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The history of astronomy in Poland until 1945

The contribution of Polish scholars to the understanding of the nature of the Universe is not limited only to the achievements of minds of such stature as Nicolaus Copernicus. In the 13th century two scholars of the European caliber lived and created, who came from Silesia, but were educated in foreign institutions. One of them was Franco de Polonia, to whom we owe the first description of the construction of an instrument called the torquetum. It found its place in the astronomy of the following centuries, since the construction of this device was also reflected upon in the works of Johannes Regiomontanus (1436-1476) and Peter Apianus (1495-1552). Another Silesian scholar was Witelo (c. 1230–c. 1300), who went down in the history of science because of his extensive Perspectiva. Witelo first studied in Paris and later in Padua, and probably during his stay in the second university he wrote two astronomical-cosmographical treatises, neither of which has unfortunately survived to our times: Scientia motuum caelestium and De partibus universi.

The development of astronomy in Poland in its tangible form dates back to the first years of the 15th century; the turning point was the foundation of the chair of mathematics and astronomy in the renovated Cracow Academy in around 1405. The development of astronomy in that university which was started owing to that fact, resulted in that in relation to the second half of the 15th century we may speak of the existence of the Cracow school of astronomy. Institutionally studies of astronomy in Cracow were associated with the just mentioned Stobner Chair and the chair of astrology, founded in 1459 through the endowment by Marcin Król of Żurawica (c. 1422–1453). The scientific activity of astronomers from Cracow concentrated mainly on the explanation of elementary treatises and astronomical tables. Their duties also included the construction of ephemerides, which would notify about interesting astronomic phenomena, calendars and astrological prognostics. The most outstanding representatives of the Cracow school of astronomy were the aforementioned Marcin Król, Marcin Bylica of Olkusz (c. 1433–1493), Jan of Głogów (c. 1445–1507) and his student Wojciech of Brudzewo (1445/46-1495). Copernicus came in contact with this fully fledged school of astronomy when he enrolled in the faculty of liberal arts of the Cracow Academy in 1491.

Other interesting astronomical works and discoveries in Poland, apart from Copernicus’s achievements, appeared in the first half of the 17th century. They were associated with the new era of astronomy which began with the use of the telescope in the study of celestial bodies. One of the most interesting episodes were systematic observations of sunspots conducted between 1613 and 1618 in the Jesuit college in Kalisz by Charles Malapert (1580-1630) from Belgium, who cooperated with Polish Jesuits, namely with Szymon Perovius (1586-1656) and Aleksy Sylvius (1593-1650). Malapert used the method of image projection of the face of the Sun onto the screen; attempts to invent the most convenient construction that would support a telescope with a screen led the observers from Kalisz to create prototypes of the equatorial mount which became so common in observatories in the following centuries.

Astronomy at an European level was practiced in Gdańsk by Johannes Hevelius (1611-1689). He devoted the first half of the 1640s to the telescopic observations of the Moon. The result of these observations was his work entitled Selenographia sive Lunae descriptio... (Selenography) published in 1647. The most important parts of Selenographia were observations and detailed maps of the Moon. Among other works by Hevelius, Dissertatio de nativa Saturni Facie, from 1656, in which the astronomer attempts to solve the mystery of the shape of that planet, may also be mentioned. In 1662, Hevelius published a work entitled Mercurius in Sole visus, which concerned the planet’s passage across the face of the Sun on the 3rd May 1661. In 1668 he published Cometographia which contained over 1000 pages and 400 illustrations. In this work Hevelius gives an account of his observations of comets (he discovered several himself) and describes the history of appearances of 250 stars with a tail from the earliest ages. At the same time another monumental treatise devoted to the ancient comets was published, namely Theatrum cometicum published in Amsterdam by Stanisław Lubieniecki (1623–1675). However, the work by Hevelius was at a higher level of scientific excellence. In his two-volume book Machina coelestis (volume 1: 1673, volume 2: 1679) the astronomer presents a detailed description of his instruments and over 20 thousand astronomical measurements he conducted himself for 30 years. One of the most outstanding achievements of Hevelius was his catalogue of 1545 stars which appeared in the work entitled Prodomus Astronomie. Published in 1690, Prodomus appeared together with a sky atlas Firmamentum Sobiescianum sive Uranographia. Both in the catalogue and in the atlas new constellations proposed by Hevelius may be found: Cerberus, Mons Menalus, Lacerta (the Lizard), Vulpecula (The Fox), Leo Minor (the Little Lion), Lynx (the Lynx), Sextans Uraniae (the Sextant), and Scutum Sobiescianum (the Shield). Hevelius also described in detail three other constellations that appeared occasionally on the sky maps: Antinous, Camelopardalis (the Giraffe) and Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs). Lacerta, Leo Minor, Vulpecula, Canes Venatici, Lynx, Sextans and Scutum may still be found among constellations today.

Another significant stage in the history of astronomy in Poland began in the second half of the 18th century. In that period astronomical observatories connected to various universities started appearing, though owing to the limited number of instruments, studies conducted there could very rarely be numbered in the main stream of European astronomy. The first two observatories that were erected at that time were: one by the Vilnius Jesuit Academy and another by the Jesuit College in Poznan. The first was initiated by Tomasz Żebrowski (1714-1758), a professor of mathematics. The institution started developing when the post of the astronomer was given to Marcin Poczobut-Odlanicki (1728–1810). Thanks to his foreign expeditions, he managed to acquaint himself with the activities of large European observatories, such as those in Greenwich or in Paris, and Poczobut’s works, observations of Mercury and of the first planetoids ever discovered, won recognition among astronomers abroad. The observatory in Poznań was founded thanks to the determination of Józef Rogaliński (1728-1802) who, after his return from studies in Paris in 1762, equipped the Jesuit College with instruments of high quality and in 1764 started his observations. Yet they were not systematic. The facility stopped working after the dissolution of the Jesuit Order in 1773.

Rogaliński’s lectures were also heard by Jan Śniadecki (1756-1830) who became interested in astronomy and later began his studies at the University of Cracow. Having obtained his doctorate of philosophy in 1775 and started lectures on mathematics, Śniadecki became engaged in the reform of the university. Part of it was the construction of an observatory. Just like Poczobut, while preparing himself for running the future observatory, Śniadecki travelled abroad. The official opening of the observatory in Cracow took place on the 1st of May 1792. In 1807 the scholar accepted an offer made by Poczobut and started running the Vilnius Observatory. Śniadecki’s astronomical activities in Vilnius were limited to the traditional set of observations of eclipses, planets, and ephemeral phenomena, such as comets. In 1825 Śniadecki retired and the post of director of the observatory was taken by his student Piotr Sławiński (1795-1881), who in 1826 published the first modern academic textbook on astronomy written in Polish: Rudiments of theoretical and practical astronomy.

Another Polish observatory, situated in Warsaw, was established as an institution of the then emerging University of Warsaw, thanks to the involvement of Franciszek Armiński (1789-1848), who in 1816 was appointed to a chair of astronomy. Construction of the observatory began in 1820 in the area of botanical gardens and ended in 1825. After the events of 1831 that led to the closure of the University of Warsaw, the observatory was given the status of a separate scientific institution with Armiński as a director.

In the nineteenth century in Poland, which was then partitioned, institutions conducting astronomical studies seemed in a poor appearance: two observatories functioned, one in Cracow and another in Warsaw. There was no theoretical research centre. However, a small number of private observatories existed whose owners could sometimes realize interesting scientific programmes. In the observatory in Cracow interesting scientific results were achieved during the term of Maximilian Weisse (1798-1863) who became the head of the facility in 1825. He undertook to prepare positional observations conducted in Królewiec under the supervision of Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846). The result of Weisse’s study, who worked together with the then assistant professor, who later became a mathematics professor, namely Jan Kanty Steczkowski (1800–1881), was a catalogue of coordinates of nearly 32 thousand stars, which was published in 1846. The second of Weisse’s catalogues, which includes positions of nearly 32 thousand other stars appeared in 1863. In 1862 the post of director of the observatory was taken by Franciszek Karliński (1830-1906). In 1902 Karliński was succeeded by Maurycy Pius Rudzki (1862-1916), mainly a geophysicist, the author of the highly regarded Physics of the Earth. Rudzki became interested in the theoretical deliberations concerning the thermodynamic equilibrium of gas spheres, that is stars, and published a short dissertation devoted to this subject. It was not noticed, however, by the pioneers of the theory of the internal structure of stars. The same thing happened in the case of a work entitled On the Thermodynamic Equilibrium of a Free Sphere, which was published by Czesław Białobrzeski (1878-1983) in a magazine from Cracow “Bulletin International de l’Académie Polonaise des Sciences et des Lettres”. Białobrzeski, who at that time still worked at the Kiev University, pointed out in his treatise the role of radiation pressure in the equilibrium of stellar interiors, thus anticipating Arthur S. Eddington’s (1882-1944) discoveries.

It was Adam Prażmowski (1821-1885) who was the pioneer of observational astrophysics in Poland. He started working in the observatory in Warsaw in 1839, which at that time was still supervised by Armiński. After Armiński death, he was succeeded by Jan Baranowski (1800-1879), his longtime co-worker, who in 1854 published the Latin text and Polish translation of Copernicus’ De revolutionibus, and minor works of the astronomer from Frombork. It was the first translation of Copernicus’ work into a modern language. At the same time Prażmowski, who worked for Baranowski as a senior lecturer, started constructing instruments and using them in astronomical observations. The most famous of Prażmowski’s achievements was demonstrating that the solar corona, which is visible during a total eclipse, shines with polarised light. He conducted his observations in Spain during the eclipse in 1860.

In the territory of Poland in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century, several private observatories also functioned, which were equipped with telescopes that were no smaller than the instruments used in institutional astronomy. The most important of those observatories was constructed in 1872 in Płońsk by a doctor, Jan Jędrzejewicz (1835-1887). He especially contributed with observations of double stars and comets, and he also wrote an excellent and well-illustrated textbook entitled Cosmography (first edition: 1886), which was very popular. It is also worth mentioning the observatories of Kajetan Kraszewski in Romanów (1855) and Władysław Szaniawski in Przegaliny (1909).

Reclamation of independence by Poland in 1918 resulted in organisational changes in Polish astronomy, the state of which was rather lamentable: only two not very modern observatories with academic traditions existed, one in Warsaw and the other in Cracow, and one young observatory at the department of spherical astronomy and higher geodesy of Lvov Polytechnic University, created in 1907 and supervised by Marcin Ernst (1869-1930), author of some very popular astronomical books and textbooks. Institutions in Cracow and Warsaw had new directors, the first was managed by Tadeusz Banachiewicz (1882-1954), who was given the post in 1919, and the second by Michał Kamieński (1879-1973), who specialised in the studies of orbits of comets.

At the same time new astronomical facilities were founded. The department of astronomy at the newly reactivated University of Vilnius was entrusted to Władysław Dziewulski (1878-1962). The university observatory was built from scratch on a suburban parcel of land, and the first instruments used in astrophysical studies appeared in 1922. Kazimierz Graff (1878-1950), a prominent specialist in stellar photometry who at that time was working in Hamburg, was invited to organise astronomical research at the newly created university in Poznań. Ultimately, however, Graff withdrew and his post was given to Bohdan Zaleski (1887-1927), who previously had practised astromerty in the Pułkowo Observatory. This way specialisation of the observatory in Poznań was established for many years. When Zaleski died, Józef Witkowski (1892-1976) became his successor. Another change took place at the Lvov University, where in 1932 Eugeniusz Rybka (1898-1988) became the head of the department and thus succeeded Ernst.

Consolidation of the community of Polish astronomers resulted in the formation of the Polish Astronomical Society, which took place during the congress organised on the occasion of the 450th anniversary of the birth of Copernicus in 1923. The first person who was elected as president was Tadeusz Banachiewicz, who initiated publication of Acta Astronomica, a magazine having an international circulation. Amateur activity became dynamically organised and thus in 1921 an Amateur Astronomers’ Society was created in Warsaw, which a year later started issuing a very popular magazine entitled Urania. The Society very quickly achieved nationwide status and, as a result, in 1928 renamed itself the Polish Amateur Astronomers’ Society.

The beginning of the interwar period was not very good for Polish astronomy, taking into account the situation around the world. Observational astronomy in Poland was mainly focused on positional measurements and bodies of the Solar System. However, photometric studies of stars also started to be conducted, of variable stars in particular, and in 1938 spectrophotometric equipment became available in Vilnius. One of the attempts to extend the modern observation base was the location of observatories away from urban centres. This way the observatory in Cracow obtained Lubomir observational station on Łysina near Myślenice, which functioned between 1922-1944. In 1938 Józef Piłsudski Meteorology - Astronomical Observatory also started functioning. It was constructed by astronomers from Warsaw. It was situated on the top of Pop Ivan Mountain in the Eastern Carpathians and was equipped with an astrograph, the diameter of which was 33 cm. Theoretical studies from the interwar period were mainly focused on the mechanics of the sky.

Because of the Second World War, the geography of Polish astronomy was changed once again. The observatories on Łysina and Pop Ivan ceased to exist. The majority of astronomers from Vilnius moved to Toruń, where in 1949 the astronomical observatory of the newly founded Nicolaus Copernicus University started functioning in Piwnice. At the same time, in Wrocław, the new Polish astronomical centre was established, largely thanks to the involvement of scientists from Lvov.

Jarosław Włodarczyk
Institute for the History of Science
Polish Academy of Sciences

Further reading

  1. J. Dobrzycki, The Scientific Revolution in Poland, in The Scientific Revolutions in National Context, ed. by R. Porter and M. Teich (Cambridge, 1992), 150–7.
  2. J. Dobrzycki, Saturn, Aristotelian Astronomy, and Cracow Astronomers: An Episode from the Early Years of Telescopic Astronomy, “Journal for the History of Astronomy”, Vol. 30 (1999), 121–9.
  3. M. A. Kubiak, Astronomical Observatories in Poland (Warsaw, 1973).
  4. On the 300th Anniversary of the Death of Johannes Hevelius: Book of the International Scientific Session, ed. by R. Głębocki and A. Zbierski (Wrocław, 1992).
  5. The Cracow Circle of Nicholas Copernicus, ed. by J. Gierowski (Warsaw, 1973) (Copernicana Cracoviensia, Vol. 3).