Balthazar van der Pol (1889-1959)

Balthazar van der Pol was a Dutch electrical engineer who initiated modern experimental dynamics in the laboratory during the 1920's and 1930's.

Van der Pol investigated electrical circuits employing vacuum tubes and found that they have stable oscillations, now called limit cycles. When these circuits are driven with a signal whose frequency is near that of the limit cycle, the resulting periodic response shifts its frequency to that of the driving signal. That is to say, the circuit becomes "entrained" to the driving signal. The waveform, or signal shape, however, can be quite complicated and contain a rich structure of harmonics and subharmonics.

In the September 1927 issue of the British journal Nature, he and his colleague van der Mark reported that an "irregular noise" was heard at certain driving frequencies between the natural entrainment frequencies. By reconstructing his electronic tube circuit, we now know that they had discovered deterministic chaos. Their paper is probably one of the first experimental reports of chaos---something that they failed to pursue in more detail.

Van der Pol built a number of electronic circuit models of the human heart to study the range of stability of heart dynamics. His investigations with adding an external driving signal were analogous to the situation in which a real heart is driven by a pacemaker. He was interested in finding out, using his entrainment work, how to stabilize a heart's irregular beating or "arrhythmias".

Exhibits || CompLexicon || Timeline

© The Exploratorium, 1996