Quick Facts

  • Stockholm Observatory was inaugurated in 1753
  • It was the first own institution of the Royal Swedish Academy
  • Temperature has been measured there since 1756
  • Scientists moved to Saltsjöbaden in 1929

Science has long been an important element of life in Sweden and, therefore, the country’s capital features a large selection of historical places where experts from different fields have been developing their ideas from the early days. In this post, we look at one of the first important scientific institutions established in Stockholm.

Stockholm Observatory

Starting with a little background story, we must understand that Sweden was no longer a political superpower in the early 18th century after decades of great military and political success. Therefore, the country had to find another way to make their mark on the international stage and with several individuals leading the new movement, Sweden was slowly becoming a scientific powerhouse instead.

To give the scientific movement a more official form, in 1739, six of the leading Swedish scientists established the Royal Swedish Academy (Kungl. Vetenskapsakademien). The creation of this institution supported future research in the country and provided a more optimistic outlook for to-be-scientists. As natural sciences belonged to the most well-developed fields, the authorities decided to build an observatory in Stockholm.

Stockholm Observatory

This was possible thanks to the efforts of various individuals as well as optimal timing as you will shortly understand. Carl Hårleman, one of the leading architects of the era, was appointed the task of designing the residence of the first institution owned by the Royal Swedish Academy.

The construction was financed by merchant Claes Grill, who gave the Academy an interest-free loan. Moreover, architect Hårleman was at the same time working on what likely was his biggest project ever, the reconstruction of the Royal Palace. He was able to obtain material for the construction of the observatory from the ongoing works on the Royal Palace for free. These circumstances, or in other words, right timing and involvement of the right individuals, helped the Academy realise their big plans.

Apart from securing finances and construction material, there was another important question the authorities needed to answer. The question was where the observatory should stand. Soon enough, they came up with what seemed to be an ideal solution. In the 1700s, the modern-day Vasastaden district was a scarcely populated area dominated by windmills, wooden cottages, and gardens.

View from Observatoriekullen in Stockholm

View from Observatoriekullet.

The lack of disturbing elements of the city life that would have had a detrimental effect on the quality of observations made from the observatory as well as the presence of a hill which would allow for uninterrupted views of the skies, made it a rather easy decision to build on the hill today known as Observatoriekullen.

The foundation stone of the observatory was laid on 26 May 1748 and the works on the building with a groundbreaking design which would inspire many observatories around the continent for decades to come, began. It was important that the observatory would be oriented in the right direction so that observations could be made along the meridian.

All observations were to be made from a designated room located on the bottom floor of the building. It was only later that an instrument was installed on the upper floor of the observatory. The two floors above the observation room were built for residential purposes.
At the very top of the building, a lantern was installed topped with a gilded star. The observatory building was completed in 1752 but the inauguration was postponed until 20 September 1753 because of architect Hårleman’s death.

Old Observatory in Stockholm

Pehr Wargentin who started measuring temperature at the location in 1756 was the first astronomer to move in the new building. Researchers did not only study the skies at the observatory, though. They were also largely involved in the process of drawing maps of Sweden in the 1800s and hence, their impact on geography should not be overlooked.

Something that might not be so obvious at first sight is the importance of accurate clocks for astronomers. By observing positions of astronomical objects at the right time, the astronomers could determine the paths of these objects. Because of that, a set of high-end clocks were added to the observatory in the reconstruction which took place in the early 1800s.

It is also interesting to know that the astronomers working at the observatory used to decide Stockholm time before time was standardised. Since by following this method, essentially every city had a different time, this approach caused a plenty of issues. Time was first standardised in Sweden when a direct train connected Stockholm with Gothenburg simply to make the timetables clear.

Old campus of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm

View of the old campus of the Royal Institute of Technology (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan) from Observatoriekullen.

Despite the rapid expansion of the city in the 19th century, the area surrounding Observatoriekullen remained largely intact for a long time. We could even go as far as to call it a real countryside paradise just outside of the city. Nevertheless, the area started changing its face at the end of the century when the so-called scientific city grew in the neighbourhood. This change was led by the construction of the new home of the Royal Institute of Technology (Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan) just below the hill on Drottniggatan as well as the facilities for Stockholm University.

Consequently, the small wooden houses gave way to wide city boulevards in the following few decades, which brought some complications to the research at the observatory. Now, the city light affected the quality of the observations and the authorities, therefore, started looking for a new solution.

The astronomers moved their operations to Saltsjöbaden in 1929 and the fate of the old observatory was uncertain. However, the park around the building was beautified shortly afterwards, trees were planted as well as electric light installed, and the public was allowed in the park that we know today as Observatorielunden.

Observatory at Observatorielunden in Stockholm

A few years later, in 1934, the Geography Department of Stockholm University moved into the facilities and occupied them until 1985 when they moved to the university’s main campus at Frescati. At the same time, the Observatoriekullen Foundation (Stiftelsen Observatoriekullen) was established with the objective of opening a museum of astronomy and history of science at the old observatory.

That is exactly what they achieved in 1991 when first visitors where able to admire the collected artefacts. The museum was, however, closed in 2013 and it remains unclear whether we will ever be able to visit the facilities from the mid-18th century again.

Although you are not able to admire the interior of the historic building today, its exterior as well as the surrounding areas are well worth a visit. If you are looking for more beautiful places to visit in Stockholm’s Vasastaden district, check out my earlier post dedicated to such places.

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