On January 5, 1845, the Prussian cultural minister Karl Friedrich von Eichorn received a request from a group of six young men to form a new Physical Society in Berlin. By the time their statutes were approved in March, they numbered forty-nine and were meeting biweekly to discuss the latest developments in the physical sciences and physiology. They were preparing to write critical reviews for a new journal, Die Fortschritte der Physik (Advances in physics), and from the beginning they set out to define what constituted progress and what did not. Their success in this rather aggressive endeavor has long fascinated historians of science. In fields from thermodynamics, mechanics, and electromagnetism to animal electricity, ophthalmology, and psychophysics, members of this small group established leading positions in what only thirty years later had become a new landscape of physical science populated by large institutes and laboratories of experiment and precision measurement.
How was this possible? How could a bunch of twenty-somethings, without position or recognition, and possessed of little more than their outsized confidence and ambition, succeed in seizing the future? What were their resources?
That is the opening passage from M. Norton Wise, Aesthetics, Industry, and Science: Hermann von Helmholtz and the Berlin Physical Society.