Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasilevich

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Lomonosov, Mikhail Vasil’evich


Born Nov. 8 (19), 1711; died Apr. 4 (15), 1765. The first Russian natural scientist of world importance, a man of encyclopedic knowledge and varied interests and abilities; one of the founders of physical chemistry. A poet who laid the foundations of the modern Russian literary language, an artist, a historian, and an advocate of Russian education and of the development of independent Russian science.

Lomonosov was born in the village of Denisovka (now Lomonosovo) in Kurostrovskaia Volost, near the village of Kholmogory (Arkhangel’sk Province). His father, Vasilii Dorofeevich Lomonosov, a Pomor peasant, was a fisherman working on his own boats. Desiring to obtain an education, Lomonosov left his father’s house in December 1730 and set out for Moscow. In January 1731 he enrolled in the Moscow Slavonic-Greek-Latin Academy at the Zaikonospaskii Monastery by posing as the son of a nobleman. As one of the most outstanding students, he was sent to St. Petersburg in 1735 to attend the Academic University, and in 1736 he was sent to Germany to study chemistry and metallurgy. He studied first at the University of Marburg under the supervision and guidance of the well-known physicist and philosopher C. Wolff and then in Freiberg under the chemist and metallurgist J. Henckel. Lomonosov stayed abroad until 1741 and soon after his return, in January 1742, was appointed an adjunct in physics at the Academy of Sciences. In August 1745 he became the first Russian to be appointed a professor (academician) of chemistry. Lomonosov’s activities in the Academy of Sciences were extremely varied. In 1746 he became the first person to give public lectures on physics in Russian, and that same year he published a translation of a brief exposition of Wolffs Experimental Physics. In 1748 the first chemistry research laboratory in Russia was constructed for Lomonosov at his request.

Lomonosov’s scientific activity may be divided into three periods: (1) before the founding of the laboratory, when he was primarily engaged in chemical and physical research; (2) from 1748 to 1753, during which he was primarily involved in various chemical projects; and (3) from 1753 to the end of his life, during which time he worked in the most diverse fields of the natural and applied sciences.

In addition to scientific research, Lomonosov also engaged in literary activity and published several odes and tragedies. Motivated by strong patriotism, he undertook a detailed study of a number of sources of Russian history. His concern for public education in Russia led him to advocate the founding of a European-type university that would be accessible to all strata of the population. His efforts met with success: Moscow University, which now bears his name, was founded according to his plan in 1755.

For many years Lomonosov worked on developing a method of producing colored glass at a factory that he built in Ust’-Ruditsy (near St. Petersburg). He used colored glass to create mosaics and made a significant contribution to the development of the art. He did a number of mosaic portraits, including a portrait of Peter I, and the large mosaic Battle of Poltava (1762-64), which measures about 4.8 X 6.44 m and is now housed in the Leningrad building of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. Lomonosov’s mosaics were highly praised by the Russian Academy of Arts, which in 1763 elected him a member.

Throughout his life Lomonosov initiated the most varied scientific, technical, and cultural projects that were aimed at developing the productive forces of Russia and were of primary state importance. However, under serfdom, many of his “state ideas” could not be implemented.

In the last years of his life, Lomonosov’s scientific works were appreciated outside Russia. He was elected an honorary member of the Swedish Academy of Sciences (1760) and an honorary member of the Bologna Academy of Sciences (1764). In the spring of 1765 he caught a cold and died on April 4 (15). He was buried in the Lazarevskoe Cemetery of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery in Leningrad.

Lomonosov’s research in chemistry and physics was based on concepts of the atomic-molecular structure of matter and thus continued the trend that was being developed in the 17th century, chiefly by R. Boyle. Lomonosov planned to write a major “corpuscular philosophy”—a treatise unifying all of physics and chemistry into a harmonious whole on the basis of atomic-molecular concepts. He did not succeed in realizing this prodigious project, but most of his works in physics and chemistry should be viewed as preparatory materials for it.

The first step toward the project was the development of the doctrine of imperceptible particles of matter—“corpuscles” (or molecules). Lomonosov believed that an exhaustive explanation of all properties of matter could be given by using the concept of the various purely mechanical motions of corpuscles, which in turn consist of atoms. Thus, fire, light, and heat and other specific types of matter, with the exception of the ether that fills all space, are not introduced in Lomonosov’s theory. This concept fundamentally contradicted the generally accepted, incorrect concepts of the 18th century. It is characteristic that the molecular-kinetic theory of heat, which was successfully developed in the 17th century and worked out in the early 18th by D. Bernoulli, was totally abandoned by Lomonosov’s contemporaries in favor of the theory of the thermogen. In his work Meditations on the Causes of Heat and Cold (1744), Lomonosov, by carefully analyzing the existing experimental material, adduced substantial arguments against the thermogen theory. He hypothesized that heat is due to the rotational motion of particles of matter. In the 19th century this hypothesis was used in the initial attempts to construct a kinetic theory of gases (H. Davy, J. P. Joule). Lomonosov used as the foundation of the molecular kinetic theory his own statement of the philosophical principle of the conservation of matter and motion: “All changes that occur in nature are states such that whatever is taken away from one body is added to another. . . . This universal natural law also extends to the very principles of motion: since a body that moves another body by its own force imparts as much as it loses to the other body, which is set in motion’because of this” (Poln. sobr, soch., vol. 3, 1952, p. 383). Lomonosov considered the laws of conservation of matter and motion to be fundamental and not requiring verification by the axioms of natural science.

In order to satisfy himself as to the untenability of the doctrine of “flaming matter” (phlogiston) that prevailed at that time, Lomonosov tested the experiment conducted by Boyle, who, on firing a sealed vessel containing a metal, observed an increase in the weight of the opened vessel and attributed this to the penetration of the glass by the “flaming matter.” Repeating Boyle’s experiment but without opening the vessel after heating, Lomonosov satisfied himself that “the renowned Robert Boyle’s opinion is false, for without the passage of external air the weight of the heated metal remains the same” (ibid., p. 563). In contrast to the chemists of his day, Lomonosov excluded phlogiston from the list of chemical agents. Observing further that the metal ash formed in a sealed vessel weighs more than the initial metal, he attempted to heat the metal in vessels “from which the air was removed.” But the imperfection of the pumps of that period prevented Lomonosov from actually producing a vacuum and experimentally discovering the nature of combustion and formation of metal ash.

Lomonosov’s theoretical chemistry was based entirely on the achievements of physics. “Physical chemistry,” wrote Lomonosov, “is the science that explains, on the basis of the concepts and experiments of physics, that which takes place in mixed bodies during chemical operations. & My chemistry is physical” (ibid., vol. 2, 1952, p. 483; vol. 3, 1952, p. 241). In 1752-53, Lomonosov taught a course to his students entitled “Introduction to True Physical Chemistry,” which was accompanied by demonstration experiments and practical lessons. He devised an extensive program of investigating the properties of solutions. The data that he obtained on the solubility of salts in water at different temperatures have been preserved, as were those on the cooling of solutions accompanied by recorded information of the progression of the temperature drop with time. Lomonosov developed various instruments for the physical investigation of chemical entities, such as a viscosimeter for measuring viscosity, a refractometer for determining the index of refraction, and an instrument for determining the hardness of samples.

Lomonosov devoted considerable attention to studies of atmospheric electricity, which he conducted with G. W. Rich-mann. Lomonosov and Richmann made their experiments quantitative in character, developing special equipment—a “thunder machine”—for this purpose. After Richmann’s death from a lightning bolt (1753), Lomonosov continued the investigations despite the obstacles created by the clergy, who considered Richmann’s death to be “god’s punishment.” Lomonosov believed that the electric field is due to the rotational motions of particles of ether, totally rejecting the existence of electric charges in matter. Such a conception led, in particular, to his incorrect interpretation of the role of the lightning rod.

One of Lomonosov’s important inventions in optics was a “night-vision tube” (1756-58), which made it possible to discern objects more clearly at twilight. Lomonosov also designed a reflecting (mirror) telescope without an additional flat mirror long before W. Herschel. Lomonosov was also interested in astronomy and geophysics. On May 26, 1761, during the transit of Venus across the solar disk, he discovered the existence of an atmosphere on Venus and correctly interpreted for the first time the blurring of the solar limb on the double transit of Venus. Using a pendulum of his own design that made it possible to observe extremely small changes in the direction and amplitude of the pendulum’s swing, he conducted extensive studies of the earth’s gravity.

Lomonosov devoted considerable attention to the development of geology and mineralogy in Russia and personally performed numerous analyses of rocks. He proved the organic origin of soil, peat, coal, petroleum, and amber. In the works A Word on the Formation of Metals From Earth Tremors (1757) and On the Layers of the Earth (completed in the 1750’s, published in 1763), he consistently adhered to the idea of the regular evolution of nature and used the method that subsequently was called actualism in geology. As Lomonosov wrote: “Many erroneously think that all that we see is in the same form as it came from the Creator& . Such speculation is extremely harmful to the growth of all the sciences” (ibid., vol. 5, pp. 574-75). In the same work he cited arguments for the existence of a continent at the earth’s south pole.

Ascribing great importance to the development of Russian metallurgical production, which in the 18th century occupied a leading position in the world, Lomonosov in 1763 published the handbook The First Foundations of Metallurgy. In this work he examined in detail both the properties of various metals and the practicable methods of producing them. At the same time he also worked out for the first time the physical conditions of the “free” motion of air in mines and applied the results of this analysis to the processes that transpire in furnaces operating without forced blowing. A total of 1,225 copies of this book were published, a large printing for the day.

In 1758, Lomonosov was entrusted with “overseeing” the Academy of Sciences’ department of geography, historical assembly, university, and Academic Gymnasium. The main task of the department of geography was to compile the Russian Atlas. Lomonosov worked out an extensive plan for obtaining both physicogeographical and economic-geographical data for the atlas; this he did by organizing geographic expeditions and processing the answers to special questionnaires sent to various parts of the country. His noteworthy sociopolitical treatise On the Preservation and Propagation of the Russian People (1761) was closely associated with these works. In it Lomonosov proposed a number of legislative and social measures to increase the population of Russia by raising the birth rate, lowering the rate of infant mortality, and encouraging naturalization of foreigners.

In A Discourse on the Precision of the Marine Route (1759), Lomonosov proposed a number of new instruments and methods for determining the longitude and latitude of a given place. In this work he advanced the idea of organizing an international navigation academy for the joint solution of the most important scientific and technical problems of navigation. Lomonosov studied sea ice and devised the first ice classification. He repeatedly emphasized the political and economic importance for Russia of making the North Sea route navigable. In 1762-63 he wrote An Account of Various Journeys in the Northern Seas and Evidence of a Possible Passage to East India Through the Siberian Ocean, and in 1764 a “supplement” to this work entitled On the Northern Navigation to the East Through the Siberian Ocean, which he accompanied by “exemplary” instructions to “maritime commanding officers.” He predicted that “Russia’s power would be enhanced by Siberia.”

Lomonosov conducted research in Russian history as early as 1749 but undertook systematic studies only in 1751. Gradually he compiled from original documents the works Ancient Russian History From the Beginning of the Russian People to the Death of Grand Prince laroslav the First, or to the Year 1054 (parts 1 and 2; published 1766) and A Short Russian Chronicle With a Genealogy (1760), which lists the most important events to the reign of Peter I inclusively. Lomonosov criticized the Norman theory, which denied the independent development of the Russian people. He recognized the specific role of the masses in the historical process. However, like all materialist natural scientists of his day, Lomonosov maintained idealist positions in the field of history and assigned the key role to the activities of individual historical personalities.

From the moment he began working in the Academy of Sciences, Lomonosov strove to expand and improve the academy’s work as a scientific and educational institution. Upon being appointed adviser to the chancellory of the Academy of Sciences in 1757, he drew up a plan for reorganizing the administration of the Academy of Sciences and a detailed draft charter. The St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, which had become a major scientific and scholarly center of Europe by virtue of the brilliant foreign scientists who were its members, devoted little attention to creating an independent Russian science. Lomonosov took energetic steps to eliminate this serious shortcoming of the Academy of Sciences, devoting particular attention to the Academic University and to the Gymnasium. However, in all his endeavors Lomonosov was forced to surmount obstacles created by court and academic circles. Thus, many of his advanced organizational ideas remained unimplemented or were carried out much later. For example, Lomonosov worked long and unsuccessfully to found the University of St. Petersburg, which was not established until half a century after his death.

Lomonosov was also a true reformer in literature and the arts. V. G. Belinskii called him the “Peter the Great of Russian literature.” Lomonosov’s innovations as a poet rested on the profound traditions of Russian culture and Russian folk art. This is particularly evident in his bold surmounting of the inconsistency of the reform of Russian prosody that was proposed in 1735 by V. K. Trediakovskii. The syllabic-tonic system of versification, which has been preserved in its main features in Russian poetry to the present, was theoretically founded by Lomonosov in A Letter Concerning the Rules of Russian Prosody (1739; published 1778) and was brilliantly confirmed by his own poetry. As the founder of the Russian ode (the first ode, his “On the Capture of Khotin,” 1739; published 1751), Lomonosov infused this genre, which is traditional in world literature, with a high civic purpose. “Eulogistic” in its function, the ode for Lomonosov became a means of disseminating the achievements of scientific thought and patriotic ideas. Lomonosov’s philosophical odes were highly regarded by A. S. Pushkin. A special place in Lomonosov’s poetry is occupied by the character of Peter I, who evolves from the abstractly symbolic godlike hero in the odes of the 1740’s to the concretely historical enlightened monarch in the unfinished epic poem Peter the Great (1760). Lomonosov also played an important role in the development of such poetic genres as the epistle, the idyll, and the epigram. He wrote the tragedies Tamira and Selim (1750) and Demofont (1752). The manuscript of his satire on the reactionary clergy, Hymn to a Beard (1757), was widely disseminated in handwritten copies.

Lomonosov’s fundamental philological works served as the theoretical foundation of his poetry. In A Short Handbook on Eloquence (1748), Lomonosov asserted that the purity of style depends on a thorough knowledge of Russian grammar and living speech. He saw in the Russian language “a natural richness, a beauty, and a strength” that were not inferior to any European language. His Russian Grammar (1755; published 1757), the first truly scholarly grammar of the Russian language, was normative in character. Lomonosov associated the use of different grammatical forms or different variants of a given form with the different styles of the literary language: some are possible only in the written language, others only in conversation or the colloquial language. Lomonosov also noted the living forms of word inflexions.

Lomonosov’s Preface Concerning the Use of Sacred Books in the Russian Language (1758) was his most mature philological work. It resolved three problems: the combination of Church Slavonic and Russian elements in the composition of the Russian literary language, the differentiation of literary styles, and the classification of genres. Lomonosov used three theses as the basis for his treatise: (1) only that which is comprehensible and alive in the language should remain in the Russian literary language from the Church Slavonic language, (2) only that which the people have adopted in the process of many centuries of usage and that which contains a vocabulary that is convenient for the expression of abstract concepts should be retained from written sources, and (3) the written and colloquial speech of the people should be the primary component and the fundamental principle of the Russian literary language. Lomonosov founded Russian scientific terminology in his natural science works and translations.

Lomonosov was a consistent advocate of natural science materialism. He believed that all natural phenomena are mechanical in character and conform to the laws of mechanics. However, in contrast to his contemporaries, he did not adhere to metaphysical views of the unchangeability and permanence of the world and insisted on the evolution of all natural processes in nature and in the gradual change of the universe and the earth. Lomonosov conducted a bitter polemic against the clergy, unmasking its ignorance and clearly separating science from religion.

Lomonosov’s scientific works and life are studied by many Soviet and foreign scientists. The Lomonosov Museum (in Leningrad) was established under the Institute of the History of Natural Science and Technology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR. In 1956 the Academy of Sciences of the USSR instituted two gold medals named after Lomonosov—the academy’s highest awards for outstanding work in the natural and social sciences, one of which is awarded to Soviet scientists and the other to foreign scientists. A city in Leningrad Oblast, a current in the Atlantic Ocean, a mountain range on Novaia Zemlia, an underwater ridge in the Arctic Ocean, and a mountain on the island of Vestspitsbergen bear Lomonosov’s name.


Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1-10. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950-59.
Izbr. trudy po khimii i fizike. Moscow, 1961.
Izbr. proizvedeniia. Moscow-Leningrad, 1965. (Introductory article by A. A. Morozov.)


Menshutkin, B. N. Zhizneopisanie Mikhaila Vasil’evicha Lomonosova, 3rd ed. Moscow-Leningrad, 1947. (Contains a bibliography of Lomonosov’s works.)
“M. V. Lomonosov.” In Nauchnoe nasledstvo, vol. 1. Edited by Academician S. I. Vavilov [et al.]. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948.
Lomonosov: Sb. statei i materialov, vols. 1-5. Moscow-Leningrad, 1940-61.
Kapitsa, P. L. “Lomonosov i mirovaia nauka.” Uspekhi fizicheskikh nauk, 1965, vol. 87, issue 1, pp. 155-68.
Letopis’ zhizni i tvorchestva M. V. Lomonosova [K 250-letiiu so dnia rozhdeniia]. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Radovskii, M. I. M. V. Lomonosov i Peterburgskaia Akademiia nauk. Moscow-Leningrad, 1961.
Raskin, N. M. Khimicheskaia laboratoriia M. V. Lomonosova&. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Voprosy istorii estestvoznaniia i tekhniki, 1962, issue 12 and 1965, issue 19. (Both issues are devoted to Lomonosov.)
Morozov, A. A. Lomonosov [5th ed.]. Moscow, 1965.
M. V. Lomonosov v vospominaniiakh i kharakteristikakh sovremennikov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Kulikovskii, P. G. M. V. Lomonosovastronom i astrofizik. Moscow, 1961.
Gordeev, D. I. Lomonosovosnovopolozhnik geologicheskoi nauki, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1961.
Dik, N. E. Deiatel’nosf i trudy M. V. Lomonosova v oblasti geografii. Moscow, 1961.
Berkov, P. N. Lomonosov i literaturnaia polemika ego vremeni 1750-1765. Moscow-Leningrad, 1936.
Zapadov, A. V. Otets russkoipoezii: O tvorchestve Lomonosova. Moscow, 1961.
Makeeva, V. N. “M. V. Lomonosov—sostavitel’, redaktor i retsenzent leksikograficheskikh rabot.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1961, no. 5.
Literaturnoe tvorchestvo M. V. Lomonosova. Issledovaniia i materialy. Moscow-Leningrad, 1962.
Serman, I. Z. Poeticheskii stil’ Lomonosova. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Moiseeva, G. N. Lomonosov i drevnerusskaia literatura. Leningrad, 1971.
Makarov, V. K. Khudozhestvennoe nasledie M. V. Lomonosova: Mozaiki. Moscow-Leningrad, 1950.
Langevin, L. Lomonossov, 1711-1765, sa vie, son oeuvre. Paris, 1967.
Shiitz, W., and W. Michail. Lomonossow. Leipzig, 1970.
Mikhail Vasil’evich Lomonosov on the Corpuscular Theory. Edited by H. Leicester. Cambridge, 1970.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.