On this day in 1749, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in the Free Imperial City of Frankfurt in the Holy Roman Empire. Today he is renowned as a writer and the author of Faust, but he was also an artist, politician, scientist, and thinker. He actually thought his lasting legacy would be his works on colour theory, and once admitted, “As to what I have done as a poet, I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours—of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.”
All of Johann Caspar and Catharina Elisabeth Goethe’s children died at an early age, except for their son Johann Wolfgang and their daughter Cornelia Friederike Christiana. They were very well educated in many languages, and entertained with dancing, fencing, and riding lessons. Johann Wolfgang was interested in literature from a young age—he even learnt by heart the beginnings to Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses—and adored the puppet shows that took place in his home every year. He started attending the theatre, and became utterly infatuated with some of the actresses on the Frankfurt stage; they were the first of many romantic obsessions.
While Goethe is now remembered for his tragic play Faust—about a man who is followed home by a poodle that turns out to be the devil Mephistopheles in disguise, and ends up selling his soul—in his lifetime he enjoyed a lot more success with his short novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, which he published in 1774. It is a tale of unrequited love that ends in Young Werther killing himself out of despair; and Goethe admitted that he “shot his hero to save himself,” as he used writing as a cathartic cure for his own obsession with a girl.
The story’s ending was highly controversial because it appeared to glorify suicide—considered sinful in Christian doctrine—so it was published anonymously at first. However, Goethe’s identity was soon uncovered, and he was transformed into a literary celebrity at the age of only 25. In 1775 he was invited to take up residence in Weimar, where he served upon the 18-year-old Duke of Saxe-Weimar’s Privy Council. His duties included advising war commissions, contributing to the planning of the Weimar’s botanical park and palace, and managing its theatre.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s love of science was focused on plant morphology and colour theory, and he also had the largest private collection of geological minerals in all of Europe; over 17,800 samples in total. Furthermore, Faust was the favourite poem of the brilliant Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, who memorised the whole text, just as Goethe had memorised the Metamorphoses. In fact, it was while reciting Faust that Tesla was struck with a scientific epiphany that inspired the idea of the rotating magnetic field and, eventually, the AC current that flows throughout our world. Goethe’s legacy continues to keep us all charged.