Struve, Friedrich Georg Wilhelm (or Vasily Yakovievich)

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(b. Altona, Germany, 15 April 1793; d. Pulkovo, Russia, 23 November 1864), astronomy, geodesy.

Struve’s father, Jacob Struve, came from a peasant family, but by diligence and ability was able to graduate from the University of Göttingen. He held a number of teaching positions in various German towns and then, after ten years, settled in Altona as professor in the Christianeum classical Gymnasium, a school that he had himself attended. He was made principal after three years, and retained that post for about forty years more. Struve’s mother, Maria Emerenzia Wise, was the daughter of a preacher. There were six other children.

When Struve reached the age of conscription his parents decided to send him out of Germany. He thus went to Dorpat, Russia, where his older brother Karl had been living for some time. In 1810 he graduated from the University of Dorpat with a degree in philology, but he was not enthusiastic about becoming a teacher of that subject and proposed instead to devote himself to the study of mathematics, astronomy, and geodesy. With the support of the rector of the university and several of its professors, he received permission to work in the university observatory, where he installed

a number of previously purchased new instruments and carried out observations by which he was able to make an accurate determination of the latitude and longitude of the building. In 1813 he was awarded the doctorate for this work and was appointed professor extraordinarius of mathematics and astronomy and observing astronomer.

Struve thus began a teaching career that lasted twenty-five years, during which he delivered at Dorpat many courses of lectures on different astronomical and mathematical subjects; he also gave widely popular public lectures and often taught astronomy and geodesy at the general staff headquarters of the Corps of Military Topographers and at the Hydrographic Department. In addition to his teaching, Struve’s research was also significant in a number of areas, notably observation of double stars; determination of stellar parallaxes and distribution of stars in space; observation of planets, the moon, comets, and auroras; meridian measurements; statistical techniques; and the design and refinement of astronomical and geodetic instruments.

In January 1814 Struve began to make systematic observations with a transit that he had installed. His results in the next two years were included in the first volume of the Observationes astronomicas institutes in specula universitatis caesareae Dorpatensis, published in 1817. (Seven other volumes followed, containing Struve’s own observations and those of his assistants and students, which he revised and edited.) He devised new methods of observation that were later widely adopted, and he improved the Dorpat facility, adding a meridian circle constructed by Georg von Reichenbach in 1822 and a nine-inch refracting telescope made by Fraunhofer (the largest in existence) in 1824.

These efforts brought Struve considerable recognition, and he was invited by the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences to carry out the organization of a new main observatory, to be constructed at Pulkovo, near St. Petersburg. A preliminary plan for the new observatory had been drawn up by the physicist G. F. Parrot and reviewed by a special commission, of which Struve was a member. The design was approved in April 1834, and the architect A. P. Bryllov was put in charge of construction. Struve himself was appointed director of the new installation, and in June of the same year he went abroad to buy the best instruments to be found. He discussed the new observatory with Bessel, Humboldt, Lindenau, Olbers, Steinheil, H. C. Schumacher, and others, and ordered instruments to be made by Ertel, Repsold, Mertz, Plössl, Pistor, Throughton, and Dent. Among his purchases was a fifteen-inch refractor, the largest made.

The observatory was opened with great ceremony on 19 August 1839, and soon achieved worldwide fame. In 1845 Struve published a detailed description of the installation, including a complete catalog of the instruments, with remarks on their installation, application, and testing procedures. Appended to this description was a catalog of the library of the observatory, enumerating 5,411 astronomical works, of which 3,869 dated from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In a supplement, Struve analyzed the collection and discussed the history of the library; a second edition of the catalog, prepared by Struve’s son Otto Struve and published in 1860, listed 18,890 titles. In a letter to Schumacher, published in 1855, George Airy wrote that

No astronomer can claim a complete acquaintance with the practical aspect of our science at its present stage of development until he makes a diligent and thorough study of all the treasures kept in Pulkovo; the researches carried out by the Pulkovo astronomers and their precise methods of observation are most instructive, as is the very construction of the observatory building and the installation, selection, and characteristics of the instruments [Vestnik estestvennyskh nauk, no. 19. 596].

Struve had completed some of his own important research while he was still at Dorpat. He studied the results of Herschel’s work on double stars and in 1814 discovered the motions of the satellite of Castor and of η Cassiopeiae by comparing his own recent observations with those made by Herschel between 1780 and 1800. By 1820 he had determined the revolutions of P Ophiuchi and ξ Ursae Majoris, nearly completed since Herschel’s observations of 1780. In 1822 he published a catalog of all known double stars, which contained 795 items. He went on to observe some 122,000 stars over two-thirds of the celestial sphere from the north pole to 15° south declination, among which he detected 3,112 double stars, which he classified according to their angular separation. These were incorporated into a new catalog of double stars that he published in 1827.

Struve then undertook to make micrometric measurements of these celestial objects and on 14 November 1834 reported to the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences that he had so measured 2,736 double stars. He published these results, together with those of a further series of observations, in a paper of 1837 entitled Stellarum duplicium et multiplicium mensurae micrometricae. Bessel characterized this paper as “a magnificent work ranking among the greatest performed by astronomical observers in recent times.” By 1842 Struve and his assistants had observed the entire northern sky. In addition to the 18,000 stars known, they discovered 518 multiple stars that had not been reported previously, and Struve published data on 514 of them the following year. In 1852, having compared his data with those obtained by James Bradley, Lalande, Piazzi, and Stephen Groombridge, Struve published his Stellarum fixarum imprimis duplicium et multiplicium positiones mediae, which included 2,874 double and fundamental stars.

Struve consistently paid special attention to stellar parallaxes, and may, with Bessel and Thomas Henderson, be considered one of the first to make a reliable determination of them. This work made it possible to calculate the actual values of stellar distances. As early as 1822, Struve attempted to estimate the parallaxes of several dozen stars and published his finding that the parallaxes he derived for twenty-seven stars did not exceed 0.5”. Although most of his findings represented linear combinations of parallaxes of a pair of stars, he did give the individual parallaxes of δ Ursae Majoris and α Aquilae.

In 1836 Struve observed α Lyrae and a small star of 10.5 magnitude, at a distance of 43”. From these observations he derived a series of general conclusions about the parallaxes of fixed stars that he reported to the Academy on 13 January 1837 and included in his Stellarum duplicium et multiplicium mensurae micrometricae, presented later that year. “My observations for seventeen dates,” he wrote, “show the distance and direction (position angles) of the two stars from which, by calculation using thirty-four equations by the method of least squares, the parallax for the main star proves to be 0.125”, or 1/8 second, with a probable error of 0.055”, or 1/18 second.” This result is very close to the modern value of 0.121″, but in the course of verifying his data Struve later reached the less accurate value of +0.2613” ± 0.0254”.

Struve also conducted investigations on stellar distribution to determine whether there is a statistical dependence between the brightness of stars and their distances. To this end he organized work at Pulkovo on a new star catalog, which he studied closely for changes in the visible star density in the field of the Milky Way. He was thereby led to maintain that the sun was not the center of this system, but lay above its main plane. He was also able to substantiate earlier suggestions by Loys de Chéseaux and Olbers that the interstellar medium is incompletely transparent and to determine the value of the obscuration effect in outer space, results that he published in the preface to Maximilian Weisse’s star catalog of 1846 and in his own Études d’astronomie stellaire of 1847.

In connection with this study, Struve analyzed the observations that Herschel had made with a twenty-foot telescope and compared the number of stars that Herschel had observed with a theoretical figure to conclude that “the range of Herschel’s telescope, determined by observing the sky, scarcely exceeds one-third of the range corresponding to its optical resolution.” The reason for this limitation, Struve stated emphatically, is that “the intensity of light decreases in a greater proportion than the ratio of the inverse square of the distance, which means that there is a loss of light, an extinction when it passes through celestial space.” This conclusion testified to the presence of rarefied matter in space; in an approximate calculation, Struve also estimated that “The light in passing the same distance of a first-magnitude star is extinguished by almost one-hundredth–in other words, it loses 1/107th of its intensity.” The value that he thus obtained is in fair agreement with the currently accepted mean value for absorption near the galactic plane.

Throughout his career Struve was also active in geodetic studies. In 1816 he began three years’ work on the triangulation of Livonia, at the request of the Livonian Economic Society, and with K. I. Tenner he sponsored the joint Russian-Scandinavian measurement of 25°20’ of the arc of meridian. He personally supervised the measurement of 9°38’ of the Finnish-Livonian arc between the Dvina and Tornio rivers, and advised Tenner on the measurement of the large and difficult section of the arc (11°10’) between the Dvina and the Danube. The 3°13’ of the arc that lies between the Tornio and Belatsvar, in Sweden, was measured under the supervision of N. H. Selander, while the measurement of 1°46’ of the arc in Sweden, between Atjik and Cape Fuglnes, was carried out under the guidance of Hansteen. The entire project was finished by 1855, and Struve played a large part in organizing and processing the data for publication between 1856 and 1857.

The Russian-Scandinavian measurements were of great value to geodesy and practical astronomy, to which Struve made other important contributions. In 1837 he was involved in determining the difference in level between the Black and Caspian seas, and organized an expedition that investigated some 800 kilometers to yield not only fairly reliable results (26.04 ± 0.25 meters) concerning the difference in level, but also furnished data on terrestrial refraction and produced the first accurate determination of altitude for Mounts Elbrus, Kazbek (eastern and western), Besh-Tau, and Bezymyannaya. Struve’s methods of geodetic construction are of considerable interest, and his work on the altimetry of the Caspian Sea represents the first application of the technique of parallactic polygonometry that was later developed by V. V. Danilov.

Struve further discovered rational methods for the determination of latitude, time, and azimuth that allowed him to eliminate many systematic errors. He participated in a number of chronometric expeditions, among them one conducted by F. F. Shubert for the purpose of correcting the map of the Baltic Sea (1833), in which he was responsible for the astronomical observations. In 1842 he himself organized an expedition that set out from Pulkovo to observe the solar eclipse at Lipetsk–an expedition that, according to Struve, completely eliminated uncertainties about the values for longitudes determined by chronometers that had been transported over long distances by land. In 1843 and 1844 he conducted two other expeditions, between Pulkovo and Altona and between Altona and Greenwich. They established the longitudinal connection between the Pulkovo and Greenwich observatories.

Struve’s work brought him international fame, and he was a member of more than forty scientific academies, learned societies, and universities. In particular, he was a corresponding member of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences from 1822 and a full member and honorary member for more than forty years. He was also a founding member of the Russian Geographical Society and chairman of its department of mathematical geography.

In 1814 Struve married Emily Wall, the daughter of an Altona merchant; they had twelve children. A year after his first wife died in 1834, Struve married her friend Johanna Bartels, daughter of the mathematician J. M. C. Bartels; they had six children. Twelve of Struve’s children survived him, and his son Otto collaborated in his work for a number of years and carried it on after his death.


I. Original Works. There is a complete bibliography of Struve’s publications (272 titles) in Novokshanova (see below). They include, in addition to works cited in the text, De geographica positione speculae astronomicae Dorpatensis (Mitau, 1813), his doctoral thesis: “Catalogus stellarum duplicium a 20° decl. Austr. ad 90° decl. Bor. pro anno 1820,” in Observationes astronomicas institutas in specula universitatis caesareae Dorpatensis, 3 (1822), 15–24; “Additamentum I. De numero constanti aberationis et parallaxi annua fixarum ex observationibus stellarum circumpolarium in ascensione oppositarum,” ibid., 51–90; “Observationes stellarum duplicium per micrometrum filare Fraunhoferianum tubo mobili Troughtoniano 5 pedum abhibitum,” ibid.,4 (1825), 175–195; Beschreibung des auf der Sternwarte der Kaiserlichen Universität zu Dorpat befindlichen grossen Refractors von Fraunhofer (Dorpat, 1825); “Micrometer-Beobachtungen des Planeten Saturn mit dem grossen Refractor von Fraunhofer in Dorpat angestellt,” in Astronomische Nachrichten, 5 (1827), 7–14; 6 (1828), 389–392; “Micrometer-Messungen des Jupiters und seiner Trabanten mit dem grossen Refractor von Fraunhofer angestellt,” ibid.,5 (1827), 13–16; Catalogus novus stellarum duplicium et multiplicium (Dorpat, 1827); and “Disquisitio de refractione astronomica, stellarum que primariarum declinationibus et ascensionibus rectis, quales sequuntur ex observationibus anni 1822 ad 1826,” in Observationes astronomicas institutas. . . Dorpatensis, 6 (1830).

Subsequent works are Anwendung des Durchgangs-instruments für die geographische Ortsbestimmung (St. Petersburg, 1833); “Expédition organisée par l’Académie impériale des sciences, dans le but de déterminer la différence de niveau de la Mer Noire et de la Mer Caspienne,” in Bulletin scientifique publié par l’Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, 1 (1837) 79–80; 2 (1837), 254–270; 3 (1838), 27–31, 127–132, 366–368; “Additamentum in mensuras micrometricas stellarum duplicium editas anno 1837, exhibens mensuras Dorpati annis 1837 et 1838 institutas. Adjecta est disquisitio de parallaxi annua stellae α Lirae,” in Mémoires de l’Académie impériale des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, Sciences math. et phys., 6th ser., 2 , no. 4(1840), 337–358; “Sur les constantes de l’aberration et de la nutation,” in Bulletin scientifique publié par l’Académie impériale des sciences de st.-Pétersbourg, 8 , no. 13 (1841), 199–206; Catalogue de 514 étoiles doubles et multiples découvertes sur l’hémisphère céleste boréal. . . et catalogue de 256 étoiles doubles principales où la distance des composantes est de 32” à 2’ et qui se trouvent sur l’hémisphère boréal (St. Petersburg, 1843); “Mémoire sur le coefficient constant dans l’aberration des étoiles fixes,” in Bulletin de la classe physique-mathématique de l’Académie impériale des Sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, 1 , nos. 17–18 (1843), 257–260; and “Table des positions géographiques principales de la Russie,” ibid., nos. 19–21 (1843), 289–306.

See also Expédition chronométrique exécutée entre Poulkova et Altona pour la détérmination de la longitude géographique relative de l’observatoire central de Russie (St. Petersburg, 1844); Description de l’observatoire astronomique central de Poulkova (St. Petersburg, 1845), with Appendice: Catalogus librorum in bibliotheca speculae Pulcovensis contentorum, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1845; 2nd ed., 1860); “Notice sur la comète à courte période découverte par M. Faye à Paris, d’après les observations faites à l’observatoire de Poulkova,” in Bulletin de l’Académie des sciences de St.-Pétersburg, Cl. phys.-math., 3 , no. 18 (1845), 273–280; “Ueber die im Jahre 1845 auszuführende Chronometer-Expedition ins Innere Russlands,” ibid.,4 , no. 3 (1845), written with Otto Struve; Expédition chronométrique entre Altona et Greenwich pour la détermination de la longitude géographique de l’observatoire central de Russie (St. Petersburg, 1846); “Obzor geograficheskikh rabot v Rossii” (“Survey of Geographical Work in Russia”), in Zapiski Russkogo geographicheskogo obshchestva, 1 (1846) 43–58; Études d’astronomie stellaire. Sur la Voie Lactée et sur la distance des étoiles fixes (St. Petersburg, 1847), also in Russian (Moscow, 1953); “Observations de la nouvelle planète (Astrée) faites à l’observatoire central, à l’aide des instruments du méridien, éléments de l’orbite de la planète,” in Bulletin de l’Académie des sciences de St.-Pétersbourg, Cl. phys.-math., 5 , no. 13 (1847), 193–196; and Arc du méridien de 25°20’ entre le Danube et la Mer Glaciale, mesuré, depuis 1816 jusqu’en 1855, 2 vols. (St. Petersburg, 1856–1857; ed. 2, 1861; Moscow, 1957).

II. Secondary Literature. Z. K. Novokshanova, Vasily Yakovlevich Struve (Moscow, 1964) is the most complete biography and includes a bibliography of 272 original works (pp. 249–273) and 89 sources. See also A. A. Mikhaylov, ed., Vasily Yakovlevich Struve. Sbornik statey i materialov k 100-letiyu so dnya smerti (“. . . . Collected Papers and Materials on the Centennial of His Death”; Moscow, 1964). Earlier sources (listed chronologically) are A. N. Savich, Vospominania o V. Y. Struve. Torzhestvennoe sobranie Akademii nauk 29 dekabrya 1864 g. (“Memoirs of V. Y. Struve. Grand Meeting of the Academy of Sciences of 29 December 1864”; St. Petersburg, 1865); E. F. Litvinova, V. Y. Struve, ego zhizn i nauchnaya deyatelnost (“V. Y. Struve, His Life and Scientific Activity”; St. Petersburg, 1893); A. A. Tillo, “O geograficheskikh zaslugakh V. Y. Struve” (“On the Geographical Merits of V. Y. Struve”), in Izvestiya Russkogo geograficheskogo obshchestva, 29 , no. 3 (1893), 151–164; and Otto Struve, Wilhelm Struve, Zur Erinnerung an den Vater den Geschwistern dargebracht (Karlsruhe, 1895).

More recent studies include B. A. Vorontsov-Belyaminov, Zvezdno-statisticheskie raboty V. Struve (“V. Struve’s Works on Stellar Statistics”), in Trudy soveshchania po istorii estestvoznania 24–26 dekabrya 1946 g. (“Proceedings of the Conference on the History of Natural Science, 24–26 December 1946”; Moscow-Leningrad, 1948), 132–144; A. N. Deutsch, “Pervoe opredelenie V. Y. Struve parallaksa ± Liry” (“V. Y. Struve’s First Determination of the Parallax of α Lyrae”), in Astronomicheskii zhurnal, 29 , no. 5 (1952), 597–601; B. A. Orlov, “Vasily Yakovlevich Struve,” in V. Y. Struve, Etyudy zvezdnoy astronomii (“Essays on Stellar Astronomy”; Moscow, 1953), 171–208; T. Rootsmyae, “Akademik V. Y. Struve i ego deyatelnost v Tartuskom universitete” (“. . .and His Activity at the University of Tartu”) , in Uchenye zapiski Tartuskogo gosudarstvennogo universiteta, no. 37 (1955), 30–69; O. Struve, “The First Determination of Stellar Parallax,” in Sky and Telescope, 16 (1956), 9–12, 69–72; N. P. Erpylev, “Razvitie zvezdnoy astronomii v Rossii v XIX veke” (“The Development of Stellar Astronomy in Russia in the Nineteenth Century”), in Istoriko-astro-nomicheskie issledovaniya, no. 4 (1958), 43–130; Y. G. Perel, “Vasily Yakovlevich Struve,” in Lyudi russkoy nauki (“People of Russian Science”; Moscow, 1961), 94–103; and Z. K. Sokolovskaya, “Pervye, opredelenia zvezdnykh parallaksov” (“The First Determinations of Stellar Parallax”), in Vestnik Akademii nauk SSSR, no. 3 (1972), 132–136.

Works on the Struve family are E. B. Frost, “A Family of Astronomers,” in Popular Astronomy, 29 , no. 9 (1921), 536–541; A. F. Marshal, “Une dynastie d’astronomes. Les Struve,” in Industrie (Brussels), 17 , no. 12 (1963), 833–839; and P. van de Kamp, “The Struve Succession,” in Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, 59 , no. 3 (1965), 106–114.

Z. K. Sokolovskaya