Augustus Matthiessen

Augustus Matthiessen
London, England, UK
Death date
Fields of study


Augustus Matthiessen was born on January 2nd, 1831 in London. As a child Matthiessen suffered from a paralytic seizure which produced a permanent twitch in his right hand. Matthiessen took up an interest in farming as he thought it was the only occupation which would be viable given his physical condition. Attending the University of Giessen, Matthiessen's studies in experimental chemistry began in 1852. After his 1853 graduation, he spent nearly four years at Heidelberg where he was tutored by Robert Wilhem Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchoff.

Working with Kirchoff, Matthiessen developed in interest in alloys and determined the electrical conductivities, tenacities and specific gravities of more than 200 alloys, and published an alloy classification system. The system was made up of two groups, one which conducted electricity in the ratio of their relative volumes, and one which do not conduct electricity in the ratio of their relative volumes. Matthiessen also studied the temperature dependence of electrical conductivity for metals.

In the 1860s, Matthiessen's efforts to develop an electric resistance standard were in opposition to Werner Siemens. Matthiessen criticized Siemens' standard which was defined as at a unit at a temperature of 0 degree Celcius, a column of mercury, a uniform cross-section area of 1 square mm and a length of 1 m. Matthiessen felt the best material for the standard was an alloy of equal volumes gold and silver. The tension between the two grew heated with Matthiessen questioning Siemens chemical expertise and calling him incompetent, to which Siemens responded in kind. The feud between the two was very public in the scientific community, responses from both parties being published in prominent journals. The standard adopted by the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1861 rejected both Matthiessen and Siemens' approaches and favored a silver-platinum alloy.

"Matthiessen's rule" attempted to approximate the relationship between electrical resistivity, ideal resistivity and residual resistivity, which influenced experimental work in the first quarter of the 20th century.

In 1870 Matthiessen was charged with indecent assault on a young man. The charge profoundly affected Matthiessen and he committed suicide on October 6th, 1870 by consuming prussic acid in his laboratory.