Publisher Information: Berlin: Veit, 1850-52. 1st edition.
Helmholtz, Hermann von (1821-94). 1. Vorläufiger Bericht über die Fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit der Nervenreizung. In Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin (1850): 71-73. 2. Messungen über den zeitlichen Verlauf der Zuckung animalischer Muskeln und die Fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit der Reizung in den Nerven. In Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin (1850): 276-364; (1852): 199-216. Two whole volumes. vi, 70, 632pp.; 22 plates (1850); v, 126, 569pp.; 16 plates (1852). 207 x 128 mm. 19th-century quarter morocco, marbled boards, skillfully rebacked. Very good. Harvard College Library bookplates in both volumes (gift of William Gray, class of 1829).
First Edition, journal issue of no. 2, Helmholtz’s first major paper on the speed of nerve conduction; second edition, journal issue of no. 1. Helmholtz’s first significant scientific contribution was his investigation of the speed of nerve impulses, which he undertook shortly after being appointed extraordinary professor of physiology at the University of Königsberg in 1849. His work in this field represents a significant advancement in the ability to precisely measure physiological processes.
Wishing to disprove the notion that nerve impulses were either instantaneous or too fast to be measured, Helmholtz invented a pendulum-myograph—a machine for recording muscle responses—and stimulated motor nerve fibers from a frog’s leg at varying distances from the attached muscle. He discovered that “the muscular response followed more quickly when the motor nerve was stimulated closer to the muscle than when it was stimulated farther away from the muscle. By subtracting one reaction time from the other, he concluded that the nerve impulse travels at a rate of about 90 feet per second (27.4 meters per second). Helmholtz then turned to humans, asking his subjects to respond by pushing a button when they felt their leg being stimulated. He found that the reaction time was slower when the toe was stimulated than when the thigh was stimulated; he concluded, again by subtraction, that the rate of nerve conduction in humans was between 165 and 300 feet per second (50.3 – 100.6 meters per second). This aspect of Helmholtz’s research was significant because it showed that nerve impulses are indeed measurable . . . This was taken as further evidence that physical-chemical processes are involved in our interactions with the environment instead of some mysterious process that was immune to scientific scrutiny” (Hergenhahn, Introduction to the History of Psychology, p. 238). As mentioned above, Helmholtz observed varying rates of nerve impulse conduction, a phenomenon that puzzled him; we now know that impulse conduction speed is dependent on the diameter of the nerve.
Helmholtz issued five brief preliminary reports of his findings in early 1850. The first of these to be published was “Vorläufiger Bericht über die Fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit der Nervenreizung” (no. 1), which Johannes Müller read before the Berlin Akademie der Wissenschaften on 21 January; this version appeared in the Akademie’s Monatsbericht and was republished in the 1850 volume of Müller’s Archiv für Anatomie, Physiologie und wissenschaftliche Medicin, which we are offering here. On 19 July Helmholtz presented the final results of his researches before the Berlin Physikalische Gesellschaft, which were published in full in “Messungen über den zeitlichen Verlauf der Zuckung animalischer Muskeln und die Fortpflanzungsgeschwindigkeit der Reizung in den Nerven” (no. 2). Garrison-Morton.com 1265 (no. 1). Cahan, ed., Hermann von Helmholtz and the Foundations of 19th-Century Science, p. 89.
The 1852 volume contains no less than four other Garrison-Morton citations, several at least as significant as Helmholtz’s paper:
1508. Helmholtz’s theory of color vision.
116. Remak’s paper pointing out that growth of new tissues was accomplished by the division of existing cells.
812. Stannius’s demonstration of the pacemaker in the heart.
811. Bidder’s discovery of the ganglion cells at the auriculo-ventricular junction.Book Id: 11300