Universitätssternwarte, Vienna:
Telescope & Observatory of Vienna University

The Universitätssternwarte of Vienna is a telescope and star observatory from the 19th century that is used and maintained by the University of Vienna. It can be found in an area called "Türkenschanze", not far from the Universität für Bodenkultur and the Türkenschanzpark - all three attractions are situated in the 18th district of Vienna, exclusive Währing.

The Universitätssternwarte was opened in 1883; back then, its core was made up of the largest refracting telescope ever built, a record it could hold for only two years. Until today, the Universitätssternwarte building is the biggest central telescope building in the World - at least according to an official claim. But then again, what is "central" supposed to mean? In any case, the Universitätssternwarte building is big and an impressive testimony for the academic achievements of late 19th century Habsburg scientists.

The Universitätssternwarte was founded much earlier, though. In 1753, to be precise, as a section at the old university - today′s Alte Aula and Jesuite monastery in the Medieval city centre of Vienna. It was inspired by previous observatories, run by the Jesuite monks on the roof of their monastery. When Empress Maria Theresia tried to remove Jesuite influence from academic affairs, she had a "secular" observatory built and opened in 1753 on the roof of today′s Alte Aula. Within a few generations, Vienna became incredibly populous, light and dusty. Not the best conditions for an observatory that depends on clear air and darkness. As soon as 1800, some astronomists of Vienna University proposed to build a new Universitätssternwarte outside of the city.

Re-building a Universitätssternwarte for Vienna

This did not happen for a long time; instead, the observatory on the Alte Aula was extended and modernised in 1825. The facility was equipped with modern astronomical instruments and clocks, some of which are now exhibited in the museum of the new Universitätssternwarte. Back in those days, the significance of astronomical observations had already gone far beyond a hobby for wealthy noblemen - the astronomers of the university "standardised" many metrics, most importantly, the precise time for church bells and clocks. Other applications included mapping, measurements of distances and observations for the sake of navigation.

By 1850, another problem became more am more pressing: Jolting, even at night, caused by the natural movements of a very big city. A new initiative formed that lobbied for a move of the Universitätssternwarte observatory, but again: No luck for the time being. Only when the Linienwall, the minor city walls that ran along today′s Gürtel Road, was opened for construction in 1858, the astronomers saw an opportunity for a new observatory.

The chair of the Universitätssternwarte, a scientist called Karl Ludwig von Littrow, was sent to the US and Germany to study star observatories there. In 1867 (the year of the "Ausgleich" with Hungary), the construction of the new Universitätssternwarte was decided upon, the main model was the star observatory of Potsdam, Germany. Nevertheless, it took another couple of years until the construction was actually started in 1874. The main building was completed in 1879. The transfer of the old observatory to the new facility was not completed until 1882, one year later, the official opening ceremony was held in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph I.

Facts & Figure of Universitätssternwarte Vienna

The building 101 metres long and 73 metres wide, shaped like a cross and has the main cupola with the telescope at its centre, surrounded by three smaller observation platforms. The golden age of the Universitätssternwarte lasted until the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as a result of the First World War. Since the 1920ies, the new location of the Universitätssternwarte shared one fate with the old one - Vienna had grown around it, became increasingly dusty, jolting and sub-ideal for a star observatory.

This and financial problems in the inter-war period meant that the Universitätssternwarte and the astronomers of Vienna University could not maintain the academic level of the 19th century. After the Second World War, the facility was used for educational purposes; for actual research, the facility lacked the necessary means.

In 1969, a new observatory was built, the "Leopold Figl Sternwarte" in a remote corner of the Vienna Woods. In addition, the University of Vienna runs two telescopes in Arizona, US - appropriately called "Wolfgang" and "Amadeus", and opened in 1996. The Universitätssternwarte gained a museum in 1990, the ideal place to dive into astronomical nostalgia. Guided tours that are held through the museum also include the observation platforms and a look at the telescopes.

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Further Reading

Website of the Institute of Astronomy, Vienna University

Wikipedia on the Universitätssternwarte Observatory