Popular Science Monthly/Volume 64/March 1904/The Royal Prussian Academy of Science: Berlin I

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History of the Academy from its founding by Leibniz and the Elector of Brandenburg in 1700 to the death of Frederich William I. in 1740.

THE history of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science is in reality the history of the development of science in Prussia, one may say throughout the territory covered by the present German empire. Founded July 11, 1700, by the Elector Frederick III. of Brandenburg at the solicitation of his wife Sophie Charlotte and of Leibniz, it not only gave an impulse to scientific research and scholarly investigation 1:1 every department of learning in Berlin and throughout Prussia, but became the model after which other societies with similar aims in the German-speaking world were brought into existence. Not quite as old as the French Academy nor as the Royal Society of Great Britain, nor as the Lincei in Rome, it has done as good work as any of them and exerted quite as wide an influence.

The period embraced in its life covers the period of the reconstruction of the German university and its growth from the unsatisfactory institution of the first quarter of the eighteenth century to its present commanding position in the world of learning. It covers the period in which the gymnasia were remodeled and the foundations laid of that system of common schools (Volksschule) for which Germany is now famous. It covers also the period of French oppression, of the re-awakening of the national spirit and of the contests which secured political freedom and a united German empire.

In 1694 the Elector Frederick founded the University of Halle, not long after, the Medical Society of Berlin and, in 1696, the Academy of Arts. He assumed the rank of king on January 18, 1701. He inherited a love of poetry and of learning from his father, the Great Elector, who refounded the universities of Königsberg and Frankfurt and brought the University of Duisberg into existence. He had planned also a universal university at Brandenburg to be free to all the world, an asylum for all students of science and art, and to be undisturbed even by war.

Leibniz (1646-1716), though unwilling to break with the old learning which the universities cherished, had breathed the breath of the new learning which came in with the Renaissance and the Reformation. Holding fast to all that was valuable in the traditions of the past, he early became an ardent advocate of the new methods of study which science, even in its beginnings, introduced, and through the founding of academies in the great capitals of Europe sought to unite the tendencies of the time with the protestant spirit of research and criticism. A many-sided man, philosopher, theologian, jurist, politician, philologist, physicist, an acute observer, fond of experiment, with a constructive mind, restless in his eagerness for knowledge, he did more than any man of his era to forward the study of nature and to emphasize its unity. Through the establishment of an academy in Germany under royal patronage he thought he could demonstrate the harmony of the world in study and research and realize the unity of human society. His first proposal for a society for the study of science was made in 1667 when he was but twenty-one years old, his last only seventeen days before his death. He suggested and furthered, so far ar. he could, the union of all the learned societies of Europe, a plan which has been partially realized in our own time. He lived in Hannover, where he made himself useful to the Brunswick princes as a historian, although he did not possess their complete confidence as a politician. Having observed the working of the French Academy when on a visit to Paris in 1675, the following year he proposed a German academy somewhat on its model, and even named the fortyeight men who were to compose it. He proposed later, as protestants seemed indifferent to his project, that the Pope divide the fields of learning among the catholic orders, assigning the study of nature to the Benedictines and Cistercians, that of law to the Dominicans and the Jesuits, that of language to other orders, and to the Franciscans the care of souls. If the princes of the House of Brunswick failed to give him their entire confidence, he had an unfailing friend in the Princess Sophie (1630-1714), daughter of Frederick V. of the Palatinate, and mother of George I. of England. It was through her daughter, Sophie Charlotte, who married the elector of Brandenburg September 28, 1684, and who had been educated under the eye of Leibniz, that he realized at last his hope of founding an academy in Berlin. Of this woman Frederick the Great said she had both 'the spirit of society and of true culture,' and that 'she brought the love of science and the arts into Prussia.' She was a gifted, charming woman, and so eager for knowledge that even Leibniz was wont to say of her that she was never satisfied with reasons which were sufficient for others, she 'must know the why of the why.' Although Leibniz even in the decade from 1681 to 1691 had a low idea of the culture of Prussia, he was not long in discovering that it was only under the leadership of the Prussian elector that the German protestant states

PSM V64 D421 Godefroy Guillaume Leibnitz.png

could be united in an academy. Hence his efforts to interest Sophie Charlotte in his enterprise. Through Prussia, he wrote her, he 'saw the gateway to Russia, and through Russia the gateway to China.' For political reasons, probably, there was no regular correspondence until 1697. Meanwhile Leibniz had interested many scholars in his project, among them Count von Dunckelmann, in whose parlors scientific meetings had been held in Berlin for ten years. Jabloniski, a Bohemian by birth, court preacher in Berlin, a man of great knowledge and natural ability, was one of the most efficient aids which Leibniz had in bringing the academy into existence. Much had been said about establishing an observatory in the Prussian capital. The wife of the elector exerted all her influence in favor of it as early as 1697. From this time on the clearly formed plans for an academy with which the observatory should be connected were carefully discussed. In a letter to the Princess Charlotte, dated December 19, 1697, Leibniz writes that he has been invited to Berlin, 'the cradle of the arts and sciences,' where 'Solomon and the Queen of Sheba are.' While on a long visit in Hannover during the summer of 1698 the princess had opportunity to discuss with Leibniz, unhindered, their plans for an academy and scientific institute in Berlin. Jabloniski was sent to Hannover by the elector to see Leibniz and returned to Berlin greatly impressed with his ability, and urged the elector to invite him to the city. This was done through the Princess Charlotte. For more than a year little progress in founding the academy was made, though the leading scholars of Berlin desired it. Means for its support were wanting. Aid came from an unexpected source. Professor Erhard Weigel, of Jena, was anxious to correct the calendar, and Leibniz at once saw that if this corrected calendar were made a monopoly the cost of an academy could be paid out of the profits on its sale. Messrs. Rabener, Curveau and Jabloniski memorialized the elector, the monopoly was granted and an order for the formation of an academy, with which the observatory was united, was issued on the day the memorial was presented. Leibniz, who had recently been made a member of the French Academy, was appointed its president. On January 18, 1701, Prussia became a kingdom and the elector a king.

The academy began its life under favorable circumstances. Although the means of support were inadequate, the ideas of the men who formed it were large and comprehensive. The plans then made, visionary as they seemed to some, have since been fully realized. Councilor Albinus, Chauvin, Dr. Jaegewitz, Naudi, the mathematician, Chief Engineer Baer, Privy Councilors Rabener and Cuneau, and Jabloniski, the court preacher, made up the eight who with Leibniz formed it. They were all imbued with the spirit and the ideas of the president. The academy was to be a place where the study of physics, chemistry, astronomy, geometry, mechanics, optics, algebra and similar useful subjects should be furthered. Not all of these branches of study were to be pushed at once, no one of them until men eminent in each of them could be brought to Berlin and elected to membership in the academy. The statutes of the academy were framed after those of the French Academy and the Royal Society of Great Britain. Leibniz was to live in Hannover, but to come to Berlin when necessary and to have the expenses of the journey paid. The astronomer Kirch alone was to receive a salary. Kirch moved from Guben to Berlin, took up his abode in the second story of the building which the government had furnished for an observatory, brought with him his own instruments, which were used in common with those the government owned, and trusted to the income from a calendar, which he himself was to make, for his support. The income from this source was estimated at about $1,875 and the expense for the president, the astronomer, his assistant, a secretary who should look after the business of the academy, a servant, instruments, books, experiments, printing, correspondence, medals and miscellanies, at a trifle more. Perhaps no great enterprise has ever been undertaken more confidently on the part of its leaders with such small pecuniary resources at its command. The elector wished provision made for the teaching and improving of the German language. To him should be given the credit of forming the philological-historical department of the academy. To his wife belongs the credit of establishing its astronomical department, and to Leibniz of its scientific departments. It was gravely proposed by Leibniz that the academy should be also a missionary institution and should send the gospel to the heathen. On this ground the churches might be asked to contribute to its support. He would have it look after the sanitary condition of the homes of the people, and the character of their food. He had many plans for an increased income, but none of them proved effective. Even the calendar monopoly met with opposition from booksellers and was obtained with some difficulty. The letters actually forming the academy were dated July 11, 1700, the elector's birthday, and by them its members were required to give careful attention to the German language and history, and especially to the political and ecclesiastical history of Brandenburg. The elector made himself the protector of the academy, but directed it to govern itself through a council of its own members. This council was to select and receive new members, subject to his approval. Three classes were organized, one for the study of physics and mathematics, another for the study of the German language, and a third for the study of literature. No provision was made for the study of philosophy, because Leibniz thought its principles unsettled, and that its interests would be best promoted by considering it in connection with other subjects. The members were divided into ordinary, corresponding, home and foreign, and honorary members. John Theodore Jabloniski, an older brother of the court preacher, was made secretary, and at the same time directed to perform the duties of archivist, cashier, curator of the museum, overseer of matters pertaining to the publishing and sale of the calendar, and to act as a reporter for Leibniz. Many of the difficulties connected with the academy during its earlier years grew out of the fact that the two Jabloniskis were so intimately concerned with its management. Yet the secretary was a man of rare learning, and in many ways well adapted to his position. His brother was a member of the academy for forty-one years, PSM V64 D424 House of leibnitz at hanover.pngHouse of Leibniz at Hannover. was deeply interested in it, and for some years after the death of Leibniz was the means of keeping it alive.

During the first decade of its existence the academy did very little. Some of its members were jealous of Leibniz, but he paid no attention to this fact, and did his work as if nothing had happened. The king wanted the academy to add to the glory of his reign, but would furnish no means other than those which came from the calendar monopoly for its support. Kirch and his wife, who was his efficient aid, made the calendar accurate and trustworthy and gave what time they could to astronomical study. Kirch's astronomical work was confined to the study of comets, sunspots and variable stars. But the income of the academy only just kept it alive.

The French language was used in the discussions and reports. Indeed, at this time the French population of Berlin contained within its ranks a larger number of distinguished men than the German. It is not surprising, therefore, that so many of the leading members of the academy were for so many years of French origin. The progressive element of the city was French. Their preachers and authors were the only men in Berlin who could meet the Benedictine church historians on their own ground. The German element was well represented by John Leonard Frisch, director of the Gray Cloister Gymnasium, who did more work for the academy during his connection with it than any one else. He found time to compose papers on the silk manufacture of Berlin, on insects and parasites, which were illustrated with his own drawings, and to begin an extensive work on birds. He was a student of the Slavic languages, and through his Latin dictionary, which one of the Grimms said would not grow old, contributed very much to German lexicography. As a student of chemistry he greatly improved the famous Berlin blues. In 1703 there were 22 members of the academy residing in Berlin, 19 in 1707, 20 in 1711, and at this time there were 32 foreign members. During the sixteen years which he led the academy, Leibniz wrote between five and six hundred letters on its behalf. This was in addition to the papers he contributed to its sessions and to the work he did on the two or three volumes it published. The death of the queen, PSM V64 D425 Sophie Charlotte.png on February 10, 1705, was a serious loss to the academy as well as to Leibniz, Work on the building to be used as an observatory proceeded so slowly that the astronomer labored at a great disadvantage. Still he discovered a comet and made some valuable observations. He died after ten years' service and was succeeded by his assistant, John Henry Hoffmann, who was followed by the younger Kirch, who endeavored to carry forward and greatly extend his father's work. But the academy was cramped through lack of means. These were so small that it could only publish a brief report of an eclipse of the sun, and of a few meteorological observations made in Belgrade by Schutze. Fifty thalers ($37.50) were sent Christian Sturm, of Frankfurt a. O., for scientific observations which proved of little value, and seventy-five dollars were set aside for the purchase of a Hebrew Bible found in China.

As early as 1705-6 it looked as if the academy could not survive. Its condition was desperate. Leibniz came to Berlin on its behalf and was more successful than usual in securing the favor of the king, who at this time gave it twenty-one hundred thalers ($1,575) for the purchase of ground on Dorotheen Street which it still owns. Volume L of the Berlin Miscellanies, edited by Leibniz and Cuneau, appeared in 1707. Yet in 1709 La Croze, the royal librarian, said the academy was 'a society of obscure men,' but its fame was soon increased by the election to membership in it of Hoffmann, the famous physicist of Halle. In May, 1710, a quarto volume containing sixty treatises, twelve of them by Leibniz, was published. PSM V64 D426 Portrait of leibnitz.png This indicated renewed life in the academy.

This year Leibniz was discredited by the king through the appointment over him of Minister von Printzen as president. This was done without consulting him and also without his knowledge, and as if to annoy him, a salary of seventy-five dollars was ordered paid to the heads of the four classes into which the members of the academy were then divided. These classes were physics, which included medicine and chemistry; mathematics and astronomy; the German language, to which the political and ecclesiastical history of Brandenburg especially were attached, and literature, a department PSM V64 D426 George I of great britain.png whose members were also to consider methods for spreading the gospel among unbelievers. The government of the academy remained in the hands of a council formed by the heads of these classes with the addition of the fiscus, who was appointed by the king. Other members of the academy had no voice in its management. It was now decided that the sessions, which had been rather irregular, should henceforth be held on Thursday every week at 4 p. m., and that there should be a general meeting once a month, so that the whole work of the academy might be known to each one of its members. The public recognition of the academy was given on January 19, 1711, by the king himself. Leibniz excused his absence on the ground of ill health, though it is easy to see that there were sufficient reasons of another character why a man of high spirit like himself should not be present. In the long and rather trite Latin oration by von Printzen, and in a second oration by Jabloniski, there was no mention of him, though the published reports give him credit for his services in founding and directing the academy. At this time the membership had increased to 38 or, if the honorary and acting presidents be counted, to 40.

The king died on February 25, 1712. The history of the academy under his successor, Frederick William I., is somewhat disappointing. Leibniz, though doing all in his power for the academy until his death in 1716, turned, in his later years, to other helpers than the king of Prussia for aid in his projects: to the king of Saxony; to the Czar, who met him cordially and made him many promises and to the government of Austria. Through these centers of learning and investigation he hoped to be able to direct and control scientific study on the continent of Europe.

Still the Berlin Academy was not without significance. Hoffmann the physicist was not idle. Work on a German dictionary was begun early in the new reign, but for reasons which do not appear it was given up in 1721. In 1712 it was decided to revise Luther's Bible and to begin with the New Testament, but, after working on this revision till 1743, it also was abandoned. Perhaps the failure of these great projects may suggest some of the reasons why the academy had failed during Leibniz's lifetime to realize the hopes he had cherished for it. In his day and for some years afterwards few scientific men of the first rank made Berlin their home. Moreover, the government of the academy was autocratic. Some of the best men in the city, men who ought to have been among its members, felt that they could do better work outside than within its ranks. There were some quacks in Berlin, like a certain Dr. Gundelsheim, who declined an election to the academy, characterizing it as a nuisance in the learned world, and useless, and so ridiculed and defamed its most prominent member, Hoffmann, as to compel him to leave the city. As Crown Prince, Frederick William had despised the academy. Penurious by nature, he cared little for any society or institution which sought merely to increase knowledge without regard to its utility. True, he continued the calendar monopoly, but cut off some other privileges the academy had enjoyed and commanded it to reduce expenses to the lowest point. He consented to preserve its life only on condition that it do something for medicine and technology. Leibniz saw the situation and did his best to persuade the academy to undertake a work which would gratify the king and secure his favor. For some reason it failed to heed his advice. Not till ten years later did Volume II. of the Berlin Miscellanies appear. Meanwhile the theater, which had been prepared for anatomical study, was secured by Dr. Gundelsheim, who had gained the king's confidence, and made the center of bitter opposition to the academy. Although it contained the valuable cabinet of Spener, he alone of all the members of the academy was permitted to examine it. The observatory was compelled to pay rent for rooms hitherto furnished without cost, and subjected to the mortification of seeing rooms in the building which had been erected for its sole use offered for rent. Spener's death in 1717, just when he had begun to gain the king's respect and confidence, was another misfortune for the academy. Dr. Gundelsheim had now no one to oppose him. It need not be said that the academy soon suffered from his hostility. A full account of its expenses was demanded. The back salary due Leibniz remained in arrears, and after the king had looked over the balance sheet, he reduced the salary which had been only $450 one half, and ordered the $75 saved in this and other ways paid to Dr. Gundelsheim. The reduction of the salary of the president seems to have caused little sorrow in the academy. Indeed it has been said that its members would willingly have cut it off altogether could the salary of the secretary have been kept where it was. Dr. Gundelsheim died in June, 1715. Meanwhile Leibniz, notwithstanding the ill treatment he had received, continued to exert himself on behalf of the institution he loved. He urged its members to greater efforts and sought to secure the publication of the second volume of miscellanies. But the death of some of the most faithful members and the indifference which the public felt toward it left its future doubtful. Jabloniski was easily its most influential member, as Frisch continued to be its most industrious.

Leibniz died on November 14, 1716. No settlement had been made for his unpaid salary and none was ever made with his heirs. He died in neglect. Hannover took no notice of his death, neither did the academy in Berlin. Fontenelle, by order of the French Academy, pronounced a worthy eulogy in his honor in Paris on November 13, 1717. This treatment of its founder will ever remain a blot on the history of the academy, although its observance of Leibniz Day in later years and at present indicates a better appreciation of his abilities and his services for science and literature than the men of his own generation seem to have had.

The history of the academy from the death of Leibniz in 1716 to the death of the king in 1740 has comparatively little significance. Its life was monotonous, far from what it ought to have been. With it the king could have little sympathy. His strength was in other directions than as a patron of learning. He laid the foundations of a prosperous state upon which his son wisely built. He impressed the people with the need of industry and economy, but he cared nothing for science unless it proved itself useful. Nevertheless, useless as lie deemed them to be, he disturbed neither the universities nor the academy. He contented himself with ridiculing the pretensions of the members of the latter and their methods of study. Yet he had some respect for the science of medicine and that of chemistry. In these two branches of study Berlin, during this period, was eminent. But apart from the Gymnasium Director Frisch and the Royal Librarian La Croze there were in the city no philologists, historians, jurists or theologians of the first rank. If the king permitted the academy to live, he took pleasure in crippling its resources and in compelling it to pay salaries to men outside its membership, men who experimented in medicine and chemistry and were willing to carry out his wishes. During the period 1716-1740 only five volumes of miscellanies were published aside from the observations which appeared in the calendar. The fate of the academy might have been better had it issued, as Leibniz wished it to do, a volume every year.

Sixteen months after the death of Leibniz the vacant presidency was filled by the appointment to it of Jacob Paul Gundling, a man of considerable knowledge, a fine story teller and the butt of the king's wit. He was the author of about a dozen volumes on historical and economic subjects, but was drunk a good deal of the time and altogether unfit to hold an office to which a man like Leibniz had given dignity. Thirteen years later, in 1733, acting on the advice of minister von Vierecke, the king made Jabloniski president and the academy began to show signs of a new life. A few famous men had settled in Berlin and some of them had accepted membership in the academy. But complete deliverance came only with the king's death and the accession to the throne. May 31, 1740, of his son Frederick the Great, who in almost all respects was the opposite of his father. This was the beginning of the new era, an era in which French thought prevailed, the era of Maupertuis, D'Alembert and Condorcet.

  1. For the facts presented in this article the writer is chiefly indebted to Professor Adolf Harnack's masterly history of the academy in four quarto volumes, although other sources of information have not been overlooked.