Astrometry and early astrophysics at Kuffner Observatory in the late 19th century


Peter Habison, Vienna


Complete text (abstract only):

The astronomer and mathematician Norbert Herz encouraged Moriz von Kuffner, owner of the beer brewery in Ottakring, to finance a private scientific observatory in the western parts of Vienna. In the years 1884-87 the Kuffner Observatory was built at the Gallitzinberg in Wien-Ottakring. It was an example of enlighted patronage and noted at the time for its rapid acquisition of new instruments and by increasing international recognition. It contained the largest heliometer in the world and the largest meridian circle in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.

Of the many scientists who worked here we mention Leo de Ball, Gustav Eberhard, Johannes Hartmann and we should not forget Karl Schwarzschild. Here in Vienna he published papers on celestial mechanics, measuring techniques, optics and his fundamental papers concerning photographic photometry, in particular the quantitative determination of the departure of the reciprocity law. The telescope and the associated camera with which he carried out his measurements are still in existence at the observatory.

The observatory houses important astronomical instruments from the 19th century. All telescopes were made by Repsold und Söhne in Hamburg, and Steinheil in Munich. These two German companies were best renowned for quality and precision in high standard astronomical instruments.

The Great Refractor (270/3500 mm) is still the third largest refractor in Austria. It was installed at the observatory in 1886 and was used together with the Schwarzschild Refractor for early astrophysical work including photography. It is this double refractor, where Schwarzschild carried out his measurements on photographic photometry.

The Meridian Circle (132/1500 mm) was the largest meridian passage instrument of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today it is the largest meridian circle in Austria and still one of the largest in Europe. The telescope is equipped with one of the first impersonal micrometers of that time. First observations were carried out in 1886, followed by an international program called the »Zonenunternehmen der Astronomischen Gesellschaft«. During this program 8468 stars were measured at the meridian circle.

The Vertical Circle (81/1200 mm) was used as an auxiliary instrument for the meridian circle and for measuring polar motion. It is a rare instrument and only very few are still in existence at European observatories.

Originally the Heliometer (217/3000 mm) was an instrument for measuring very small distances at the celestial sphere. Of this type of instrument, the Vienna heliometer was the largest in the world. It was installed at the observatory in 1896 and was mainly used for measuring the trigonometric parallaxes of the stars. Of 108 known parallaxes in 1910, 16 stars were measured at Kuffner Observatory at that time.



Publikationen der Kuffner-Sternwarte, Bände 1-6, K&K Hofbuchhandlung Wilhelm Frick

H. H.Voigt (Ed.): Karl Schwarzschild, Gesammelte Werke, Collected Works, Springer Verlag 1992

Bibliographical details:

Peter Habison: Astrometry and early astrophysics at Kuffner Observatory in the late 19th century. In: Peter Brosche, Wolfgang R. Dick, Oliver Schwarz, Roland Wielen (Eds.): The Message of the Angles - Astrometry from 1798 to 1998. Proceedings of the International Spring Meeting of the Astronomische Gesellschaft, Gotha, May 11-15, 1998. (Acta Historica Astronomiae ; 3). Thun ; Frankfurt am Main : Deutsch, 1998, p. 93-94.