The sciences in Tartu in the 19th century

Theology did not hinder the development of celestial science: through the ages, up to the present day, astronomy has occupied an eminent position in Tartu. The historical observatory on Toomemägi (constructed in 1810), where the biggest telescope of the world was installed in 1824, has been a working environment for scientists who have made considerable contributions to the expanding of our knowledge about outer space.

At the top of the list, the researcher of binary stars Friedrich Georg Wilhelm Struve (1793-1864), who later became the director of the Pulkovo observatory, a leading observatory of that time in Russia, should be mentioned.

A unique ‘virtual’ memorial, which is a part of the UNESCO world heritage, is the arc measurement along the Tartu meridian – there was such a one besides those of Greenwich and Pulkovo - from the Arctic Ocean to the mouth of the Danube, organised by Struve from 1822 to 1827. Johann Heinrich Mädler (1794-1874) was dedicated to the study of the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way, being one of the pioneers in that sphere. He was also a leading selenologist of his time. Alongside astronomy, mathematics was developed in Tartu, dominated by an interest in geometry. Probably the best known mathematician was Ernst Ferdinand Adolf Minding (1806-1885), who elaborated Gauss's theory of surfaces.

With the support of the mathematical aspects, meteorology as a field of science won recognition for Tartu. The author of one of the first meteorology textbooks, Friedrich Ludwig Kämtz (18101-1867), had a significant influence on the future science with his works. In 1918, Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), the founder of the theory of continental drift and the author of a theory about cyclones, who was the first to suggest the theory of the meteoric origin of Lake Kaali (a small lake in Saaremaa), worked for a short while in the so-called Landesuniversität, established by German occupation forces.

The most significant physicist in the czarist Tartu University was obviously its first rector, Georg Friedrich Parrot (1767-1852), who furnished a cabinet of physics, which has been preserved to our days, and which, it appears, later generations have seen no need to modernise. This fact may seem to imply stagnation, but it does not mean that men who today are remembered in the history of physics were lacking in Tartu. It must be admitted here that many men who have remained in the chronicles of the history of science did not find enough challenges in Tartu and many noteworthy scientists left for the East or West. One of the inventors of the electric motor, Moritz Hermann Jacobi (1801-1874), who was a teacher of civil construction in Tartu, left his mark on Toomemägi Hill in Tartu as the architect of the Angel's Bridge. Heinrich Friedrich Emil Lenz (1804-1865) was born in Tartu, but the major part of his research in electromagnetism was carried out in St Petersburg.

Chemical sciences were more represented than physics in Tartu during the 19th century. It was in Tartu that Moritz Hermann Jacobi laid the foundation for electroforming and Ivan Kondakov (1857-1931) first produced artificial kautchuk. The only member of the university staff who has won the Nobel Prize, Wilhelm Ostwald (1853-1932), was born in Riga and worked mainly in Riga and Germany after his studies. He was one of the founders of physical chemistry. This disciple of Ostwald Gustav Tammann (1861-1938), whose father was Estonian, and whose early works, in line with the local school, were connected with physiology, is a founder and developer of physical-chemical analysis, an extensive field which is widely recognised today.

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