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Maximilian Hell

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Astronomer, b. at Schemnitz in Hungary, 15 May, 1720; d. at Vienna, 14 April, 1792. He entered the Society of Jesus at Trentschin, 18 October, 1738, and after his novitiate was sent to Vienna, where he made his philosophical studies. From his early years he had shown a strong inclination for scientific pursuits, and in 1744 he devoted himself to the study of mathematics and astronomy, acting at the same time as assistant to Father Joseph Franz, the director of the observatory at Vienna. After teaching with much success for a year at Leutschau, he returned to Vienna to study theology, and in 1751 was ordained priest. He received a professorship of mathematics at Klausenberg in 1752, and remained there until 1755, when he was appointed director of the imperial observatory at Vienna.

Father Hell's most important work was perhaps the annual publication of the "Ephemerides astronomicæ ad meridianem Vindobonensem", which he began in 1757 and continued for many years. These contain a large number of valuable observations and data. He was invited by the King of Denmark to undertake at Vardöhuus, Norway, the observations of the transit of Venus of 1769. The transit observations were successful, and after spending some months in Copenhagen preparing his results for the press, he returned to Vienna in 1770. Owing to delays in publication Hell was afterwards suspected of manipulating his data to make them fit with others taken elsewhere. The suspicion was strengthened by Littrow when director of the Vienna Observatory, after a study of the original manuscripts (cf. Hell's "Reise nach Wardö u. seine Beobachtung des Venus-Durchgangs in Jahre 1769", Vienna, 1835). It was not until 1890 that Father Hell's reputation was cleared of the stain of forgery by Professor Simon Newcomb, who made a critical study of the journal in question, and showed conclusively that Littrow's inferences were entirely at fault. The latter, it appears, had originally been led into error by a defect in his sense of colour. Father Hell was of a gentle disposition and simple in his tastes. His devotion to the Church and to his order often cost him much persecution. Besides his "Ephemerides", he was also the author of "Elementa algebræ Joannis Crivelli magis illustrata" (Vienna, 1745); "Adjumentum memoriæ manuale chronologico-genealogico-historicum" (Vienna, 1750); "De la célébration de la Pâque" (ibid, 1761); "Elementa arithmeticæ numericæ et litteralis' (ibid, 1763); "De satellite Veneris" (ibid, 1765); "De Transitu Veneris" (Copenhagen, 1770), etc.

Schlichtegroll, Nekrolog. (Gotha, 1792), I, 282; Sommervogel, Bibl. de la C. de J., IV, 238; Wolf, Geschicte der Astronomie (Munich, 1877), 645; Newcomb, Month. Notices Royal Astron. soc., XLIII, 371; idem, Reminiscences of an Astronomer (Boston, 1903); Woodstock Letters, XXI, i, 70.


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Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Maximilian Hell'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.

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