Niesten, Jean Louis Nicolas

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(b. Vise, Liege, Belgium, 4 July 1844; d. Laeken, Brussels, Belgium, 27 December 1920)


Niesten initially made a career in the military, where he served as a captain in the artillery. He wrote two textbooks on ’military science: Artillerie. Passage des rivières(Brussels, 1876) and Précis des connaissances exigées des offtciers sortis des cadres et des soits-officiers de l’artillerie par les programmes de 1876. In 1877 he resigned from the service, and Jean Charles Houzeau, director of the Brussels observatory, appointed him assistant astronomer. In 1878 he was promoted to full astronomer, and he became chef de service in 1884.

Niesten was particularly interested in planetary astronomy, and in 1882 he was appointed chief of the Belgian mission to Santiago, Chile, to observe the transit of Venus. Houzeau himself directed another mission to Texas. (This was the first time Belgium officially participated in an international astronomical expedition). In contrast with the mission to Texas, Niesten had favorable weather and was able to make useful observations. His report on the expedition was published in 1884. In 1887 he traveled to Yurievets, Russia, to observe the total solar eclipse. Niesten was a systematic observer, and many of his articles were concerned with the physical aspects of the planets: the “canals” on Mars (he claimed also to have seen rivers) and the red spot on Jupiter. He also subscribed to the now discredited theory of the daily nutation of the earth. Most of his astronomical observations appeared in the various publications of the Brussels observatory between 1878 and 1900. Niesten was one of the founders of the journal Ciel et terre, which first appeared in 1880; he contributed more than seventy articles, all of a semipopular nature, between 1880 and 1899


A complete bibliography of Niesten’s works has been compiled by A. Collard, in ciel terre,38 (1922), 330–338,400–406;39 (1923)21 -23, 41- 44, 62 -68, 86–89.

Niesten’s report on the 1882 expedition is “Passage de Venus du 6 décembre 1882,” in Annuaire de l’observatoire de Bruxelles, 51 (1884)

Lettie S. Multhauf