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Littrow’s Legacy – A Rare Discovery

Jun 24, 2016

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The three co-editors of Littrow’s “History of Astronomy”, Thomas Posch, Karin Lackner and Günter Bräuhofer (left to right). Foto kindly contributed by Universitätssternwarte Wien.


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According to Posch, this original manuscript happened to be found one fine day in the basement of the Sternwarte building, inside the Vienna Observatory. From that point on a long journey of  deciphering its content and authorship had begun. “A document reappearing from out of the basement would suggest that its author had some very close relationship with the observatory, most likely being one of its staff members,” suggests Posch, “and this triggered a long process of comparing the handwritings of likely candidates for the authorship.”

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The book containing one of the major clues to deciphering the author of the unsigned manuscript. In his  “Wonders of The Sky” Littrow is already anticipating the publication of a third part, focusing on the History of Astronomy.

Adding up all the clues, it finally was clear that the author must have been Joseph Johann Edler von Littrow himself, who had been Professor of Astronomy at the Vienna University Observatory (then still located in Vienna’s city center) from 1819 and later became head of this institution until 1842, when his son Karl Ludwig von Littrow took over the position of director. “When we found out who the true author was, we were overjoyed and full of enthusiasm,” says Posch,” but of course the chance that the manuscript might have been a mere translation of somebody else’s work haunted us to the very end of our editing work”.

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Co-editor of Littrow’s “History of Astronomy”, Thomas Posch, signing the book, a work of seven long years until its final publication in June 2016.

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Thomas Posch of the Vienna University Observatory with Catharina Doblhoff

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Thomas Posch with Catharina Doblhoff (center) and Dr. Elisabeth Garms, both descending in direct line from the famous astronomer and author of the discovered manuscript, Joseph Johann Edler von Littrow.


Portrait of Joseph Johann von Littrow (1781–1840) from his 1836 book Physische Astronomie (Physical Astronomy). (Wikipedia)

Portrait of Joseph Johann von Littrow (1781–1840) from his 1836 book Physische Astronomie (Physical Astronomy). (Wikipedia)

“Littrow is a most interesting human being. He is a self-taught astronomer and could gather experience in many different locations, Bischofteinitz (a Czech town), Prague, Krakow, Kazan, Budapest or Vienna, to name but a few. He was not only a scientist, but was also extremely interested in our cultural and intellectual history and he had a vast knowledge in this field as well,” recounts Posch, who has a doctorate in both Astronomy and Philosophy himself, when asked about the meaning of Littrow for his own life.

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A teak showcase used in the original 19th century library of the Observatory is securing a safe place for this precious new book in the eternity of history.

© 2016    All rights reserved.

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