Rumovsky, Stepan Yakovlevich

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(b. Stary Pogost, near Vladimir, Russia, 9 November 1734; d. St. Petersburg, Russia, 18 July 1812)

astronomy, mathematics, geodesy.

Rumovsky was the son of a priest. In 1739, after the family moved to St. Petersburg, he entered the Aleksander Nevsky Seminary, where he studied for nine years. In 1748 Rumovsky was one of four students chosen to study at the university of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, where he heard Lomonosov lecture in chemistry, Richmann in mathematics and physics, and Nikita Popov in astronomy. In 1750 Rumovsky decided to specialize in mathematics and two years later presented a work that dealt with the use of tangents to find a straight line equal to the arc of an ellipse. In 1753 Rumovsky became adjunct of the Academy of Sciences after having submitted to it a work in which he offered a solution to the problem, posed by Kepler, of finding a semiordinate for a given sector. In his review of this paper, Euler noted the author’s gift for mathematics. Rumovsky continued his mathematical education under Euler for two years, living in his house in Berlin and working under his direction.

After returning to St. Petersburg, Rumovsky held various posts at the Academy of Sciences. In 1760 he was sent to A. N. Grischow. He lived with Grischow in St. Petersburg and in his well-furnished observatory “became skilled in astronomical practice.” In 1761 he took part in an expedition to Selenginsk in Transbaikalia, to observe the transit of Venus.

After Lomonosov’s death, Rumovsky succeeded him as director of the geographical department of the St. Petersburg Academy, holding the post from 1766 to 1805; he also headed the astronomical observatory of the Academy from 1763. An active participant in the expedition to observe the 1769 transit of Venus, Rumovsky supervised the preparations of the observers, the choice of sites, and the building of temporary observatories. In connection with the latter problem he corresponded with James Short and with Euler. Rumovsky himself observed the transit on the Kola Peninsula. Having analyzed all the observations from both transits, he calculated the value of the solar parallax as 8.67″—he came nearer than any of his contemporaries to the presently accepted value (8.79″).

Participating in a number of expeditions, Rumovsky determined the longitude and latitude of various sites, then compiled the first summary catalog of the astronomically determined coordinates of sixty-two sites in Russia. The Berliner astronomisches Jahrbuch for 1790 published fifty-seven determinations from Rumovsky’s catalog-thirtynine for European Russia and eighteen for Siberia. Prior to Rumovsky’s work, only seventeen complete determinations had been made. According to W. Struve, Rumovsky’s determinations were “distinguished by a precision remarkable for that time, the probable error in longitude not exceeding 32 seconds or 8′ of arc.”

Rumovsky’s more than fifty basic scientific works cover astronomy, geodesy, mathematics, and physics. Like Lomonosov, his interests included a profound study of the Russian language and literature. In 1783 he became a member of the Russian Academy. Especially valuable was his activity in the translation and compilation of the first etymological dictionary of the Russian Academy (6 vols., 1789–1794), for which he received its gold medal.

Rumovsky began teaching in 1757 at the university of the St. Petersburg Academy, where he lectured in mathematics and in theoretical and practical astronomy. In 1763 he was appointed extraordinary professor of astronomy and, in 1767, professor of astronomy and an honorary member of the Academy of Sciences. From 1800 to 1803 he was a vice-president of the Academy of Sciences. In 1803 he became a member of the Main School Administration Board, which was charged with introducing educational reforms. In the same year Rumovsky also became superintendent of the Kazan educational district. In his effort to create a university at Kazan and, more specifically, to establish a physics and mathematics faculty, he recruited J. J. von Littrow from Austria for the department of astronomy. The university was opened in 1804.


I. Original Works. Rumovsky’s basic writings are “Rassuzhdenie o kometakh (v svyazi s poyavleniem komety Galleya)” (“Reflections on Comets [in Connection With the Appearance of Halley’s Comets]”), in Ezhemesyachnye sochinenia k polze i uveseleniyu sluzhashchie, 6 (1757), 40–53; Sokrashchenia matematiki … (rukovodstvo dlya gimnazistov) (“Abridged Mathematics [Text for Gymnasium Students]”; St. Petersburg, 1760); Rech o nachale i prirashchenii optiki do nyneshnikh vremen … (“Speech on the Beginning and Growth of Optics to Our Time … “; St. Petersburg, 1763); Investigatio parallaxeos solis ex observatione transitus Veneris per discum solis Selenginski habita … (St. Petersburg, 1764); the translation of Euler’s Pisma o raznykh fizicheskikh i ,filosofskikh materiakh … (“Letters on Various Physical and Philosophical Matters …”), 3 vols. (St. Petershurg, 1768–1774); and “Nablyudenia nad prokhozhdeniem Venery cherez disk solntsa 23 maya v Kole …” (“Observations on the Transit of Venus Across the Sun’s Disk 23 May in Kola …”), in Novye Kommentarii Peterburgskoy Akademii nauk (1769), 111–153.

See also Yavleniu Venery v solntse v Rossyskoy imperii v 1769 godu uchinennye s istoricheskim preduvedomleniem (“Observations on the Phenomenon of Venus and the Sun. Made in the Russian Empire in 1769, With Historical Notice”; St. Petersburg, 1771); Tablitsy s pokazaniem shiroty i dolgoty mest Rossyskoy imperii cherez nablyndenia [astronomicheskie] opredelennye … (“Tables With Indications of the Latitude and Longitude of Places in the Russian Empire Determined Through [Astronomical] Observations … St. Petersburg, 1780); translation of F. T. Schubert, Rukovodstvo k astronomicheskim nablyudeniam, sluzhashchim k opredeleniyu dolgoty i shiroty mest (“Handbook for Astronomical Observations Used for the Determination of Longitude and Latitude of Places”; St. Petersburg, 1803); and Letopis Kornelia Tatsita (“Chronicles of Cornelius Tacitus”). 4 pts. (St. Petersburg, 1806–1809), containing a Latin text and Russian trans. of Tacitus’ Annals and two articles by Rumovsky: “Izvestia o zhizni Tatsita” (“Notes on the Life of Tacitus”) and “Kratkoe izyasnenie nekotorykh slov, vstrechayushchikhsya v Letopisi Kornelia Tatsita” (“Brief Explanation of Certain Words Encountered in the Annuls of Cornelius Tacitus”).

II. Secondary Literature. See V. V. Bobylin, “S. Y. Rumovsky,” in Russky biografichesky slovar (“Russian Biographical Dictionary”). XVII (1918), 441–450; V. L. Chenakal, “James Short i russkaya astronomia XVIII v.” (“James Short and Russian Astronomy in the Eighteenth Century”), in Istoriko-astronomicheskie issledovania (1959), no. 5, 76–82; S. F. Ogorodnikov, “Tri astronomicheskie observatorii v Laplandii” (“Three Astronomical Observatories in Lapland”), in Russkaya starina, 33 (Jan. 1882), 177–187; V. E. Prudnikov, Russki pedagogi-matematiki XVIII–XIX vekov (“Russian Teacher-Mathematicians of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries”; Moscow, 1956), 84–101; W. Struve, “Obzor geograficheskikh rabot v Rossii” (“Survey of Geographical Work in Russia”), in Zapiski Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva (1849), nos. 1 2, 23–35; and A. P. Youschkevitch. “Euler i russkaya matematika v XVIII veke” (“Euler and Russian Mathematics in the Eighteenth Century”), in Trudy Instituta istorii estestvoznania, 3 (1949), 104–108.

P. G. Kulikovsky