Star Catalogue and Heavenly Roads
It was founded back in 1887, modeled upon the one in Greenwich. It had an optic telescope, one of the biggest in the world at the time, and a library full of rarities, from the first publications of Zaharije Orfelin and Ruđer Bošković, to the gift fund of Milutin Milanković. The first Serbian discovery of a planet took place there, in 1936. The Observatory complex is the most important monument of history of science in Serbia. Today, it is used for contemporary astronomical and cosmological research

By: Jovan Vučković
Photo: Dragan Bosnić

When you get off the city bus no. 65 at its last stop, you find yourself surrounded with forest and silence, strange after the city hustle. Zvezdara (place of stars) Forest. The former famous and popular resort of Belgradians now seems somehow desolated, with its dilapidated ”White Acacia” kafana and several cafes. Going down the windy Volgina Street or the path through the forest, a curious one will reach a whole of several unusual buildings. The Astronomical Observatory. Sometimes, on special occasions, it opens its doors to curious Belgradians and their guests. The day of this scientific institution, one of the oldest of its kind in South-Eastern Europe, is marked on April 17 and 18 every year. It is also the day of astronomy in Serbia.
How did it all begin?
The penetration of new ideas and scientific knowledge reached the Principality of Serbia in the second half of the XIX century. In 1863, lessons in astronomy and meteorology were officially introduced into the curriculum of the Belgrade Great School. However, the curriculum was implemented only in 1884.
In the year 1879, young Milan Nedeljković was sent to Paris to specialize in astronomy and meteorology at the Paris Observatory School of Astronomy. After graduating, he didn’t stay in Paris. He returned to Belgrade. As professor of the Great School, he succeeded in getting approval from the Ministry of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs on April 7, 1887 (March 26 according to the Julian calendar) to establish the Astronomical and Meteorological Observatory of the Kingdom of Serbia in the single-storey building belonging to Ernest Geisler, contractor, at the corner of Vojvode Milenka and Svetozara Markovića streets. He became its first director.
The Observatory was moved from the rented building in 1891 to Mali Vračar, where the Meteorological Observatory stands today. The astronomical, meteorological and seismological observatories were there, in Karađorđe’s Park. After World War I, in 1924, they were separated and the construction of the Zvezdara Observatory began.


For several years, the observatory was mainly meteorogical. Only in 1922, Nedeljković received permission to purchase a number of astronomical and meteorological instruments in Germany, on account of war damage. Two years later, in 1924, he retired. The Faculty of Philosophy administration decided to divide the institution into two, Meteorological (managed by Pavle Vujović) and Astronomical Observatory. A pavilion for the spotlight and two more smaller wooden pavilions were raised in the place of the present Children’s Clinic in Tiršova Street. Circumstances were improving, so the construction of a new object at the top of Big Vračar, today known as Zvezdara, began in 1929. The place where the construction started was far from the city, uninhabited. The Astronomical Observatory was raised modeled upon the ones in Pulkovo and Greenwich. The location provided excellent conditions for research in this area, and Czech architect Jan Dubovi gave the complex a modern and functional appearance. (The Observatory design brought Dubovi the degree of doctor of technical sciences in Prague.) Residential buildings for researchers and their families were also built and Dubovi designed the furniture in all the objects.
The so-called reflector was placed in one of the pavilions. This optical telescope, one of the biggest in the world, is still functioning. It is located on a mobile platform, with a radius of 65 centimeters and focal length of 10,5 meters. It is no longer in use today, because the sky above Belgrade is overly illuminated. The dome above the telescope is movable and can be opened (Jan Dubovi also designed the platform under the giant telescope). Near the telescope is a small table with a lamp and ashtray from 1932, a worktable, and an unusual clock, which became part of the collection of old astronomical instruments. The parquet on the mobile platform is authentic.
Three pavilions in the area of the Astronomical Observatory (Zvezdarnica) were designed in a way that their foundations create an equilateral triangle. The first includes a meridian circle, the second a passage instrument and the third a vertical circle. Such a layout made the Belgrade Observatory unique in the world.
The library has a special place within the complex. It is the biggest and most comprehensible scientific astronomical library in Serbia. Its appearance reminds of the ones in English university cities. It disposes with about 100.000 copies of professional astronomical magazines and more than 5.000 books. Its fund includes gifts of Milan Nedeljković, Milutin Milanković, Vojislav Mišković and others. Some of the books are real rarities, such as Zaharije Orfelin’s Calendar from 1783 and Ruđer Bošković’s Elementorum Universae Matheseos from 1754, printed in Rome.


During World War II, German forces dismounted and took away two valuable instruments.
”In World War II”, states a chronicle, ”part of the Observatory’s administration building was turned into a canteen for German officers. The plan was to disassemble all the instruments and take them to Germany. However, thanks to the involvement of Vojislav Mišković, it was somehow prevented.”
The dome of the big reflector and its lens were severely damaged during the fights for the liberation of Belgrade in October 1944. After the war, the Astronomical Observatory experienced several reorganizations. It became an independent institute for scientific research in 1985.
In its early period, the work was mainly based on observing, determining the exact time and geographical coordinates, creating star catalogues, discovering small bodies in the solar system, dual stars and its paths. The advancement of science in the world, mostly astrophysics, initiated regular observations of the activities of the Sun and changeable stars in Serbia. Scientific research at the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory today includes a wide specter of actual astronomical problems, from the research of tight double stars and star atmospheres, studying our and other galaxies, active galactic cores, genesis and evolution of the universe, to cosmology as a whole.
”From mid-1980s, there was a rapid development of computer science in the world, introduction of automation, remote control and telecommunication. In the early nineties, these technologies enabled introduction of robotized telescopes, without the presence of human crews. This is how, with adequate software, telescopes and domes of the pavilions are controlled today”, tell the employees of the Observatory. ”The BELISSIMA (Belgrade Initiative for Space Science, Instrumentation and Modeling in Astrophysics) project envisages the construction of an observation pavilion and installing a one-and-a-half meter radius telescope, with a primary mirror. The telescope will be named ‘Milanković’, after Milutin Milanković, Serbian astronomer, scientist, manager of the Observatory twice (1925-1926 and 1948-1951).”
According to experts from the Museum of Science and Technology, the Belgrade Astronomical Observatory complex is the most important monument of science history and development in Serbia. It was declared monument of culture by the Serbian government in 2001.


The decision on founding the Meteorological Observatory was signed by the minister of education and clerical affairs, Milan Kujundžić Aberdar (1842-1893), Serbian philosopher and politician. As already said, the initiator of this endeavor was Milan Nedeljković (1857-1950), professor at the Great School.


Planet Serbia
The merits for the first Serbian discovery of a small planet in 1936 belong to Milorad Protić. This planet, first marked as TB, was named Serbia. That same year, another Serbian astronomer, Pero Đurković, during his visit to the observatory in Uccle, Belgium, discovered planet 1936 GA, later named Milanković.
These two young astronomers later discovered many other small planets, and gave them familiar names: Beograd, Yugoslavia, Simonida, Zvezdara, Mišković, Tesla… These discoveries made the Belgrade Observatory famous and enlisted it as one of the most important institutions of its kind in the world.


This institution published its first magazine ”Bulletin mensuel de Observatoire Central de Belgrade” (”Monthly Bulletin of the Central Observatory in Belgrade”) in 1902. It’s interesting that the publication was in French.


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