Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon

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Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon
Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon.
Organization University of Lisbon
Location Lisbon, Portugal
Altitude 140 meters, ASL
Established May 6th, 1878
Website (in Portuguese)

The Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon (Observatório Astronómico de Lisboa) is located in "Alcântara - Tapada da Ajuda", in the city of Lisbon. It’s an institution that has been recognized internationally for the quality of its work in the field of positioning astronomy, since the 19th century.

In 1992, this institution came to depend on the University of Lisbon and in 1995 it was included in the Science Faculty of the University of Lisbon, with its operations directed towards research and scientific and historical dissemination.


The Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon, established by a Law Act on 6 May 1878, was born from great controversy between Hervé Faye, director of the Observatory of Paris and Peters, astronomer at the Russian Observatory of Pulkova, on the parallax of the star of Argelander. The construction of the AOL was due to the strong desire to build a magnificent institution, a reference in Portuguese culture. The foundations were established in the mid-19th century with the aim of promoting new Sidereal Astronomy, discovery and understanding of the infinite cosmos, and concern about the exact mapping of the sky and measuring the size of the universe. It was then suggested that it would be built in Lisbon, a place across the European continent where it was possible to make observations of that star of Argelander using a zenithal telescope. In order to do so, it was necessary to build a new observatory where you could install the appropriate equipment. This reality was possible due to the support of King D. Pedro V and other personalities of political life, then.

The plant of the building, executed by the French architect Jean Colson, who was then the most distinguished foreign architect living in Lisbon, was inspired by the building of the Russian Observatory in Pulkova. Wilhelm Struve, director of the Pulkova and a famous astronomer, offered his services to the Portuguese government and was considered the main adviser who played a very important role, not only in the choice of equipment, but also in the orientation of astronomer Frederico Augusto Oom, who was given a rough training stage of 5 years. This Lieutenant of the Navy and Hydrographer Engineer, who became the first director of the Royal Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon, had a very important role in the whole foundation of this building. After the financial support and commitment that King D. Pedro V gave to this project, its construction started on 11 March 1861, under the rule of King D. Luis I, who also contributed to funding the institution, withdrawing money from his personal budget. The edification only ended in 1867, the year in which astronomical observations began.

The Observatory was installed in Ajuda, on land readily offered by the monarch, in the king’s hunting grounds. Since its creation in the 19th century and during much of the 20th century, the Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon has stood out for its excellent work in Astrometry. It has participated in several international campaigns, in particular the international campaign in 1900-1901 to improve the value of the AU (astronomical unit) using the opposition of the recently found asteroid Eros. It also had the contribution of its director at the time, Campos Rodrigues, and other local astronomers, to produce a high-quality catalogue of reference stars. The results were so good that the AOL was the only observatory contributing with data and weight to all the 3800 observations which were used to calculate the catalogue. Campos Rodrigues received the Valz prize in 1904 from the French Academy of Sciences for the excellence of the work that was being done at Lisbon.


The Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon consists of a beautiful central building in the hills of Ajuda and overlooking the Tejo river; there are also two small cupolas outside that are containing instruments, located South. Besides the central cupola there are three rooms of astronomical observations, properly equipped with instruments (the best of the time) and windows of observation. They are in the north, east and west wings of the central building. It is the central building of the Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon, a circular room (whose vault is richly worked) which supports the weight of the large equatorial refractor on 8 columns of great size. In arches between the columns the many pendulum clocks are arranged, those which during this century of existence have been measuring the time. At the foot of large windows overlooking the Tapada, there are wide tables on which the astronomers developed their research work.

There are also the spacious halls of communication that were used at the time for lessons, for making the calculations, and so on. Today these rooms are used for the workshops of activities of education and support to schools.

The three observation rooms of the building are very spacious and very high, lined with wood, leaving a free space between the coating and the walls of masonry and roofing. This space communicates with the outside world through gaps that are constantly open. There are roofs of rooms in stacks of circulation, and this permanent ventilation is there in order to establish the balance of air temperature in the rooms and beyond, as it is convenient to the accuracy of observations. The coating is made of wood to present an excellent thermal behaviour, apart from being a 100% ecological product, which provides the user with a friendlier environment compared to other substitute materials. The rooms provide openings in the side walls and in the ceiling, through doors, thanks to an ingenious mechanism. Once the doors open once they give you an insight to the sky, according to the meridian of Lisbon, from north to south.

Museum and instruments[edit]

The undeniable value of the AOL in all parameters of cultural heritage it contains, the historic buildings and scientific instruments of the past, makes the understanding of our own roots easier, by helping us make the bridge between the past and present. The historic preservation of this heritage is accomplished through guided tours to the Museum of AOL. At the beginning of the visit, visitors are invited to attend an oral presentation visually sustained by powerpoint slides. A presentation is made of the evolution of astronomy since the 19th century until now, marking the substantial difference to advances that have occurred. Alongside the exhibition of the evolution of astronomy, the story of the AOL is reported, since it arose precisely in the middle of that century. Then visitors take a visit to the museum area, with the guides showing and explaining the various instruments. One of the most striking features in all instruments of the AOL is that not only that they are all still functional, but also that they have never been modernized with electric motors or components or any pieces (gears, micrometers, lenses, etc.) or complete systems (monitoring, engines, etc..) nor replaced by better and more modern equipment. In some cases, small changes were introduced, but most parts are from the same period of the instrument. Very few are those cases where we may be considered modern machinery. This is true only of cameras introduced in the late 60, micrometers of readings near the Meridian Circle to take pictures of decline. There is also the new plate to the general equatorial refractor, which includes a very modern micrometer for studying double stars (part), which was built in Nice in 1990. However, it’s not associated with the telescope. It’s true the telescopes are not perfectly aligned or optically collimated, nor the pendulum clocks are working and would some adjustments would have to be made.

The same thing can be said about the building: all moving structures are still function as the original and nothing has changed, been replaced by new solutions or even by modern materials. Thus, we continue to suffer from traditional problems such as leakage of rainwater in some domes in windy nights. Unfortunately, the preservation of works made in 2000 removed the old wiring, including that associated with the signs of time connected to all telescopes through the Electricity Table, which was a great loss, since it was the "jewel in the crown" of all telescopes - which is always a subjective statement given the beauty and value out of them all, but considering the AOL as a house of pure astrometry, it gave recognition to the work done there, due to the Meridian Circle recital, so all that has auxiliary accessories.


In Portuguese[edit]

  • José António Madeira, "O primeiro centenário do Observatório Astronómico de Lisboa, 1861-1961".
  • Frederico Augusto Oom, "Considerações acerca da organização do Real Observatório Astronómico de Lisboa"
  • Ezequiel Cabrita, "Os regimes de hora legal no nosso país desde a criação do Observatório Astronómico de Lisboa — Separata de Dados Astronómicos para 1978".
  • Pedro Raposo, "A vida e a obra do almirante Campos Rodrigues". Master thesis in History and Philosophy of Sciences (oriented by Henrique Leitão). University of Lisbon, 2006.


External links[edit]

Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon
Foundation 1861
Kind of institution Public
Sub-Director Professeur Paulo Crawford
Location Lisboa
Tapada da Ajuda
Official page Astronomical Observatory of Lisbon (AOL)