichenbach was neither a Spiritualist nor a mesmerist.
His interest was purely scientific, his hundreds of experiments
were conducted with empirid precision. Unfortunately,
his experiments ran both against the dominant mechanistic
view of the universe held by most mid-nineteenth-century scientists
and had a significant methodological flaw. While he
could and did produce a wide range of positive results, he was
never able to demonstrate his major causative agent, the od. He
was never able to eliminate a variety of possible causes, both
paranormal and mundane, for the effects.
Reichenbach’s researches were published in Germany in
1850. There were two English translations, one by William
Gregory in 1850 and another by John Ashburner the following
year. Both translations are good, but Gregory’s was the official
translation and is generally regarded as the best. Gregory
translated Reichenbach’s ‘‘od’’ as ‘‘odyle,’’ perhaps feeling that
this term would sound more acceptable to scientists. Gregory
also translated Reichenbach’s essays Letters on Od and Magnetism
(1926), which are a simpler general introduction to Reichenbach’s
experiments and concepts than his main work.
Reichenbach died on January 22, 1869, at the age of eighty,
and as Gustav Fechner, another scientist, commented: ‘‘Up to
the last days of his life, he grieved at the thought of having to
die without obtaining recognition for his system, and such was
the tragic fate that actually befell him.’’
Some years after Reichenbach’s death, there was a belated
revival of interest in his work by the Society for Psychical Research
in Britain, which formed a Reichenbach Committee that
included William F. Barrett, Edmund Gurney, and F. W. H.
Myers. In this case, it was precisely the possible connection
with psychic phenomena that inspired this renewal of interest
in a subject pointedly ignored by orthodox science. The committee
made careful investigations, but was less fortunate than
Reichenbach in obtaining suitable sensitives. Only three out of
the forty-five individuals tested possessed the sensitivity postulated
by Reichenbach, but these three provided interesting
confirmation of Reichenbach’s observations.
In 1908, Walter J. Kilner, who was familiar with the work
of Reichenbach, developed a technique for making the human
aura visible. In this century, Wilhelm Reich’s theories of ‘‘orgone
energy’’ seem to be about the same energy Reichenbach
explored under the label ‘‘od.’’
Bagnall, Oscar. The Origin and Properties of The Human Aura.
London, 1937. Rev. ed. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University
Books, 1970.
Gopi Krishna. Kundalini: The Evolutionary Energy in Man.
New Delhi, 1967. Reprint, Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 1970.
Kilner, Walter J. The Human Atmosphere. London, 1911. Reprinted
as The Human Aura. New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University
Books, 1965.
Reich, Wilhelm. The Function of the Orgasm. New York: Orgone
Institute Press, 1948. Reprint, New York: Farrar, Straus
& Giroux, 1973.
Reichenbach, Baron Karl von Encyclopedia of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed.
Reichenbach, Karl von. Letters on Od and Magnetism. London,
1926. Reprinted as The Odic Force; Letters on Od and Magnetism.
New Hyde Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1968.
———. Physico-Physiological Researches on the Dynamics of
Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization, and Chemism, in
their Relations to Vital Force. Translated by H. John Ashburner.
London: H. Baillière, 1851.
———. Researches on Magnetism, Electricity, Heat, Light, Crystallization
and Chemical Attraction in relation to the Vital Force.
Translated by William Gregory. 1850. Reprint, New Hyde
Park, N.Y.: University Books, 1974.

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