German pioneers of research into human haptic perception

Martin Grunwald and Matthias John


The science of the human sense of touch, also known as ‘haptic’, had a long and rich tradition in Germany before World War II. Philosophers and physiologists, medical doctors and psychologists approached the subject of touch from different points of view and each of them developed an unmistakable, and sometimes enduring, part of the knowledge we have today. Among these scientists are some whose works about research into the sense of touch were internationally known and influential while others, though, were only received in the German speaking world. Regardless of this criteria, several of the most important representatives of German touch research before World War II and their scientific contributions are outlined below. The accounts are ordered chronologically according to the respective year of birth (E. H. Weber, M. von Frey, M. Dessoir, G. Révész, D. Katz, and E. von Skramlik). In creating this list, an exemplary selection was made which can only include a part of the range of German scientists who have researched the human sense of touch in the last 150 years. A comprehensive presentation is impossible in a work such as this and must be left for a historical-psychological study. The fact, however, that such a work does not exist (even in a most basic form) shows that the history of this research is not exactly the focal point of today’s scientific interest. Several authors are neglected in this ‘sketch’ – partially, because their effects are sufficiently known and acknowledged and partially because, to date, too little information is to be found about them. In any case, other researchers have delivered works to us about the human sense of touch and deserve, at least, to be mentioned here: G. T. Fechner, W. M. Wundt, J. N. Czermak, L. A. H. von Strümpell, E. Mach, O. Funke, H. Lotze, E. Hering, G. Meissner, T. Hausmann, P. Mahner, A. Goldscheider, G. A. Brecher, O. F. Scheuer, R. Hippius.

E. H. Weber

The scientific and systematic examination of the human sense of touch began with an anatomist and physiologist from Leipzig, Germany, Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795–1878). He studied in Wittenberg and Leipzig and became professor of comparative anatomy in 1818 in Leipzig and, in 1840, professor of physiology. In 1840, he laid out first findings about the systematic and experimental testing of sensory thresholds in the human sense of touch in his dissertation paper, ‘De pulsu, resortione, auditu et tactu annotatines anatomicae et physiologicae’ [1]. As early as this paper, his findings about two-point discrimination were developed and he could prove that the ability to discriminate between two tactile stimuli, applied at the same time on two points of the body, was different in different places on the skin.