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  • Writer's pictureDale DeBakcsy

Maria Winkelmann and the Guilded Age of Astronomy

Back in the age when historians favored hard and fast lines between different Eras of world history, 1543 stood as the gold standard boundary between the Old world and the Modern one. That was the year Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium was published, unveiling the heliocentric model of the universe from which an entirely new, increasingly secular, notion of the cosmos would grow. As such, 1543 became the shorthand boundary between the old astronomy, which managed impressive feats of accuracy but was hampered by the dead weight of astrological and theological concepts, and the new astronomy, which followed the data wherever it led and increasingly harnessed the power of mathematical analysis to form models about how astronomical objects moved, leaving aside the metaphysically muddled question of why they did.


It’s a neat story, but over the course of the Twentieth century, historians came to realise that the transition into modern astronomy was less digital and more analog than the 1543 Hypothesis implied, that many of the luminaries of the Scientific Revolution (such as Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton) held organizing beliefs that hearkened back to ancient hermetic traditions while the official structures that underpinned astronomical efforts bore for centuries a closer resemblance to traditional guild structures than modern academic departments. In short, during its first centuries of development, modern astronomy was managing large scale changes in what measurements were taken and how they were analyzed, while experiencing much more gradual change in the organisations and motivations pushing those new measurements.


Few figures in the history of astronomy represent the fullness of those conflicting tensions, the pull of tradition counter-balanced by the exhilaration of revolution, like Maria Winkelmann (1670–1720). Her life coincided completely with the heady days of Prussian science’s first great patchwork lunge towards modernisation, directed by a few visionary souls and carried out in the face of overbearing cultural inertia. Winkelmann was born in 1670 in Panitzsch, a Saxon town of a few dozen souls near Leipzig, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s intellectual capitals at the time. Her father was a Lutheran minister who privately educated her, and passed that role onto her uncle upon his death when she was but 13 years old. The young Winkelmann was such an adept study that she was soon given the opportunity of studying astronomy under Christoph Arnold (1650–1695), an amateur astronomer who had himself studied under Johannes Hevelius’s most famous student, Gottfried Kirch (1639–1710), and had gained a fair level of continental fame with his 1682 sighting of Halley’s Comet, and his 1686 discovery of a new ‘great comet,’’ romantically named C/1686 R1.


Like most astronomers of his era, Arnold observed not through instruments collected at a centralised institution, but rather at a home observatory. Winkelmann studied as an astronomical apprentice under him as Arnold’s master, Gottfried Kirch, had studied in the privately run observatory of his master, Johannes Hevelius, in a tradition more representative of a medieval craft system than modern academic institutionalisation. Through Arnold, Winkelmann met Kirch, who after the death of Hevelius in 1687 ranked as the greatest astronomer of the German tradition. He was a widower some three decades Winkelmann’s senior, who stood in need of a competent assistant and home organiser, and who must have represented for Winkelmann a stable opportunity to carry on first rank work in astronomy in spite of the limitations placed on her societally by her gender. They were married in 1692, and after some time in Leipzig and Guben moved to Berlin in 1700, where Electress Sophia Charlotte of Brandenburg was employing her influence and position to bring some spark of proto-Enlightenment ideals and institutions to the often gruff and intellectually dismal town.


In the seventeenth century, Berlin was a margraviate capital of little cultural importance, which had been decimated over the course of the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) and where the most popular form of refined gentlemanly entertainment consisted of shutting one’s self in a room with a group of friends and drinking and smoking until everybody passed out from the fumes and alcohol. Following the destruction and population loss caused by the war, the Great Elector had introduced a policy of religious toleration that welcomed in talented French Huguenots, who soon made up a sizable portion of the scarred city, and brought with them a greatly needed degree of sophistication. Real change, however, had to wait for the arrival of the iron willed Sophia Charlotte, who brought Italian opera, Baroque architecture, and a spirit of scientific curiosity to the capital. In 1696 she commissioned the construction of a new observatory, which was completed by either 1706 or 1711, and throughout the 1690s she was a guiding force in the founding of Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz’s dream project, the Berlin Academy of Sciences, which opened its doors at last in 1700.


These two institutions, the observatory and the Academy, grew into existence before Winkelmann’s and Kirch’s eyes, and to them fell much of the task of organizing, equipping, and running their astronomical efforts. The Academy received no government funding, but instead financed itself through a monopoly on the creation and sale of calendars, which work fell primarily on Winkelmann and Kirch to complete. These calendars combined astronomy, astrology, and meteorology to not only provide information about astronomical phenomena like eclipses and moon phases with predictions about seasonal temperature and weather variations, as one would expect of a general farmer’s’ almanac, but also astrological advice as to the most cosmically favorable times to undergo major (and not so major) life events.


The calendars were a major cash generator, and as Kirch’s health declined, the responsibility for assembling them fell increasingly to Winkelmann, whose fame grew throughout the first decade of the eighteenth century. In 1702 she discovered a comet of her own, though in her husband’s initial report on that discovery he cut her out of the credit for it entirely, only restoring her true place as the comet’s discoverer in a 1710 report to the Academy. She corresponded regularly with Leibniz, then one of the continent’s most esteemed polymaths, was introduced and favorably received at court, and from 1707 to 1712 authored three separate tracts under her own name, the first on the aurora borealis phenomenon, the second on the conjunction of Saturn and Venus, and the third on the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, including the potential astrological significance of those events.

Everything was going just smashingly.


Then, in July of 1710, Gottfried Kirch died. It would have been natural for Winkelmann to take over his vacated position, as she had been largely performing all of its duties in the previous years anyway, and had she been working with Kirch in his private observatory, that is likely what would have happened in the best craft practice of the assistant/wife becoming the new master. Having grown up in that tradition, she confidently proposed her own name as Kirch’s successor. Prussia (which had become a kingdom in 1701) had few qualified candidates to assume the role of royal astronomer, and time was of the essence, as regular publication of the Academy calendar was such an important financial pillar of the institution. Winkelmann would have been the smartest choice – somebody who knew the job and had a reputation for timeliness, rigor, and accuracy. Because of her gender, however, her name was not even brought up until she put herself forward. Leibniz, for his part, took her side as an individual of talent and genius who should be supported in her continued work, but the Academy feared that it would become the laughingstock of the civilised intellectual world were it to allow a woman to take up a leadership position.


Instead, they hired Johann Heinrich Hoffmann, who quickly fell behind on his official work, leaving both his observational and calendrical duties in a constant state of unprofessional incompletion. Winkelmann, meanwhile, picked herself up and returned to the private astronomy tradition from whence she came, working as the master astronomer at the observatory of Baron Bernhard von Krosigk, with two assistants who served under her. Here, she carried on her observations, created calendars for Breslau and Nuremberg, and supported the education of her son and daughters. With the death of Baron von Krosigk in 1714, she went on to an assistant professorship in mathematics in Breslau and some time in Danzig rearranging the former observatory of Johannes Hevelius, but in 1716, to the relief of nearly everyone involved, Hoffmann died, and the Berlin Academy decided to award his position to Winkelmann’s son, Christfried.

It was a clever decision – by hiring Christfried, the Academy knew it would also be getting Winkelmann as a virtual freebie, thereby allowing them to continue the timely publication of calendars while still having a proper male to front the operation. Maria, however, was not the same person she was six years before. She had experienced life as a master astronomer and mathematics professor, and was used to her intellect being heeded and her opinions respected. When visitors would come to the observatory to witness rare phenomena, she made it a habit of greeting them, explaining the instruments and astronomical theories, and answering their questions. For this, she was repeatedly reprimanded by the Academy, who warned her that she was to make her presence known as little as possible, and particularly when important guests arrived at the observatory. She was to stay quietly in the background, doing the work that the Academy needed to fund itself, and which formed a considerable chunk of its intellectual output. This she apparently refused to do, and in 1717 she was drummed out of the Academy, and quit the observatory. She attempted to continue observations from her own home, but with inferior instruments and inadequate access to the skyline, she experienced little more than frustration as a result.


Winkelmann died of fever in 1720. Her son, Christfried, continued in his role as Director of the observatory until his death in 1740, and her daughter, Christine, as we shall come to see, continued to be employed by the observatory as a calendar preparer, where she was given the particular responsibility of preparing a Catholic calendar to serve the needs of the newly acquired citizens of Silesia after Frederick the Great’s Silesian Wars. She seemingly possessed more of a gift for self-effacement than her mother, and continued to be employed by the Academy until her death in 1782.


Maria Winkelmann lived in a scientific world where the rules were in a state of constant flux, where guild and academy, astrology and astronomy, all existed simultaneously, requiring scientists of their age to possess the gift of navigating each realm’s often contradictory expectations to stay afloat. It was a taxing enough job for a man, but for a woman, who in some contexts could be intellectual master of all she surveyed, while in others she was valued as little more than a silent drudge, it was a now-exhilarating, now-humiliating and generally all but unnavigable morass that yet allowed for some glory, for those deft enough to seize it. Winkelmann succeeded along multiple intellectual fronts while remaining true to her conception of the esteem due her and her accomplishments in the face of newly arisen organisations intent on devaluing them, and will hopefully stand as much an example of perseverance and integrity to the would-be scientists of the next three centuries as she has to the last.


FURTHER READING:


Maria Winkelmann and Gottfried Kirch show up here and there in books about early astronomy and early modern women’s science, which you can stitch together to form one through narrative. Two of the best sources for Winkelmann are Londa Schiebinger’s The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science (1989) and Gabriella Bernardi’s The Unforgotten Sisters: Female Astronomers and Scientists Before Caroline Herschel (2016) (which is an important resource though with some idiosyncratic layout and prose choices). Meanwhile, for more insight into the era generally, Johann Westphal’s classic Leben, Studien und Schriften des Astronomen Johannes Hevelius is readily available in reprint editions, while Hevelius, Flamsteed, and Halley: Three Contemporary Astronomers and their Mutual Relations by Eugene MacPike is a bit harder to come by.


If you'd like to read more about women astronomers like this one, check out my History of Women in Astronomy and Space Exploration, which you can order from Amazon, or from Pen and Sword US or UK.




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