Hendrik Antoon Lorentz: Biography, Contributions, Works

Hendrik Antoon Lorentz (1853-1928) was a renowned physicist and mathematician of Dutch origin. He had great importance in the scientific world because he was one of those in charge of facilitating the passage from classical to modern physics.

He was recognized with the Nobel Prize in physics in 1902, which earned him, along with Pieter Zeeman, the second person to receive the award. He was awarded for the experiments that both carried out on magnetism and the phenomena that occurred as a result of radiation.

Source: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Some scientists have highlighted Lorentz’s role in the development of the theory of relativity. There are even those who affirm that his contribution and value in the development of this theory was more decisive than that of Albert Einstein, who is considered the creator.

Lorentz also stood out for his ability to convey concepts that were complicated for many in a simple way. In addition, he always managed to raise new results and experiments before scientific problems.

The Dutchman also became a teacher, a common role among the most important scientists in history. He started teaching when he was only 25 years old and, thanks to that work, he was one of the great influences of many modern scientists.

Among other Lorentz, he was considered one of the first representatives of the second golden age that was lived in Holland, being a time in which the natural sciences had great importance.


Lorentz’s birth occurred in Arnhem, Holland, on July 18, 1853. He was the son of the couple of Gerrit Frederik and Geertruida van Ginkel. He shared little time with his mother since she died when he was only four years old. By 1862 his father had remarried, this time to Luberta Hupkes.


Lorentz was trained in a very rigorous environment, since in Holland it was common for education to last long hours every day. In 1866 he began his high school studies and by 1870 he entered the university.

He received his degree as a physicist and mathematician quickly. He then decided to return to his hometown to focus on his doctoral work, which focused on aspects such as the reflection and change of direction of light rays.

At the age of 22, he completed his doctorate and three years later began working as a professor at his alma mater, the University of Leyden. His chair was on physics and he always remained as a professor at the same academic campus, despite being requested by the most diverse and important educational institutions in the world.


With almost 30 years, in 1881, he decided to marry Aletta Kaiser. The couple had three children (two women and one man). The oldest daughter of the Lorentz was also a renowned physicist in Holland, named Geertruida de Haas-Lorentz.


Lorentz died at age 74 in Haarlem, a city near Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. At the beginning of 1928, the scientist became very ill after a trip to California and that precipitated his death on February 4 of that same year, due to an erysipelas virus (a disease that attacks the skin).

His funeral was attended by many renowned scientists, such as Einstein and Rutherford. While thousands of people witnessed the procession that was responsible for the transfer of his body to the cemetery.


His work was appreciated for what it meant for the development of the physical area and because they were ideas exhibited with a high degree of beauty.

It played a very important role in two different eras of physics, so it was one of the forerunners towards modernity.

He was characterized by spreading all his ideas, publications that were very grateful. In addition, this concern allowed his written work to be very abundant.

Lorentz was recognized because different processes in physics were named in his honor. You can talk about the transformations, the force and the Lorentz formula. It was also important in the development of the theory of relativity.

Works and publications

Throughout his life, Hendrik Lorentz worked in different fields. He started out as a professor at the University of Leiden, although the position initially went to Johan van der Waals. His first class was on January 25, 1878, on molecular theories in physics.

For nearly two decades, Lorentz focused on investigations of electromagnetism, light, magnetism, and theories that had to do with electricity.

His most important contributions in the area were thanks to his approaches to the theory of electrons and relativity.

One of Lorentz’s first studies had to do with the study of atoms. For the Dutch, the atoms corresponded to elements that were charged and that when shaken became a source of electricity.

Electrodynamics and relativity

Over the years, Lorentz took it upon himself to study the propagation of light. He also proposed that bodies contract based on the direction in which they were moving.

Later, his research focused on time dilation, which was part of the study of the theory of relativity. This work led Lorentz to publish his transformations, which months later would be called by Henri Poincaré, a French physicist, as the Lorentz transformations.

Lorentz and his role in special relativity

The theory of relativity was published by Albert Einstein in 1905, but the German was based on many of the concepts, ideas and conclusions that had been published by Lorentz previously. At first the theory of relativity was known as Lorentz – Einstein Theory.

Lorentz came to publish for several years different works that he called Einstein’s principles of relativity. Then, in 1909, his work by The theory of electrons. In his writings, it could be seen that he always spoke positively about Einstein’s ideas.

Scientists came to work together from the beginning of the theory statement. For this they were able to meet personally and then they maintained contact by letters.

Change of interests

In the mid-1920s, Lorentz wanted to change some aspects of her life. His teaching career at the university was time consuming and he could not devote much attention to developing new experiments or research.

That is why he decided in 1912 to resign his position as a teacher. Despite this, he did not completely leave the academic institution and Lorentz remained in Leiden as an external professor. His courses were on Monday mornings.

The good relationship between Lorentz and Einstein was evident when the former offered the German his position as a professor at the University of Leiden. The German did not accept because he had already committed to an academic institution in Zurich. Besides, he was not very sure of supplying Lorentz with guarantees. Finally the successor was Paul Ehrenfest, a physicist of Austrian origin.

Beyond the sciences

During the First World War he tried to reconcile the scientists of the disputed countries. He worked and collaborated with everyone, since the Netherlands was a neutral country in this armed conflict. He called for German scientists to be included again as part of the international scientific community, but was not very successful.

When World War I ended, in 1918 Lorentz promoted the creation of a committee to advise on the public welfare. The idea was to find solutions to the problems that communities suffered after the war and that are practically based on the difficulty of obtaining food.

He was part of that committee as president, but it was an initiative that had no major relevance.

He became fluent in several languages, including French, German, and English. For several years she did not lecture in other countries. It was not until 1897 that he gave his first lecture abroad when he went to Germany.


He participated in more than two dozen books throughout his career, and inspired many others after his death. She got to publish a large number of articles in specialized publications in Holland.

Awards and honours

He went down in history as one of the physicists who won the Nobel Prize for his contributions and his career. He received it in 1902 with Pieter Zeeman and that was only the second year that the physics award was awarded.

Both were awarded for the work they did on radiation and the importance of the presence of magnetism. During his career he also received other awards of great importance such as the Copley and Rumford medals, both in London.

Another relevant event was the creation of the Lorentz Institute in 1921. It was the oldest academic campus on theoretical physics in the Netherlands.

The Academy of Sciences in Holland has awarded a medal bearing his name since 1925. The initiative arose as a form of recognition to local and foreign physicists for their studies. It has been awarded to one person every four years since 1958.

The first scientist to be awarded the Lorentz medal was Max Planck. In total, 23 people have been awarded, the majority (seven) of American origin. The only Hispanic was Argentine Juan Martín Maldacena, who received the award in 2018.

As is customary with many leading scientists, a crater on the moon was named in his honor, as was an asteroid.


  1. Gross, D., Henneaux, M. and Sevrin, A. (2007). The quantum structure of space and time. Singapore: World Scientific.
  2. Lambourne, R. (2010). Relativity, gravitation and cosmology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Lorentz, H. (2008). The Einstein theory of relativity. Walnut: First Neutral.
  4. Lorentz, H. and Einstein, A. (1970). The principle of relativity. New York: Dover.
  5. Mehra, J. and Rechenberg, H. (2001). The historical development of quantum theory. New York: Springer.

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