Hermann Ebbinghaus – a pioneer of memory research

Hermann EbbinghausHermann Ebbinghaus (January 24, 1850 — February 26, 1909) was the founder of experimental psychology of memory. Among his most famous discoveries are the forgetting curve, the learning curve and the spacing effect. Ebbinghaus published his groundbreaking results in a monograph entitled “Über das Gedächtnis” (1885), which was later translated into English as “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology” (1913).

Life of Hermann Ebbinghaus

Hermann Ebbinghaus was born on January 24th, 1850 in Barmen (now part of the German city Wuppertal). His father, a wealthy Lutheran merchant encouraged him from early childhood on to pursue an academic career. At the age of 17 Ebbinghaus enrolled at the University of Bonn (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität) to study history and philosophy. In 1868 he became member of the Corps Guestphalia Bonn (a student corporation in German-speaking countries). His studies were interrupted in 1870 due to the Franco-Prussian War in which he enlisted as a member of the Prussian army.
After the war Ebbinghaus continued his education at the universities of Halle and Berlin. He eventually returned to the University of Bonn to complete his dissertation on Eduard von Hartmann’s philosophy of the Unconscious. In 1873, at the age of twenty-three, Ebbinghaus received his doctorate in philosophy.

Hermann Ebbinghaus then moved to Berlin where he conducted independent post-doctoral studies for several years before leaving to travel in France and England for three years. A pivotal point in his life was when he discovered during his travels in London Gustav Fechner’s book “Elements of Psychopysics” which spurred his interest in conducting studies in experimental psychology, notably on memory.
Ebbinghaus began his first set of memory experiments late in 1878, which took him more than a year. He then became a private lecturer at the University of Berlin in 1880 where he continued his studies of memory. In the years 1883-1884 Hermann Ebbinghaus repeated and refined many of his original experiments from 1878-1880. In 1885 finally he published his seminal work in the monograph “Über das Gedächtnis” (1885), which was later translated into English under the title “Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology” (1913).

Hermann Ebbinghaus was an energetic, enthusiastic, eloquent and witty lecturer who became a popular professor, highly regarded by university teachers and loved by students. He became excited about new problems that arose and encouraged discussion thereof. Ebbinghaus was widely known and his reputation brought even American students during their travels through Europe to Berlin. Cornell University offered him a position, Ebbinghaus however preferred to remain in Europe.

In 1886 he founded the laboratory for experimental psychology at the University of Berlin.

In 1890 he co-founded the “Zeitschrift fur Psychology und Physiologie der Sinnersorgane (Journal of Psychology and Physiology of the Sense Organs)” with Arthur König. His interest in the journal was mostly spurred by the possibility to publish work emanating from places other than Wundt’s Leipzig laboratory. The journal was often credited with the international advancement of psychological study. At the time of Ebbinghaus’s death in 1909 the journal “…had probably more fully represented the progress of psychology during these twenty years than any other journal…” of the times (Woodworth, 1909).

In the years following Ebbinghaus became interested in studying vision and published a theory of color-vision in 1893.

Between 1894 and 1905 Hermann Ebbinghaus became a professor at the University of Breslau (today Wroclaw, Poland). In 1894 he founded another laboratory of experimental psychology at the University of Breslau. From 1905 to 1908 he became a professor at the University of Halle.

In 1909, Hermann Ebbinghaus died of pneumonia in Breslau.

The works of Hermann Ebbinghaus

The works of Ebbinghaus are the results of hard work and a lot of experimentation in the lab. Ebbinghaus, however, spent considerable amount of time not only in the laboratory but searching for funding and financial sources to continue his research and to pay his students. His time and efforts were well spent – the results of his research count today as fundamental contribution to the field of psychology. And Ebbinghaus is considered a pioneer in memory research.

Ebbinghaus’ Contributions to Science

  • discovery of the forgetting curve
  • discovery of the spacing effect
  • discovery of the learning curve
  • discovery of the serial position effect
  • discovery of the primacy effect
  • discovery of the recency effect
  • discovery of the savings effect
  • discovery of the overlearning effect
  • difference between voluntary and involuntary memory
  • introduction of the modern way of writing scientific articles
  • the one who popularized experiments in psychology
  • sentence completion as intelligence test for school children
  • discovery of the Ebbinghaus illusion (optical illusion)

Relation to Flashcard Learner

Flashcard Learner is a spaced repetition flashcard software based in part on the findings of Hermann Ebbinghaus. Flashcard Learner analyzes your learning and forgetting behavior based on your personal forgetting curve and predicts when you have to repeat a flashcard just before you forget based on optimal spacing calculations with the spacing effect.

Publications of Hermann Ebbinhaus

Ebbinghaus did not publish many books and papers. Below is a list of his publications including different editions and publishers.

  • Über die Hartmannsche Philosophie des Unbewussten (Diss., Bonn 1873).
  • Über das Gedächtnis: Untersuchungen zur experimentellen Psychologie (Leipzig 1885; Darmstadt 1992), englisch: Memory: A Contribution
    to Experimental Psychology (New York 1913; New Delhi 2003)
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1913). A contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Teachers
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1885/1962). Memory: A contribution to experimental psychology. New York: Dover.
  • Abriss der Psychologie (Leipzig 1908; Berlin 1932; repr. Saarbrücken 2007).
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1902). Grundzüge der Psychologie. 1. Band, 2. Theil. Leipzig: Veit & Co.
  • Ebbinghaus, H. (1908/1973). Psychology: An elementary textbook. New York: Arno Press.


  • Fuchs, A. H. (1997). Ebbinghaus’s contributions to psychology after 1885. American Journal of Psychology, 110(4), 621-634.
  • Boneau, C. A. (1998). Hermann Ebbinghaus: On the road to progress or down the garden path? In G. A. Kimble, & M. Wertheimer, (Eds.), Portraits of pioneers in psychology (volume 3), pp. 51-64. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Wozniak, R. H. (1999). Introduction to Memory: Hermann Ebbinghaus (1885/1913). In Classics in psychology, 1855-1914: Historical essays. Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press.
  • Zawidzki, T. (2004). Ebbinghaus, Hermann. In C. Eliasmith (Ed.)., Dictionary of Philosophy of Mind. Retrieved July July 24, 2006 from http://artsci.wustl.edu/~philos/MindDict/entry.html.
  • Günther W. Mühle: Ebbinghaus, Hermann. In: Neue Deutsche Biographie (NDB). Band 4, Duncker & Humblot, Berlin 1959, S. 216 f.
    2007. Biography: Hermann Ebbinghaus. McGraw-Hill Companies. Retrieved January 28, 2007.

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