The observatory shall be a house, “from which a new light shall continuously shine out and ever
new findings shall always find their way to each individual among the people.”

Friedrich Simon Archenhold, Das Weltall 9, 1908/09

Short life history: Friedrich Simon Archenhold

* 2. October 1861 Lichtenau / Westfalen, † 14. October 1939 Berlin

The astronomer Friedrich Simon Archenhold was born in Lichtenau / Westphalia on 2 October 1861. After successful completion of the “Realschule 1. Ordnung“ (secondary school, today “Ostendorf-Gymnasium“) in Lippstadt he studied in Berlin and Strasbourg from 1882-1887.

Through the promotion of his former professor, Wilhelm Foerster (1832-1921), Archenhold became first astronomer of the Berlin society Urania in 1889. This society, which was co-founded by Foerster in 1888, had set itself the aim to make scientific knowledge also accessible for the lay public. The strong influence of Foerster led to Archenhold‘s later pursuit of the publication of scientific knowledge and results. It was also Wilhelm Foerster, the director of the observatory in Berlin, who asked Archenhold one year later to come to work for the observatory. Here Archenhold discovered the Perseus Nebula in October 1891, the discovery of which he published in the renowned technical journal Astronomische Nachrichten (Astronomical Notes) under the title, „Ein ausgedehnter Nebel bei ξ Persei” (An expanded nebula near ξ Persei).

1 Friedrich Simon Archenhold, 1931

Because of missing technical means for his work (the publisher of the Astronomische Nachrichten for example did not want to accept the nebula discovered by Archenhold as “new”), Archenhold started among other things to support the construction of a huge telescope in 1893. Because of his plans and in the course of the preparations for the Berlin Trade Fair (1896) the huge telescope with a focal distance of 21m was started to being built! This project was partly financed by donations. The Berlin Trade Fair was opened on 1 May 1896, however, the huge telescope was not finished. It was only finalised under the direction of Archenhold in September 1896.

As consequence of the immense interest of the visitors from the most different levels of the population, after the Trade Fair it was decided to leave the huge telescope as well as the surrounding timber building in Treptow Park. This was the birth of the Public Observatory in the autumn of 1896, which back then was called Treptow Observatory and was renamed in 1946 into Archenhold Observatory, with Archenhold being the director of the observatory from 1896 to1931.

The society Treptow-Sternwarte e. V. was founded in 1898. This society led the observatory under the direction of Archenhold. Thus he was also responsible for the financing and the operation of the observatory. Alongside intensive research work (the sun built a special centre piece of his scientific research), Archenhold held many lectures in the observatory and in 1912 had the idea to use films as medium for the knowledge transfer. In a letter he tried to convince the municipal authorities of Berlin in 1912 that it would be an advantage when school children visited the observatory to show the school children the information also in the form of moving pictures, i.e. via cinematography. Despite the denial of the municipal authorities Archenhold did not give up and was looking for new solutions. Thus he founded the society “Kinematograhische Studiengesellschaft e. V.” on 31 March 1913, among other things with the aim to “… promote the production of scientific school and culture films…”.

The timber construction, which surrounded the telescope at first, was replaced by the current building in 1908/09. The cornerstone for the new building of the observatory was laid on 17 May 1908 and the building was inaugurated on 4 April 1909. Archenhold organised numerous events and a lot of public work in the observatory, which was directed by the society. He held a lecture about Halley‘s Comet in May 1910. This periodic comet, named after the English mathematician and astronomer Edmond Halley (1656-1742), has a period of circulation around the Earth of approximately 76 years.

2 New building for the observatory with the huge telescope, 1909

From 1900 onwards he published the magazine Das Weltall, which was released until 1944 (however, after 1936 no longer under the direction of Archenhold). He undertook many journeys, for example to Algeria, England, Scotland, Spain and Pittsburgh (U.S.), to just name a few. One of his journeys led him to the island of Ven in 1902 to see the remainings of the observatory of the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). Two years later he met the American industrial magnate Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) during his journeys through England and Scotland, who financially supported Archenhold in his research work. Some of the journeys were meant to observe eclipses of the sun and to do research on the nature of sunspots. On a journey through the U.S. in 1907 he also met the American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) and the Canadian astronomer and mathematician Simon Newcomb (1835-1909). The Western University of Pennsylvania granted him the honorary doctorate.

Because of the broadly based public relations of the observatory and the research work the construction of an astronomical special library and an astronomy museum in the rooms of the observatory was an important matter for Archenhold. Thus in the library almost all astronomical books of the 19th century were available without exception, as well as were the standard works of the history of astronomy. The same applied to technical journals and popular scientific books.

Though Archenhold did a big amount of the public lecture programme on his own, he could win numerous renowned scientists and researchers to hold lectures in the observatory. Amongst them were the geologist Alfred Wegener (1880-1930), the polar researchers Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) and Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1928) and the space pioneer Hermann Oberth (1894-1989). The most important academic was without any doubt the physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955), who held his first public lecture on the theory of relativity on June 2, 1915.

As war opponent Archenhold sympathised with the Bund Neues Vaterland founded in 1914. In 1925 he became director of Panterra – a society for international projects of peaceful large-scale research, with professor Wolfgang Kapp (1858-1922) as first chairman and the rocket engineer Rudolf Nebel (1894-1978) as second chairman. Shortly after the coming to power of the Nazis the society was forbidden.

For a more effective use and to increase the number of visitors and thus the financing of the observatory, Archenhold was again and again looking for new ideas. Thus for example his idea of the “Treptower Marsausstellung” (Treptow Mars exhibition) from 1926/27. The occasion for this project, i.e. the exhibition, was the approach of planet Mars to Earth (Mars opposition). The exhibition, which was opened on 7 November 1926, was so well visited that it was prolonged by three months.

Archenhold became honorary chairman of the “Berliner Flugverein” (Aviation Society Berlin) on 17 July 1928, which had set itself the aim to “promote all aviation in each direction”. In 1931, on his 70th birthday, Archenhold quit his office as director of the observatory and forwarded it to his son Günter Archenhold (1904-1999). In 1936 the Jewish direction of the observatory became unbearable for the Nazis. Archenhold and his son Günter were forbidden to further publish the magazine Das Weltall. Günter Archenhold was replaced as director of the observatory. He could manage to flee to Zurich, where he graduated at the university. He emigrated to England in 1939.

Friedrich Simon Archenhold died shortly after his 78th birthday in Berlin on 14 October 1939. With the coming to power of the Nazis began also the expulsion of his Jewish family. Archenhold‘s wife and employee Alice and his daughter Hilde died in the concentration camp Theresienstadt. His sons Günter and Horst could manage to emigrate to England.

Illustrations Credits:
Courtesy of the Archenhold-Sternwarte Berlin-Treptow: 1, 2


Dieter B. Herrmann

Blick in das Weltall
Die Geschichte der Archenhold-Sternwarte

Berlin 1994