Stepling, Joseph

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(b. Regensburg, Germany, 29 June 1716; d. Prague, Bohemia [now Czechoslovakia], 11 July 1778)

astronomy, physics, mathematics.

Stepling’s father came from Westphalia and was a secretary to the Imperial Embassy at Ratisbon (Regensburg). His mother’s homeland was Bohemia. After his father’s early death, the family moved to Prague. There Stepling began his studies at the Gymnasium run by the Jesuits. He soon demonstrated an extraordinary gift for mathematics, and a certain Father Sykora successfully endeavored to bring out his protégé’s talent. When Stepling was only seventeen he calculated with great accuracy the lunar eclipse of 28 May 1733.

Despite a frail physical constitution, Stepling was admitted to the Jesuit order in 1733. After a biennial novitiate at Brno, he attended a three-year course of philosophy (1735 to 1738). His pupil, and later biographer, Stanislaus Wydra, states that Stepling, even in his early studies, transposed Aristotelian logic into mathematical formulas, thus becoming an early precursor of modern logic. Having already adopted the atomistic conception of matter (hyle), he radically refused to accept Aristotelian metaphysics and natural philosophy (the hylomorphic system). From 1738 to 1741 Stepling was a teacher at the Gymnasiums of Glatz (now Klodzko) and Schweidnitz (now Świdnica). During the period 1741–1743, he devoted himself to special studies in mathematics, physics, and astronomy in Prague. From 1743 to 1747 he studied theology there and in 1745 took holy orders. The last year of his training began a tertianship (special studies of the law of the Jesuit order) in Gitschin (now Jičín), after which he declined a professorship of philosophy at the University of Prague in favor of the chair of mathematics. In 1748, at the request of the Berlin Academy, he carried out an exact observation of a solar and lunar eclipse in order to determine the precise location of Prague.

During Stepling’s long tenure at Prague, he set up a laboratory for experimental physics and in 1751 built an observatory, the instruments and fittings of which he brought up to the latest scientific standard. In 1753 the Empress Maria Theresia, as part of her reform of higher education, appointed Stepling director of the faculty of philosophy at Prague. In this capacity he modernized the entire philosophical curriculum, which in those days embraced the natural sciences. He was particularly intent on cultivating the exact sciences, including physics and astronomy; and, following the example of the Royal Society in London, he founded a scientific study group. In their monthly sessions, over which he presided until his death, the group carried out research work and investigations in the field of pure mathematics and its application to physics and astronomy. A great number of treatises of this academy were published.

Stepling corresponded with the outstanding contemporary mathematicians and astronomers: Christian Wolf, Leonhard Euler, Christopher Maire, Nicolas-Louis de Lacaille, Maximilian Hell, Joseph Franz, Rudjer Bošković, Heinrich Hiss, and others. Also, Stepling was particularly successful in educating many outstanding scientists, including Johann Wendlingen, Jakob Heinisch, Johannes von Herberstein, Kaspar Sagner, Stephan Schmidt, Johann Körber, and Joseph Bergmann. After his death, Maria Theresia ordered a monument erected in the library of the University of Prague.


I. Original Works. Stepling’s works include Eclipsis lunae totalis Pragae octava Augusti 1748 observata (Prague, 1748); De actione solis in diversis latitudinibus (Prague, 1750); Exercitationes geometrico-analyticae de angulis aliisque frustis cylindrorum, quorum bases sunt sectiones conicae infinitorum generum (prague, 1751); Observationes baroscopicae, thermoscopicae, hyetometricae(Prague, 1752); De pluvia lapidea anni 1753 ad Strkow et ejus causis (Prague, 1754); Brevicula descriptio speculae astronomicae Pragae instructae (Written berg, 1755); De terrae motus causa discursus (Prague, 1756); Liber II. Euclidis algebraice demonstratus (Prague, 1757); Solutiodirecta problematis de inveniendo centro oscillationis (Prague, 1759); Contra insignem superficiei oceani et marium cum eo communicantium inaequalitatem a V. Cl. Henrico Kuehnio assertam (Prague, 1760); Beantwortung verschiedener Fraagen über die Beschaffenheit der Lichterscheinung Nachts den 28 Hornungstage, und über die Nordlichter (Prague, 1761); De aberratione astrorum et luminis; item de mutatione axis terrestris historica relatio (Prague, 1761); Adnotationes in celebrem transitum Veneris per discum solis anno labente 6. Jun, futurum (Prague, 1761); De terrae motibus . . . adnexa est meditatio de causa mutationis Thermarum Töplicensium . . . (Prague, 1763); Vergleichungstafeln der altböhmischen Maasse und deren Preis mit den neu Oestreichischen und deren Preis (Prague, 1764); Differentiarum minimarum quantitatum variantium calculus directus, vulgo differentialis (Prague, 1765); and Clarissimi acmagnifici viri losephi Stepling . . . litterarum commercium eruditi cum primum argumenti (Prague, 1782).

Stepling published many papers in Nova acta eruditorum (1750, 1761), and Abhandlungen einer Privatgesellschaft in Böhmen zur Aufnahme der Mathematik, der vaterländischen Geschichte, und der Naturgeschichte (1775–1784).

A bibliography appears in Poggendorff, II, 1004.

II. Secondary Literature. On Stepling and his work, see Ludwig Koch, S.J., Jesuitenlexikon (Paderborn, 1934), cols. 1692–1693; Franz Martin Pelzel, Boehmische, Maehrische und Schlesische Gelehrte und Schriftsteller aus dem Orden der Jesuiten (Prague, 1786), 227–230; Carlos Sommervogel, S.J., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus, VII (Brussels, 1896), cols. 1564–1568; Stanislaus Wydra, Laudatio funebris Jos. Stepling coram senatu populoque academico . . . dicta (Prague, 1778); Vita Admodum Reverendi acmagnifici viri Losephi Stepling (Prague, 1779); and Oratio ad monumentum a maria Theresia Aug. Josepho Stepling erectum . . . (Prague, 1780); and Abbildungen böhmischer und Mährischer Gelehrter und Künstler nebst kurzen Nachrichten von ihren Leben und Werken, IV (Prague, 1782), 164– 172, which appeared without the name of the author but has the printed signature “Franz Martin Pelzel und die übrigen Verfasser” on the dedication page.

D. Anton Pinsker, S.J.