A Walk Around Gdańsk for Physicists
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I provide a guide to Gdańsk (Danzig) and some of its suburbs, focusing on sites of particular interest to physicists. These include the Town Hall with the old Gdańsk standards of length at its entrance, the solar dial of 1588 on its corner, and its bell tower; the Naturalists Society; the medieval harbor crane; the medieval astronomical clock in St. Mary’s Church; the late nineteenth-century lighthouse and time ball; and sites associated with Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687), Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686–1736), and Daniel Gralath (1708–1767). I also comment on the history of and physical research being carried out today at the Technical University of Gdańsk and the University of Gdańsk.
KeywordsNicolaus Copernicus Johannes Hevelius Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit Daniel Gralath Naturalists Society Technical University of Gdańsk University of Gdańsk solar dial astronomical clock harbor crane lighthouse history of Gdańsk history of physics
A Glimpse into History
Gdańsk (Danzig) is a large harbor city on the Baltic Sea more than one thousand years old.1 It is renowned for its beauty and dramatic history. For over seven centuries it was under the rule of Poland, enjoyed considerable autonomy, and attracted many German, Dutch, French, Scottish, and other immigrants who became merchants, artisans, and workers, and remained faithful to Poland in difficult times, for example, by supporting the city during the war with Albrecht von Hohenzollern (1490–1568) in 1519–1525 and with Sweden between 1600 and 1629, and in defending King Stanisław Leszczyński (1677–1766) when Gdańsk was besieged by the Russians in 1734. During the second partition of Poland in 1793, the resistance of Gdańsk citizens delayed the capture of the city by the Prussians. Napoleon declared Gdańsk to be a Free City in 1807, but after his downfall it again was annexed by Prussia (Germany, after its unification in 1871). Several decades of stagnation followed, after which it experienced new development.
Gdańsk again became a Free City after the Great War of 1914–1918—and a bone of contention between Poland and Germany. Two decades later, World War II began with the German attack on the Polish Munition Depot on the Gdańsk harbor (Westerplatte). The war ended with the almost complete destruction of the historic inner city by the Soviet army in battles and just thereafter. After the war, Gdańsk was thoroughly reconstructed, is now as beautiful as ever, and attracts millions of tourists annually. Its ethnic character changed over time, but its spirit of freedom did not, even when it was under communist rule. Everyone knows that Gdańsk was the birthplace of the Solidarity movement whose ramifications led to the peaceful restoration of freedom in Eastern and Central European nations.
Gdańsk can be reached by plane, train, ship, or car, and has many hotels and other accommodations. Guidebooks describe its natural beauty and historical monuments and sites. I focus on those of particular interest to physicists, and extend a warm invitation to all to visit this unique city.
Town Hall and Standards of Length
The 1588 Solar Dial
There is much to see inside the Town Hall, including the splendid Red Chamber dating to the end of the 16th century, which is reminiscent of chambers in Venetian palaces, and the medieval frescoes in the Small Christopher Room. If you have the time (and strength) to climb the hundreds of stairs to the balcony of the tower, the effort is worth it, as the view from there is enchanting. On the way up, you can look at the keyboards of the famous carillon, which has 37 bells and is the worthy successor of the first one of 1561, which had 14 bells, all of which were cast in Holland.3 The old bells were programmed by pins on a weight-driven rotating drum that was set in motion by the tower clock mechanism each hour on the hour. As the drum revolved, the pins raised the bell hammers by means of bars and wires, and when they dropped the bells played in a preset sequence. The tunes they played were recorded in the tower books by indicating the positions of the pins on the drum. I and a group of musicians from the Gdańsk Academy of Music managed to decipher them, so we now can listen to the old tunes played on the new bells, which are recorded on chips that control the electromagnetically driven hammers. The tunes are changed every week. There also is a special counter, with a manual and pedal that carillon virtuosi use to give regularly scheduled concerts.
Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit
Mr. Fahrenheit Shewed a Curious small Double Thermometer of his own invention, it was about 4 inches in Length and had two Tubes one of Quicksilver and the other of Spirit of Wine, which were fitted to a Silver frame and adjusted to a common Scale being so Contrived as to Stand at the same Common height and rise and fall Equally.5
Fahrenheit also discovered and measured the changes in the freezing and boiling points of water with atmospheric pressure. Further, he invented the cascade method of cooling, and hence may be regarded as a pioneer of cryogenics, having reached a record low temperature of 40 degrees below zero (which is identical on both the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales) in 1730. The Fahrenheit monument in the Long Market is unique: it has the shape of a meteorological station with an enlarged copy of a lost 1752 Gdańsk thermometer connected to an aneroid barometer–one of the first in the world. The temperature can be read in both Fahrenheit and Celsius degrees, and the pressure in millimeters of mercury and—as a modern addition—in hectopascals. A memorial plaque to Fahrenheit is on the rebuilt façade of his birthplace, some 100 meters up the neighboring street, at 95 Ogarna (Hound) Street.
The Seat of the First Physical Society
In the afternoon I spent my time from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m. in the rooms of the Physics Association in the so-called Green Gate, where several members of the truly scientific society and deserving the highest approbation met to show me, with all their patience and kindness, its fantastic natural collection. They are all kept in a beautiful and very large room in perfect order, and at the end of the room there is a very nice space where the Association holds its meetings.10
Unfortunately, this collection was destroyed in the Second World War. The Society has been revived today in Germany as the Naturforschende Gesellschaft, and its traditions are being continued in Gdańsk by the Gdańsk Scientific Society (Gdańskie Towarzystwo Naukowe), which cooperates with its counterpart in Germany.
Medieval Harbor Crane
We now go through the Green Gate and walk to the Green Bridge over the Motława river. Standing on the bridge, we admire the beautiful view of the Old Harbor, which has been marvelously reconstructed after its terrible destruction at the end of the Second World War. Its reconstruction, however, has not yet been completed: The row of famous granaries on the right embankment has not yet regained its unique architectonic shape. They will no longer store grain, but will house hotels, restaurants, museums, offices, and private apartments.
The Naturalists House
Walking along the Long Quay and looking at the water gates, we see a landscape of beautiful façades with terraces (porches) in all styles of the past that were typical of Old Gdańsk. On Chlebnicka (Bread Benches) Street we can admire the English House, a seven–story building constructed in 1570–a Renaissance skyscraper, which reminds us of the more than 800 English merchants who lived in Gdańsk in the 17th and 18th centuries and even had their own Methodist Chapel, which unfortunately no longer exists.
For an entire century, however, from 1845 to 1945, this building was the headquarters of the Naturalists Society. In 1866, the Society built an astronomical observatory on the top of its tower, which was destroyed in the Second World War. Among the Society’s foreign members were such celebrities as Johann Reinhold Forster (1729–1798) who with his son Georg (1754–1794) took part in the second expedition of James Cook (1728–1779) around the world; the polymath Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859); the astronomers Johann (Jean) Bernoulli III (1744–1807), Johann Encke (1791–1865), and Friedrich Struve (1793–1864); the mathematician Friedrich Bessel (1784–1846); and the physicists Hans Christian Oersted (1777–1851) and François Jean Dominique Arago (1786–1853). When the first report on Foucault’s pendulum reached Gdańsk, Society scientists repeated the experiment and announced a prize competition for its explanation. Its winner was Peter Andreas Hansen (1795–1874) from Gotha, who developed equations to describe its motion.11
One of the specialties of the Society was the investigation of amber—Baltic Gold—and of ancient amber-bearing trees. Today, in the old Torture Chamber and Prison Tower at the entrance to Długa (Long) Street, is the Amber Museum with a collection of international significance, including the famous small lizard that was captured in viscous resin—today’s amber—forty million years ago. Amberware is sold in many shops on the Long Quay and Mariacka (St. Mary’s) Street.
Copernicus lived in Frombork (Frauenburg) not far from Gdańsk, and visited Gdańsk on at least four occasions. Moreover, after 1538 the famous Flemish printer Franz Rhode (d. 1559) worked in Gdańsk, so when the young Austrian mathematician Georg Joachim Rheticus (1514–1574) visited Copernicus and obtained his agreement to announce the publication of his heliocentric system, Rheticus went to Rhode, engaging him to print his treatise, the Narratio prima (First Account), which appeared in Gdańsk in 1540, three years prior to the publication of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus in Nuremberg. Rheticus’s Narratio prima contains several valuable biographical details about Copernicus that he had learned directly from the great astronomer. In 1539, while awaiting the publication of his Narratio prima, Rheticus measured the magnetic declination in Gdańsk, finding it to exceed 13° E, which was the third such measurement in the world.
Medieval Astronomical Clock
The ingenious system to indicate the phases of the Moon consists of an external dial that moves together with the Sun’s plate once around the Zodiac in one tropical year, and an internal dial that is connected to the Moon’s plate, which makes one complete revolution in one sidereal month. The internal dial is divided into two fields, black and golden, while the external dial has an oval opening through which part of the surface of the internal dial can be seen. Their combined movements change the proportions of the black and golden fields of the internal dial in the oval opening of the external dial with a periodicity of one synodic month. At New Moon, the field in the oval opening is black; at Full Moon, a serene golden face appears. To construct the mechanism driving the dials, the clockmaker also used the astronomical values in Ptolemy’s Almagest.
There is much else to see in St. Mary’s Church, including 13 gothic altars, 32 epitaphs, and the great organ (from St. John’s Church) bearing on its casing of 1629 the legend of Old and Young Tobias.
Doctors and Philosophers
We now are close to the Market Hall of 1898, but we should not be deceived by its late construction date: In its cellar the foundation of the first St. Nicholas’s Church, which dates to the end of the 12th century, was discovered and can be viewed.
In the Footsteps of Johannes Hevelius
Hevelius was the greatest astronomer in Poland after Copernicus. He studied in Leiden from 1630 and travelled in the following years to England and France where he established contact with leading scientists with whom he corresponded throughout his life (twelve thousand of his letters are preserved in French archives). After returning to Gdańsk, he married and moved from the Right Town, where his parents lived, to the Old Town, where he had a brewery that brought him financial independence and enabled him to devote his life to astronomy. He constructed a large observatory on the roofs of his houses in Korzenna (Pepper) Street that extended over an area of 200 square meters.14 He equipped his observatory with several telescopes, becoming one of the first astronomers in the world to do so, whose focal lengths ranged from 25 to 70 feet, which he began operating systematically in 1641. He tried to set up a 140-foot telescope outside of his observatory, but it was too sensitive to wind currents to be used. He also used older instruments, including a beautiful sextant he had inherited from his teacher Peter Krüger (1580–1639). He became an Alderman and later a Councilor of the Old Town. After 1663 he was assisted by his second wife, Elisabeth Koopman (1647–1693), his junior by 36 years, who may be regarded as the first female astronomer in Poland.15
Hevelius’s prodigious output consists of 19 treatises, 29 dissertations, and 16 volumes of correspondence. His Selenographia, published in 1647, contains precise descriptions and maps of the Moon that were unsurpassed for two centuries. His two-volume Machina Coelestis of 1673 and 1679 describes his instruments and their uses, for example, the use of a micrometer screw to achieve precision settings. He also invented the periscope, which he called a polemoscope. Under his guidance, the clockmaker Wolfgang Günther (ca. 1610-1659) constructed the first pendulum clocks at the same time as did his famous Dutch contemporary Christiaan Huygens (1629–1695).
In 1664 Hevelius became one of the first scientists to be elected as a Foreign Member of the Royal Society of London. A decade and a half later, in 1679, the Royal Society sent the English astronomer Edmond Halley (1656–1743) to Gdańsk to confirm the accuracy of Hevelius’s observations. In 1690, three years after Hevelius died, his widow published his Prodromus Astronomiae, which gave the positions of 1564 stars that he had determined to high accuracy, aa well as his Firmamentum Sobiescianum, which contained 56 maps of the sky with beautiful engravings of constellations to which he had added 9 new ones, for example, Scutum Sobiescianum (Sobieski’s Shield), a name he chose as a means of thanking Polish King Jan III Sobieski (1629–1696) for financial support.
Teachers today take their students on walking tours following in the footsteps of Hevelius. An astronomical observatory has been constructed on the roof of the Autonomous School on Osiek (Abatis) Street, not too far from the ancient Hevelius’s houses. On Grodzisko or Gradowa (Hail) Hill overlooking the Main Railway Station, a center for the popularization of science has been opened for the youth of Gdańsk; it has been named the Hevelianum in honor of the great astronomer of Old Gdańsk.
The Former Academic Gymnasium and Present National Museum
On Bishop Hill overlooking this part of Gdańsk another astronomical observatory was constructed in 1780 by Nathanael Wolf (1724–1784), who was a court doctor for noble Polish families and a member of the Naturalists Society. His observatory acquired a high European reputation for its accurate observational results. It was destroyed by the Russians during the siege of Gdańsk in 1813.
The Technical University of Gdańsk
A second center of physical research, although much younger than the Technical University, is the University of Gdańsk, located in the suburb of Oliwa, which Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) once called the third most beautiful place in the world. The research fields of its Faculty of Mathematics and Physics include atomic and nuclear spectroscopy, acoustics, and astrophysics.
In addition to these universities, a visit to the Cathedral with its famous organ, one of the largest in Poland, is very worthwhile. The Cathedral is also located in Oliwa and formerly was the Cistercian Abbey, founded in 1186, where the monks had a printing shop in which scientific books and papers also were printed. These included the world’s first account of the supercooling of liquid, which the Gdańsk physician Israel Conrad (1634–1715) observed in 1670, and the less-serious Physica Curiosa that the Jesuit Adalbert Tylkowski (his exact birth and death years are unknown) edited in 1680 as Part VI of the Philosophia curiosa, which attracted great interest in Europe. The Abbey’s magnificent park and its surrounding wooded hills and valleys abound in enchanting sights. Also worthwhile is a visit to the Zoological Garden, the largest one in Poland, which is also located in this enchanting district of Gdańsk.
The Lighthouse and Time Ball
Gdańsk’s Baltic sea coast is most attractive; its beautiful sandy beaches are over 20 kilometers long, and walkers can collect amber on them: Not in vain has it always been called the Amber Coast.
The first such society was the Accademia Fisico-Mathematica, founded in Rome in 1667.
I thank Roger H. Stuewer for his thoughtful and careful editorial work on my paper.
This article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which permits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.
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