WFS History

A brief History of Astronomy in Berlin
and the Wilhelm-Foerster-Observatory

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) arranged with the support of electoress Sophie Charlotte the establishment of a scientific foundation in Berlin/Brandenburg in the year 1700 AD, the "Societaet der Wissenschaften", of which he became the first president.
The first astronomer of the foundation became Gottfried Kirch (1639-1710) who did his observations at the private observatory of the privy councillor von Kroseck (see above). Kirch got help from his son Christfried and his wife Maria Margareta (1670-1720), who discovered the Comet of 1702. The building of the private observatory remained until 1905 within the former Berlin district Neu Coelln. Then it was removed in favor for an office building.

The royal stable and the observatory, aquarelle by L.L. Mueller, 1824
Under management of the society of sciences at the beginning 18th century the (old) Berlin Observatory was build within the Dorotheen municipal in the Marstall (the royal stable, see above). At January the 15th, 1711 the first meeting of the society took place within the five floor tower at the Letzte Str. (since 1822 Dorotheenstr., 1949-1995 Clara-Zetkin-Str., then Dorotheenstr. again). The society was replaced 1744 by the "Preussische Akademie der Wissenschaften", the prussian academy of sciences, founded by Friedrich II., called Friedrich The Great or The Old Fritz.

The astronomical institute relating to the observatory was financed totally by the proceeds of the monopoly for calendar calculation until 1811. In this period among others Johann Bernoulli III. (1744-1807 astronomer and mathematician), Leonhard Euler (1707-1783 mathematician, appointed by the king Friedrich II. to the Berlin academy of sciences), Joseph Louis Lagrange (1736-1812, discoverer of the gravitational stable points within the orbits of two orbiting bodies, called Lagrange Points or Libration Points), Johann Heinrich Lambert (1728-1777, founder of the Berlin Astronomical Annuals, written from 1774 to 1959), Johann Elert Bode (1747-1826, writer of the star atlas "Uranographia" done from 1797 to 1801 cartographing 17240 stars, including 1250 own observations), and Johann Franz Encke (1791-1865, astronomer) were engaged with astronomy at the academy of sciences, where Encke as Bode and Bernoulli became director of the observatory.

The New Observatory with the Magnetical House, oil painting by Carl Daniel Freydanck (1811-1887), 1838
Encke followed 1825 the call to Berlin. He demanded a new observatory building from the king by the advice of Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), who was also member of the academy of sciences and founder and promoter of popular science efforts in Berlin. Humboldt influenced Friedrich Wilhelm III. successfully to give Berlin the best thinkable observatory under the condition that it should be open to the public on two evenings in the week for education and stimulation. By Humboldts influence to the king Encke was also abled to buy costly astronomical devices, where a 20000 Taler expensive 9" Fraunhofer refractor was the biggest optical system (see below). Architect of the New Observatory between the Berlin-Kreuzberg Lindenstr. and Friedrichstr. near the Belle-Alliance-Platz was Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841). The fundament of the astronomical center part of the building was separated from the overall cross formed building and the dome with eight meter in diameter was turnable.

April the 24th 1835 Encke moved into the New Observatory with his assistant Johann Gottfried Galle (1812-1910, astronomer). In May of the same year the astronomer and mathematician Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel (1784-1846), who was born in Minden and called from Koenigsberg, occupied "Das Magnetische Haeuschen" on the area of the observatory. Bessel, who was director of the Koenigsberg observatory from 1810 until his death 1846, managed 1838 for the first time by means of exact aberration numbers and trigonometric parallax calculation the determination of the distance of a fixstar (61 Cygni with 0.32" = ca. 10ly).

1837 Encke discovered the thin division within the A ring of Saturn, which was called after him. One year later Galle discovered the inner fade C ring of Saturn. Galle also discovered the planet Neptune at the 23rd of September 1846 based on calculations of the Paris astronomer Urbain Leverrier (1811-1877).

Beside of this spectacular actions, calculation, observation, and discovery of asteroids and comets were the main tasks of the New Observatory. Encke calculated the orbit of the according to him named Encke Comet which was discovered by Pons and which 3.3 year solar orbit is placed between Jupiter and Mercury. The New Observatory was in operation until 1913 and then instantly removed. The 9" Fraunhofer refractor had moved to the "Deutsches Museum" in Munich, where it could be visited.

Karl Foerster, Wilhelm Foerster, Friedrich-Wilhelm Foerster, photo, around 1920
Encke employed several more assistants within the following years, like the astronomer Wilhelm Foerster (1832-1921) who was born in Gruenberg and educated in Bonn. He made his PhD with the polar hight measurement of Bonn by means of a passage instrument and error calculation. In Berlin he discovered 1860 the asteroid no. 62 Erato together with Oskar Lesser. Foerster was director of the Berlin observatory from 1865 until 1903, also director of the general gauge commission since 1868, and since 1875 professor at the Berlin University. He did not became member of the academy of sciences.

The job as the first astronomer of the academy got Arthur von Auwers (1838-1915). He build a fundamental system of fixstar positions, did measurements of the sun parallax from Venus passings, and he co-initiated the academy project "History of the Starry Sky" (which ran 1900-1965).

1871 Wilhelm Foerster proposed the building of a solar watch tower, which evolved 1879 to the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory, the first of its kind. First director of the astrophysical observatory became 1882 Hermann Carl Vogel (1841-1907), who proved 1887 the Doppler Shift within the stellar spectrum. Wilhelm Foerster founded 1874 the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut (institute for astronomical calculation, after WWII moved to Heidelberg) and under his direction of the observatory 1888 Friedrich Kuestner (1856-1930) showed the waving of the polar height of the earth which is originated by inner movements of the earth. According to this discovery Foerster founded the still existing International Latitude Service, which is a connection of several international observatories, measuring the polar height shift.
Urania building, photo from about 1900

Bamberg refractor, photo Einsporn, WFS, 1996
In the same year 1888 by the suggestion of Foerster and with the financial help of Werner von Siemens the popular science institution "Urania Society" was created. The building of the Urania was completed 1889. It hosted the worlds first peoples observatory - i.e. not driven by a single private person or government and open to the public - founded and co-leaded by Wilhelm Foerster and Wilhelm M. Meyer (1853-1910, astronomer, in the Berlin slang called "Urania-Meyer"), where part of its equipment was the 12" refractor done by the Berlin-Friedenau firm of the instrument builder Carl Bamberg (see above). The refractor was one and a half time larger than the refractor of the New Observatory and the second largest refractor in Germany at its time.

Friedrich S. Archenhold, Fred Archenhold, Guenther Archenhold, photo 1936
First astronomer of the popular observatory of the Urania became 1889 Friedrich Simon Archenhold (1861-1939). He erected an external observation within the Berlin Grunewald, where he discovered the nowadays California nebula called gas nebula near Xi-Persei 1891. But this discovery was not ranked as a first discovery.

1894-1899 Bruno H. Buergel (1875-1948) was working at the Urania observatory. Later he became author of many popular science books on astronomy.

Because of the quarrels about the California nebular Archenhold planned to build the most powerful telescope of earth. Officially this plans were mentioned 1893 for the first time. But also the Potsdam astrophysical observatory was planning for a new telescope, so that Archenhold didn't get any governmental money for his plans.

Wood building of the Archenhold observatory with telescope, photo around 1900
So he build by means of donations after managing many difficulties the today still longest preserved lens telescope with a focal distance of 21m in Berlin-Treptow in 1896 during the Berlin Trade Exhibition. The observatory was inaugurated in September, although this event was planned for the start of the exhibition in May. With the telescope Archenhold founded a second popular observatory within the same town. 1910 the provisorical wood building within the Treptow park was replaced by a stone building.

Although his position as a prussian offical Foerster was also a critic against the foreign policy of Bismarck and before WWI signer of a call to the European community together with Albert Einstein and other german scientists. He experienced the end of the WWI and died January the 18th 1921 in Bornim.

Berlin, planetarium at the zoological garden, postcard at around 1930
1926 the dumb-bell shaped Zeiss-Planetarium, developed by Walther Bauersfeld 1924, was installed near zoo train station within a dome building, which was inaugurated November the 17th 1926. It was used in the following time span like the Treptow observatorium for school-children education.

1931 after his 70th Birthday Friedrich S. Archenhold gave the administration of the observatory to his son Guenther Archenhold. 1936 the Treptow observatory got owned by the this time national socialistic city of Berlin. Guenther Archenhold immigrated to the Suisse, while his doughter and his mother died within the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. Friedrich S. Archenhold died 1939 shortly after the start of WWII.

Within the war in Berlin astronomy was nearly nonexistent. Planetarium and the building of the Urania society were destroyed within WWII. The Archenhold observatory got seriously damaged.

Berlin, Wilhelm-Foerster-Institute, photo 1947
The Berlin amateur astronomer Hans Rechlin and Hans Muehle founded 1947 in the range of the city train station Papestr. the Wilhelm-Foerster-Institute. There in Berlin-Tempelhof the Bamberg refractor of the Urania observatory was installed first. Most of the other conserved astronomical devices of the Urania observatory were moved to the Babelsberg astrophysical observatory and to the Treptow peoples observatory once founded by Simon Archenhold.

1953 the Wilhelm-Foerster-Institute became the Wilhelm-Foerster-Observatory and the first scientific director became Adolph Kunert. After the wall in 1961 there was no greater astronomical facility in the west sectors of Berlin, and so the new observatory building, concepted by Hans Bassen, was build until 1963 at the top of the 78m high "Insulaner", which was raised from remnants of WWII. This "mountain" is placed in Berlin-Schoeneberg near the city train station Priesterweg. At the inauguration ceremony the 89 years old biologist and son of Wilhelm Foerster, Karl Foerster, was guest. The Bamberg refractor was installed within the main dome of the building. At the 18th of June 1965 the new great Zeiss planetarium in front of the Insulaner got established.

Berlin, Planetarium at the Insulaner, photo -- jd --, fall 1995
Since 1969 the observatory is hosting the satellite observation place of the Technical University of Berlin, where TUBSAT-A, launched as a secondary Ariane playload July the 17th 1991 from Guiane Space Center, was contacted by small radio equipment.

Berlin, Wilhelm-Foerster-Observatory, photo -- jd --, fall 1995
At the end of the 80ies a computer directed 75cm Zeiss-RC reflector with a focal length of 5.8m was added to the Bamberg refractor into a different dome as a second large telescope, financed by donations of the Berlin lottery society. 1990 the planetarium building was expanded with a library rondell, which was also payed by means of the Berlin lottery society, inaugurated in March 1990, and which holds astronomy related literature, beside others specimen of the Herschel nebular catalogs of 1786, 1789, and 1802.

At the end of 1996 the Bamberg refractor was dismounted and renovated by an optical firm at Jena. The telescope was reinaugurated at the 50 year anniversary of the Wilhelm-Foerster-Observatory in July 1997. The renovation was also enabled by means of the lottery society.


Eberhard Knobloch
"Astronomie" in "Wissenschaft in Berlin - Disziplinen"
covering volume to the exhibition "Der Kongress denkt"
Tilmann Buddensieg, Kurt Duewell, and Klaus-Juergen Sembach (Eds.)
Gebr. Mann-Verlag 1987

Hans-Werner Kluenner, Helmut Boersch-Suppan
"Berlin Archiv"
"Hauptstadt des Brandenburgischen Kurstaates", B02011
"Stadt der Preussischen Koenige", B03073
"Unter buergerlicher Selbstverwaltung", B04123
Archiv Verlag 1985

Dr. Karl-Friedrich Hoffmann
"30 Jahre Planetarium am Insulaner"
in "AllZeit 3'95"
Wilhelm-Foerster-Sternwarte e.V. Berlin 1995

Wolfgang Meyer, Jochen Rose
"Die Bibliothek der Wilhelm-Foerster-Sternwarte e.V."
in "Veranstaltungen im Maerz, April, Mai 1992 mit Himmelskalender"
Wilhelm-Foerster-Sternwarte e.V. Berlin 1992

Prof. Dr. Dieter B. Herrmann
"Blick in das Weltall - Die Geschichte der Archenhold-Sternwarte"
Paetec Ges. f. Bildung und Technik, 1. Auflage, Berlin 1994

A general History of Astronomy...

To homepage of the WFS...