Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory

The Observatory

The new science of Astrophysics came into being in the later half of the 19. century, pioneered by Kirchoff and Bunsen in Heidelberg, and the first institution in the world specifically dedicated to this new science was the Potsdam Astrophysical Observatory, instituted in 1874.

Originally research was split between Potsdam town (under Spörer) and the Berlin Observatory in Kreuzberg (under Vogel) before the observatory building itself was finally finished in 1879. The building has three domes - the central dome contained the largest telescope, a smaller telescope was contained in the western dome, and the eastern dome contained Spörer's telescope and was used for solar research. The site chosen was on the Telegrafenberg, on the south side of Potsdam, to allow a clear view southwards. The hill had received its name because it was previously the site of a relay station on the optical telegraph to Koblenz.

It was originally planned that Gustav Kirchoff would be the director of the Astrophysical Observatory. He had been appointed professor of Mathematical Physics at Berlin University but turned down the post of director at Potsdam. For a short period the observatory was run by a committee before the appointment of Hermann Carl Vogel as director in 1882.

Great Refraktor, Potsdam

From 1890, plans were laid for a larger telescope to study weaker objects and in 1899, the Observatory started using this Great Refractor , actually a double refractor with lenses of 80 cm. and 50 cm, housed in a separate building and which, at that time, was the largest refractor in the World, mounted in a 24 m. diameter dome. A reflector was really required but the technology of the time could not deliver a suitable instrument. Furthermore the refractor produced disappointing results initially but was improved greatly by modifications carried out in 1914 by the as-yet-unknown optical worker, Bernhard Schmidt. Simultaneous with these developments, an adjacent residential building was modified as a solar observatory.


To reach the observatory you have to head southwards from the town center, towards a hill dominated by the Landtag (parliament) building (Potsdam is the capital of Brandenburg). You turn off the main road onto Albert Einstein Straße which, once you have eventually found it, takes you past the Landtag, and eventually to the Albert Einstein Scientific Park. There is a small kiosk if you require any information, and a small climb takes you to where the three main buildings of the Astrophysical Observatory are grouped together. In this out-of-the-way setting, it seems incredible that the Observatory should have suffered a direct hit from a bomb.