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Dwieście lat historii krakowskiego obserwatorium astronomicznego

Written by Jan Mietelski (

This paper appeared in 'Zeszyty naukowe Uniwersytetu Jagiellonskiego' MCXIX, 1993

Preparatory activities aiming at the foundation of the Cracow Observatory
From the opening of the Observatory by J. Śniadecki to its first crisis (1792-1824)
The development of the Observatory under Weisse, Karliński and Rudzki (1825-1916)
The Observatory in the years of T. Banachiewicz's management (1919-1954)
The general characteristics of the Cracow Astronomical Observatory since 1955 till now


Among the three oldest Polish astronomical observatories belonging to the universities in Vilna, Cracow and Warsaw, the Cracow University Observatory was fortunately able to act continuously since the year of its foundation (1791-1792) until present.

Also in Cracow the longest in Poland, unbroken series of meteorological observations has been recorded and preserved. However, the beginning of the institution was rather difficult. The idea of setting up the astronomical observatory in Cracow did not find there, in the first half of 18th century, a favorable atmosphere. The excellent astronomical traditions of the Cracow Academy, dating back to the 15th century (cf. H. Schedel, Liber Chronicarum, Nürnberg, 1493), were then forgotten. Moreover, the further progress in astronomy was not followed there. At the Cracow University the heliocentric theory of Copernicus, its most prominent student, was not accepted and the syllabus including the lectures on astronomy according to Ptolemy and Peuerbach was obligatory till 1750 AD and later on.

Preparatory activities aiming at the foundation of the Cracow Observatory

The first signal of a need of an astronomical observatory in Cracow we can find in a memorial by Rev. Prof. J. Popiolek, prepared in 1750 as a reply to the declaration of bishop Andrzej S. Zaluski, who decided to sponsor the chair of mathematics and experimental physics at the Cracow Academy. The next preparatory steps have been taken in the 1760s by Prof. Jakub Niegowiecki in a form of his few months' long scientific stay in the Vienna Observatory with its director, Rev. Prof. Maximilian Hell; Niegowiecki has bought there also some small observational instruments for the future observatory.

In the consequence of the first partition of Poland in 1772 the financial conditions of the Cracow Academy became worse, but two historical events: the foundation of the Commission for the National Education in Poland and the cancellation of the Jesuits Order -- both in 1773 -- were then, as we can see it now, of essential and positive importance for the development of the astronomical observatory in Cracow.

Jan Sniadecki (1756-1830) began his studies at the Cracow Academy in 1772. He obtained his baccalaureate at the age of 17, and two years later -- also the degrees of M.A. and Ph.D.; then he entered upon his lectures of algebra at the Cracow Academy. Rev. Hugo Kollataj, the minister, who initiated a great reform of the educational system in Poland (in 1777), planned to give the post of professor of mathematics at the Cracow Academy to Sniadecki. Thus, he proposed Sniadecki to study mathematics abroad, before his taking this post. Sniadecki studied for one year with Kästner in Götingen, where he simultaneously worked as an observer at the local observatory. Then he was gone through the Netherlands to Paris, where he studied mathematics for one and a half of a year with J. A. Cousin; astronomy -- with J. J. Lalande. He collaborated also with Ch. Messier and was in close contact with d'Alembert. Owing to positive opinions of French scientists the Commission for National Education appointed Sniadecki in 1781 to a post of professor of higher mathematics and astronomy at the Main School in Crown (the last was the contemporary name of the Kingdom of Poland) i.e. at the former Cracow Academy. Next year, 1782, H. Kollataj had been elected the rector of the School, and Sniadecki became its secretary. The first lecture on astronomy in Cracow was dedicated by Sniadecki to Nicolaus Copernicus.

In 1783 the preliminary works related to the establishment of the botanical garden begun in Cracow. In the place of the future garden there was a building of the first half of 18th century belonging formerly to the Jesuits. That building has been designated, after an adaptation, for seat of the future astronomical observatory. Initial works begun in 1787; Sniadecki traveled then for some months to England, where he visited Greenwich, Oxford and William Herschel at his observatory in Slough. During this travel Sniadecki visited also Paris for a short time again. His absence in Cracow resulted in a delay of rebuilding works. After his return to Cracow Sniadecki observed the eclipse of the Sun on 4 June 1788 and the eclipse of the Moon on 28 April 1790. The first observations made at the new Observatory were the measurements of altitudes of the Sun performed in October 1791. The official opening of the Observatory took place on 1 May 1792.

From the opening of the Observatory by J. Sniadecki to its first crisis (1792-1824)

The initial program of the Observatory included the following observations: positions of the Sun and of the Moon, eclipses of the satellites of Jupiter, transits of the planets over the solar disc as well as occultations of stars and planets by Moon. The above data were then used to determine the geographical longitude, while the observations of altitudes of the Sun, Moon and those of stars in culmination as well as zenith distances of stars culminating near the zenith were used to determine the latitude. Positions of equinoctial points and those of solstices were observed as well. In the program of time service the moments of transits of the Sun and of stars were determined. The positions of the planets were recorded in order to make corrections to the theories of their motions and to the corresponding tables. Sniadecki planned also observations of comets and of variable stars; in last point he was ahead of his time.

The first list of instruments of the new Observatory was rather modest. There were: 2 brass quadrants (one of them made by Canivet in Paris and the other one made in London by Ramsden), some small achromatic refractors (the transit one made by Charité in Paris), 3 pendulum clocks (Lepaute, Shelton and a Vienna made clock of English mode), 2 small reflectors (Newton and Gregory types); there were also a set of meteorological instruments and some globes (astronomical, terrestrial, and an armillary sphere).

Under the Austrian occupation of Cracow the University has been reorganized to some degree; its new faculty structure followed that of the Austrian universities, and its autonomy has been considerably limited by an extremely centralistic system of the invader state. Under those new circumstances Sniadecki decided to retire, however, he did not stop his observational activity and he agreed to supervise the first steps (until 1803) of his successor, Józef Leski, who was helped by Feliks Radwanski, professor of mechanics and hydraulics. A year later Leski was gone for Warsaw; than Józef Czech, Waclaw Voit and Franciszek Kodesch were appointed to the post of the head of the Cracow Observatory, in short, subsequent intervals of time.

In 1808 the position of the director of the Observatory has been given to Johann Joseph Littrow; that change seemed to be a rather fortunate one. However, just after Napoleonic campaign of 1809, Littrow left Cracow for Kazan (Russia) in 1810. In 1811 Leski as a professor of astronomy returned to Cracow after his two years' long, Paris studies in astronomy. Then he began to equip the Observatory with new instruments, but he was out of luck with his assistants. Finally Leski resigned in 1824.

The development of the Observatory under Weisse, Karlinski and Rudzki (1825-1916)

Next year, Maximilian Weisse, then the assistant to Littrow in Vienna, won a contest organized in Cracow for a post of the director of the Astronomical Observatory and professor of astronomy at the Cracow University. Weisse contributed significantly to the position and to the activities of the Cracow Observatory. He began his work in determining orbits, then he bought in Vienna a meridian circle and some other astrometric instruments -- also meteorological ones. He also started using the astronomical instruments that had been bought by Leski. The astronomical observations program has been modified and extended. Also systematic meteorological observations have been organized as well as magnetic ones. Weisse has elaborated two zonal astrometric catalogues (1846, 1863) based on Bessel's observations made in Königsberg. These catalogues were held in a high opinion until the end of 19th century.

Weisse overhauled twice the building of the Cracow Observatory: in 1829 and in 1858-1859. He left Cracow in 1861 because of health problems, retired in 1862 and died in 1863 in Upper Austria. His successor as the director of the Cracow Observatory was Franciszek Karlinski, his former assistant; Karlinski returned to Cracow in 1862 from the Prague Observatory and obtained here also the post of an ordinary professor of astronomy and of higher mathematics at the University. In that time there were in the Observatory: 96 instruments, 10 clocks, 941 books and 100 pieces of furniture. The first coworker of Karlinski in Cracow was Jan Kowalczyk, who left Cracow for the Warsaw Observatory very soon, in 1865. The next one was Daniel Wierzbicki, who collaborated with Karlinski, during over 36 years, until his death in 1902. Since 1877 Karlinski maintained in the Observatory a third research post (of an assistant) and its prolongation had to be motivated every two years. In this way several Polish scientists had a good opportunity to make their first steps just there.

Karlinski was a member of many scientific societies. Under his management the positional astronomical observations as well as geomagnetic and geodetic ones were continued at the Cracow Observatory. Let us note here, by the way, that Karlinski knowing well standards of astrometric observations had proposed a digital code that was modified later (1892) by A. Krüger and is still used in astrometric data communications by International Astronomical Union. However, the main effort of the Observatory staff was put in performing and elaborating a central point of the networks of meteorological and of hydrological stations acting in the province of Galicia. The obtained results were send, after appropriate reductions have been made, to Vienna, St. Petersburg, Hamburg and Utrecht.

In the 1880s a new scientific personage appeared at the Cracow Observatory -- Ludwik Antoni Birkenmajer, theoretical physicist, interested also in some computational problems of astronomy (orbits of binary stars and of planetary satellites), and of geophysics (theoretical shape and gravitation of terrestrial spheroid, terrestrial magnetic field and gravimetry). Birkenmajer was giving also lectures on history of mathematics and physics at the Jagiellonian University. In later years he was known as an eminent Copernicanist. F. Karlinski was retired in 1902 and died in 1906. In 1902 Prof. Maurycy Pius Rudzki became a new director of the Observatory and simultaneously the Head of the Chair of astronomy and of Mathematical Geophysics at the Jagiellonian University. Rudzki was a distinguished geophysicist working also in the field of theoretical astrophysics. He was previously an associated professor at the Odessa University after his prior studies in mathematics and in geology at the universities of Lwow (Lemberg) and of Vienna. Rudzki obtained also his degree of M. Sc. in geography at the University of Kharkov.

Rudzki planned to build in Cracow a new Observatory out of the town limits and he tried for 5 times to initiate some actions in that direction. However, all these plans failed because of the outbreak of the war in 1914. Rudzki was successful only in developing the geophysical branch of the Observatory. He has established there a seismological station based on two Bosch seismographs with horizontal pendulums.

Among two coworkers of Rudzki in Cracow we should note Lucjan Grabowski (who was afterwards professor of geodesy at the Lwow Polytechnical University) and Wladyslaw Dziewulski, a distinguished astronomer, who later on was a professor of the Batory University in Vilna and of the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Torun.

Rudzki concentrated mostly on development of geophysical and meteorological research, according to his scientific interest. He proposed e.g. a new method of determining the shape of the Earth from gravimetric measurements as made in terrains with a complicated vertical configuration. He has written also some valuable critical papers on the structure of stars and on the atmospheric circulation of celestial bodies. His textbook "Physics of the Earth" (in Polish) (1909) has been edited in German as "Physik der Erde" two years later in Leipzig. His "Theoretical Astronomy" (1914) is useful till now. The third textbook of Rudzki "Principles of Meteorology" (in Polish) was edited after author's death by his assistant Krassowski in 1917. Rudzki died suddenly of heart attack in July 1916. After his death, in the years 1916-1919, W. Dziewulski has taken de facto the management of the Observatory, although the University authorities charged formally Prof. M. Smoluchowski, a physicist, with those duties, and -- after his death in 1917 -- they turn the Observatory over to Prof. K. Zórawski, a mathematician.

The Observatory in the years of T. Banachiewicz's management (1919-1954)

In 1919 the post of the director of the Observatory and the chair of astronomy have been taken by Prof. Tadeusz Banachiewicz (1882-1954). Banachiewicz accomplished his studies in astronomy at the Warsaw University and obtained also there, in 1904, his degree of the candidate of sciences; then he had two scientific stays, one with K. Schwarzschild in Götingen and the other in Pulkovo Observatory (Russia). In the years 1908-1909 Banachiewicz was a younger assistant at the Warsaw Observatory; in 1910 he passed an examination to the M. Sc. degree in astronomy at the Moscow University. Then -- until 1915 he was an assistant at the Engelhardt Observatory in Kazan, where he made his excellent series of heliometric observations of the Moon. In the years 1915-1918 Banachiewicz was initially an assistant at the Dorpat (now Tartu) University, and later he obtained -- as Master of Science in astronomy (since 1917) -- the post of an associated -- and finally -- of an extraordinary professor.

His 35 years' activity at the Cracow Observatory resulted in many interesting achievements. He furnished the Observatory with larger observational instruments and, under his management, the Observatory became an international center of research in the field of eclipsing binaries and started publishing its own ephemeris. Banachiewicz founded in 1925 a scientific journal Acta Astronomica and was its editor in Cracow until his death. He published about 240 papers on astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, geodesy and geophysics; his scientific correspondence contains some 15000 letters. In celestial mechanics one can find the Banachiewicz-Olbers method of determining parabolic orbits. Since 1925 Banachiewicz developed a kind of matrix calculus, called by him the cracovian calculus. Cracovians are matrices that are multiplied "column by column" and their algebra is radically different from that of matrices. Cracovian operations essentially facilitated arithmometric astronomical computations as well as some theoretical considerations. Owing the cracovians Banachiewicz discovered general formulae of spherical polygonometry, and simplified considerably the algorithm of the least squares method and the practice of solution the systems of linear equations. The cracovian calculus has found its numerous applications in spherical astronomy, celestial mechanics, determining orbits, geodesy and even in the static of building constructions. It is worth to note that the first orbit of Pluto has been determined in the Cracow Observatory. Banachiewicz had also in his scientific output many interesting ideas and practical implementations of observational methods. Let us note here e.g. his chronocinematographic camera (1927) for recording eclipses of the Sun and his method of geodedic application of positional observations of the Moon for connecting, over seas, continental triangulation networks. Banachiewicz was also a pioneer of radio astronomy in Poland. In a time he acted as a vice-president of the International Astronomical Union and of the Baltic Commission for Geodesy, he was also the president of the Commission 17 of the IAU (Motion and Figure of the Moon), he had three doctorates honoris causa, he was also a member of many scientific societies. A number of Polish astronomers descended from Banachiewicz's laboratory (J. Witkowski, J. Mergentaler, E. Rybka, K. Kordylewski and S. Piotrowski). In 1920s Banachiewicz organizes a station if the Cracow Observatory on the Mt. Lubomir near Cracow. That station has been damaged by nazi troops in 1944. In 1953 Banachiewicz obtained from the military administration Fort Skala, a present abode of the Cracow Observatory. Banachiewicz died in 1954.

The general characteristics of the Cracow Astronomical Observatory since 1955 till 1999

After Banachiewicz's death the Observatory and the Chair of Astronomy have been taken over by Prof. Karol Koziel, a well-known expert of the IAU in the field of the Moon's rotation and figure. The results, concerning this matter, obtained in Cracow in 1960s have found later their confirmation by the values of the same parameters as derived from modern data of Lunar Orbiter motions and of the LLR (Lunar Laser Ranging).

In 1958 the new Chair of Observational Astronomy started its activity at the Jagiellonian University. Prof. Eugeniusz Rybka from Wroclaw, an astronomer well known in international astronomical forum, a vice-president of the IAU, became the head of that chair. He was also the director of the Cracow Astronomical Observatory since 1958 till 1968. Prof. E. Rybka acted in this time in the field of fundamental photometry of stars and in the history of astronomy. The former Chair of Astronomy at the Jagiellonian University changed its name to the Chair of Astronomy and of Astronomical Geophysics.

In 1964 there was celebrated in Cracow six hundred years' anniversary of the Jagiellonian University. The new, Nicolaus Copernicus' Observatory at Fort Skala started just then. There have been erected 5 domes, also the Fort itself has been renovated and a new building for administration and teaching has been built. Among new instruments let us note a 35 cm diameter Maksutov telescope (since 1965) and a 50 cm Cassegrain one (since 1970), both made by C. Zeiss works in Jena. There are also at the Fort Skala two radio telescopes with diameters of 7 m (the elder one) and 15 m.

Prof. E. Rybka retired in 1968. His successor was Prof. Dr. Konrad Rudnicki, a specialist in stellar and extragalactic astronomy, who came to Cracow from the Warsaw University Observatory. He postulated immediately to invite to Cracow Prof. Dr. Andrzej Zieba, a mathematician of Wroclaw, interested also in some aspects of theoretical astrophysics. In such a way there emerged at the Cracow Observatory some new general research topics, namely extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. The function of the director of the Observatory was held by Prof. K. Koziel in the years 1968-1974, and by Prof. A. Zieba from 1974 to 1978. In the years 1979-1984 the director's function was in the hands of Prof. Dr. Jozef Maslowski, a radio astronomer who also well contributed in other fields of astronomy. After his resignation, the director's chair was taken by Prof. K. Rudnicki for the years 1984-1989. Since 1989 till 1999 Prof. J. Maslowski kept the director's service again. From 1999 Dr. Michal Ostrowski become a new director.

At present the staff of the Cracow University Observatory consist of 25 scientists. The Observatory consists of 2 departments: that of stellar and extragalactic astronomy and the other one of radio astronomy and space physics. Since 1976 there exists an observational station of the Cracow Observatory in south-eastern corner of Poland, near Cisna, in a wild forest area of the Bieszczady mountains.

The main fields of research at the Cracow Observatory are now: systematic daily radio observations of the Sun at 10 frequences from 275 to 1755 MHz, studies on distribution and structure of radio sources, performed and realized in a close cooperation with radio astronomy centers in USA, Germany, the Netherlands and others. Also theoretical and modeling studies are continued on physics of galaxies (their structure and evolution, interstellar medium, interactions between magnetic fields and cosmic rays); finally a group of topics of theoretical cosmology is investigated. In a traditional domain of observational research in the optical spectral band there are present cometary observatrions as well as photometry of variable stars and of diffuse objects.

Serial publications of the Cracow Astronomical Observatory are: Rocznik Astronomiczny Obserwatorium Krakowskiego (a yearbook of ephemeris of eclipsing variables with some additional data for each year), Acta Cosmologica (a research journal).