Astronomical Museum in Eger

The northern Hungarian town of Eger is famous amongst Hungarians as the place where István Dobó defeated the invading Ottoman forces in 1552. For historians of science, Eger is interesting for its Esterhazy Károly College. Originally Bishop Eszterhazy had hoped to establish a university in Eger, but he was unable to secure approval from the emperor. So, instead, in the 1760s he founded instead a teachers’ college, which continues to train teachers today. Inside there is a wonderful Baroque library with a rich collection of early modern books and a few manuscripts. The Astronomical Tower at the college houses a small astronomy museum.

The tower at the Eszterhazy Károly College  houses a small astronomy museum.
The tower at the Eszterhazy Károly College houses a small astronomy museum.

The astronomy museum includes a number of old telescopes and a handful of naked-eye instruments. The room is divided by a meridian line, which was, apparently, designed and constructed by the astronomer Maximilian Hell. In addition to designing this room and the meridian line, Hell was the first director of the Vienna Observatory (for a recent study, see Nora Pärr’s Maximilian Hell und sein wissenschaftliches Umfeld im Wien des 18. Jahrhunderts. Pärr’s dissertation is available from the Universität Wien or as a book).

The meridian line inside the astronomy museum.
The meridian line inside the astronomy museum.

The tower is capped by a camera obscura, also designed by Hell in 1776. While there are a number of camera obscuras in various stages of decay across Europe, Eger likes to claim its is one of the oldest functioning instrument. If you climb to the top of the tower, you get a chance to see it in operation. The instrument has nearly a 360° view of the town, except where part of the tower’s roof obstructs the view. While the images are sharp and clear, the description offered by the person operating the camera is a bit fuzzy on details and needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

A Foucault’s pendulum hangs in the center of the tower’s stairwell:

A Foucault’s pendulum hangs in the tower.
A Foucault’s pendulum hangs in the tower.

The Astronomy Tower, its observation room with Hell’s meridian line, and its camera obscura suggest the importance of observatories as markers of scientific knowledge. It was also a way to connect Eger to Vienna, the cultural, intellectual, and administrative capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

While the Astronomy Tower and its small museum is hardly reason to travel to Eger, if you find yourself in the area it’s worth a visit, despite Rick Steves’s dismissal of them as just “some dusty old stargazing instruments and a meridian line in the floor.”