Vilnius University Astronomical Observatory


The influence of the Renaissance
The beginning of modern science dates back to the Renaissance. At the end of the 15th century Vilnius developed into a notable political and cultural center of Eastern Europe. Many famous artists and scholars resided in Lithuania at that time. The well known Polish astronomer and mathematician Wojciech Brudzewski (1445-1497), a professor of the Cracow University and a teacher of Nicolas Copernicus, spent the last years of his life in Vilnius. Another prominent astronomer and mathematician and a devoted disciple of Copernicus, George Joachim von Lauchen (Rhaeticus) (1514-1576), also resided in Vilnius. He was a personal doctor of the Great Duke of Lithuania and the King of Poland Sigismundus Augustus (1520-1572) for some time. Supposedly, the famous book of Copernicus De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium got into the library of the King through the hands of Rhaeticus. Later this book was donated to the Vilnius University. Well educated men were required for the development of the economy and for the government of the country. In the 15th-16th centuries Lithuanian students used to go for studies to the universities of Western Europe. However, those opportunities could not fully meet the needs of the developing country. The society of Lithuania matured aspirations to establish a university.

Astronomy at the University in the 16th-17th c.
The foundation of the Vilnius University in 1579 gave a great impetus to the development of various fields of science, including astronomy. We have no reliable information about teaching of astronomy in the first decades of the Vilnius University. However, astronomy must have been taught from its foundation, since such practical fields as fortification, ballistics, geodesy and cartography required astronomical knowledge. The earliest known manuscript with lectures on astronomy dates back to 1629. It was prepared by the professor of mathematics Andrzej Milewski (1591-1656). In the first half of the 17th century, Oswald Kruger (1598-1665) became known as a distinguished mathematician as well as an inventive maker of modern instruments. In his lectures and activities special attention was paid to astronomy. It is supposed that due to his efforts a telescope had been brought to Vilnius for the first time. O.Kruger had a number of students. Among them, two astronomers, Joanes Rudamina and Albert Dyblinski, should be mentioned. In the treatise of J.Rudamina Illustriora theoremata et problemata mathematica, published in 1633, we find a description of Galileo's telescope and observations of the satellites of Jupiter in Vilnius. The book of A.Dyblinski Centuria Astronomica published in 1639 was exclusively devoted to astronomy. It was a comprehensive, though popular, review of astronomy based on works of the most eminent astronomers of that time. It might have been one of the best books on astronomy in the 17th century.

The foundation of the Observatory
The rapid development of science was suspended by continuous wars that broke out at end of the 17th century. Wartime calamities brought the country into famine, plague and ruined its economy. Nevertheless, Lithuanian society, influenced by ideas of the Enlightenment, began to appreciate science and education as factors capable to withhold economical and political disintegration of the country. It became customary and fashionable among the noble to support art and science. Activities of the university began to revive in the middle of the 18th century. In 1752 an experienced architect, mathematician and astronomer Thomas Zebrowski (1714-1758) returned to Vilnius from advanced studies in Vienna and Prague. In Lithuania he became famous as a scientist, as well as a gifted public lecturer on popular mathematics, physics and astronomy. He designed a plan of an astronomical observatory and received means from a noblewoman and benefactress Elzbieta Oginska-Puzynina (1700-1768) for its construction. The building of the astronomical observatory was started in 1753. The observatory was erected on the top of the three-storey university building. It comprised two halls occupying the 3th and 4th floors and two three-storey rectangular towers. Magnificient decorations of the outside and inside premises fascinate us up to present days. The first telescope for the observatory was donated by Michaelis Radziwill (1702-1762), the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the army of the Great Duchy of Lithuania. It was a 13.5cm reflecting telescope. The other 10cm telescope-reflector was donated by Josephus Sapieha (1708-1754), the bishop of Vilnius. There are not many records on astronomical observations of Zebrowski. We know that he observed the Moon and the satellites of Jupiter. He also made observations for the determination of the geographical latitude of the observatory.

El�bieta Oginskaitė-Puzinienė (1700-1768)
Elzbieta Oginska-Puzynina (1700-1768)
Tomas �ebrauskas (1714-1758)
Tomas Zebrauskas (1714-1758) 

The Golden Age of the Observatory
The end of the 18th century was the golden age for the Astronomical Observatory. It became famous due to efforts of its director Marcin Odlianicki-Poczobut (1728-1810). After graduation from the Vilnius University, he went abroad to continue studies of mathematics and astronomy. In 1764 he returned to Vilnius and took over the duties of the director of the Astronomical Observatory and had been holding this position for 44 years. In 1780-1799 he was the Rector of the Vilnius University as well.

Martynas Odlianickis-Počiobutas (1728-1810)
Marcin Odlianicki-Poczobut (1728-1810)

Although the astronomical instrumentation was modernized very rapidly at that time, M.Poczobut made every effort to acquire for the observatory new modern telescopes and instruments. One of the largest instruments obtained in 1777 was a meridian quadrant which had a diameter of 8 feet. To house this instrument and other telescopes, Poczobut decided to build an extension of the building of the observatory to the south. It was designed and built by the famous architect Marcin Knackfuss in 1782-1788. The classical structure had two towers for observations and a firm sandstone wall in the plane of the meridian. It divided premises of the new building into two equal parts. The wall was built for fixing of the large meridian quadrant. The front wall of the observatory was decorated with the signs of Zodiac and Latin quotations.

Senoji Vilniaus universiteto observatorija
The old Vilnius University Observatory

Poczobut was a very diligent and skilful observer and left a large body of observational data. He carried out measurements of the positions of asteroids, planets and comets. He also observed lunar and solar eclipses. The most important data of that period were the observations of Mercury. Later on, these observations were used by Jerome J. de Lalande for the calculation of Mercury's orbit and tables of its motion.

Observatory in the 19 century
In 1795 the joint Lithuanian-Polish state was finally dissolved and Vilnius passed into Russian power. However, the disastrous disruption of Lithuanian state concerned neither Vilnius University nor the Astronomical Observatory. Essential changes occured later. The scientific activities of Poczobut were continued by his successors. The most productive of them was Jan Sniadecki (1756-1830), who headed the observatory in 1807-1825, and Piotr Slavinski (1795-1881), who headed the observatory in 1825-1843. Following Poczobut, they observed planets and their sattelites, asteroids and comets, eclipses of the Sun and Moon. They also used to determine the geographical coordinates of various locations. Results of their observations were usually published in transactions of famous European observatories. They kept up close contacts with many well-known observatories such as Berlin, Greenwich, Königsberg, Paris, Pulkovo and others. In 1832 the Russian government closed the Vilnius University, as an act of repression after the uprising against the Czar in 1830-1831. The observatory was entrusted to the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St.Petersburg and continued its activity under P.Slavinski. In 1840 the observatory acquired the 15cm refractor which was installed in the reconstructed western tower of the observatory building. In 1836 P.Slavinski organized publication of the results of observations in the periodical Extrait des Observations faites a l'Observatoire de l'Academie Imperial des sciences a Vilna, which was published regulary up to 1846. However, with closing of the University, the observatory lost the possibility for training new students and the positions of astronomers at the observatory were gradually taken over by Russian astronomers from the Pulkovo Observatory. But, on the other hand, it played a positive role in changing the field of scientific research. Astronomers of the observatory of that time made a determined decision to abandon astrometric observations and to go over to astrophysical methods of research. George Sabler (1810-1865) and Matvei Gusev (1826-1866) were pioneers in this field of research which was greatly supported by Pulkovo astronomers. In 1861 G.Sabler, the director of the observatory, proposed to acquire for that purpose new instruments, among which there were a solar photoheliograph, a Schwerd photometer and a Merz spectroscope. In 1865 the world's first photographic solar patrol began to function. In the period of 1868-1876 about 900 photographs of the Sun were obtained, which are stored in Vilnius and Pulkovo. Later on, spectroscopic observations of the Sun and photometric observations of stars were initiated. Unfortunately, in 1876 a fire broke out in the observatory, causing a heavy damage. The observatory did not receive any means for the restoration and five years later it was closed. The valuable publications of the library and instruments were distributed among various institutions of Russia, the main part of which was transferred to Pulkovo Observatory.

AO in the interwar years (1921-1941)
Astronomy in our country was revived only after World War I. In Vilnius, then occupied by Poland, a Department of Astronomy was set up at the reopened Vilnius University. Wladyslaw Dziewulski (1878-1962), a famous Polish astronomer, was appointed the head of this departament. The premises of the old observatory were no longer suitable for astronomical observations. Therefore, in 1921 it was decided to build a new observatory. For that purpose a plot of land was allocated in the outskirts of the city near Vingis park on the present M.K.Ciurlionis street. Over a period of 15 years, several buildings to house the telescopes and a building for the laboratories had been erected. The observatory was equipped with two 15cm Zeiss astrographs and a 48cm reflector with a spectrograph. The research work was mainly concentrated on photometric and spectroscopic investigation of variable stars and on stellar statistics. Among the most outstanding astronomers of that period, we should mention W.Dziewulski, Wilhelmina Iwanowska (1905-1999) and Wlodzimierz Zonn (1905-1975). The periodical Bulletin de l'Observatoire astronomique de Wilno was regularly published in 1921-1939. In 1928, the Kaunas University set up its own astronomical observatory. Due to the efforts of its director Bernardas Kodatis (1879-1957), an 11cm refracting telescope, a 12cm astrograph and a 63cm telescope mirror were purchased. The research work and teaching at Kaunas University observatory were carried out by Paulius Slavenas (1901-1991) and Antanas Juska (1902-1985).

AO in the second half of the 20th century
After World War II activities of Lithuanian astronomers resumed at the Astronomical Observatory of the Vilnius University. The Kaunas Observatory had been destroyed during the war. The instruments that survived were transferred to the Vilnius Observatory. Prof. Paulius Slavenas became the head of the observatory (1944-1952, 1956-1969). He took special care about training a new generation of astronomers as well as restoration and renovation of the telescopes and instrumentation of the AO. In 1957-1962 a number of instruments (the 12 cm and 16 cm astrographs, 25 cm and 48 cm reflectors and the slitless Zeiss spectrograph) were restored and renovated by joint efforts of young astronomers from the AO and the Institute of Physics and Mathematics. At the same time investigation of variable stars was commenced at the AO. Photometric and spectrophotometric observations of stars carried out in 1960-1962 showed that it was impossible to make high precission astronomical measurements from the site of the AO due to sky pollution by the city dust, smoke and lights. In those years the idea emerged to move the telescopes to the country. It is important to note that a group of astronomers under Vytautas Straizys, of the Institute of Physics and Mathematics, developed the so-called Vilnius photometric system which was effectively applied for the study of physical properties of stars, interstellar matter and galactic structure. Successful introduction of this system impelled astronomers of the AO to go over to application of photometry in their research. It was decided to use the 48 cm reflector for photometric observations of stars, and in 1968 this telescope was moved to Simeis observatory (Crimea) where it was in use up to 1973. Later it was moved to Maidanak observing site (Uzbekistan) renowned for its excellent astroclimate. In 1969 the 25 cm telescope was moved to Moletai observatory, the observing site of the Institute of Physics and Mathematics. It was used for stellar photometry up to 1974, and afterwards it was dismounted. In 1974 the 63cm reflector was put in operation at Moletai observatory. Eventually, the AO became involved in design and construction of photometric equipment for telescopes and in the study of variable stars, physical properties of stars and interstellar matter and the structure of the Galaxy. In 1960-1992, in collaboration with the Institute of Physics and Mathematics, AO published the periodical Bulletin of  the Vilnius Astronomical Observatory.
The heads of observatories after Worlf War II were: Bernardas Kodatis (1941-1944), Paulius Slavenas (1944-1952 and 1956-1969), Borisas Voronkovas (1952-1956), Alfonsas Misiukas-Misiūnas (1969-1978), Romualdas Kalytis (1978-1992), Jokūbas Sūdžius (1992-2008), Vladas Vansevičius (2008-2017).

The observatory was abolished in 2017 by rector Artūras Žukauskas.