Hell [Höll], Maximilian (1720 - 1792)

Maximilian Hell was born in Schemnitz, Hungaria, on the 15. (13.?) May 1720 as the son of the mathematician and master of the mine waterworks Matthias Cornelius Hell. Maximilian had two brothers, Ignaz Cornel and Joseph Karl (1713 - 1760).

He went to school in Schemnitz and Neusohl and joined the Jesuite order in Trentschin in 1738. After some years as novice he was sent to Vienna to study philosophy and mathematics for three years. In 1745 he was invited to assist Joseph Franz (1704 - 1776), the astronomer at the Jesuit observatory in Vienna, with the observations. After about one and a half year as teacher in Leutschau (1746) Maximilian returned at the end of 1747 to Vienna to start his theological studies. In 1752 he was ordained priest and ordered to go to Klausenburg as mathematics teacher . He also was instructed to build a new observatory there.

In 1755 Hell returned again to Vienna. The University there had received several astronomical instruments from the court; they had been used by Johann Jacob Marinoni before. Hell’s former teacher Joseph Franz had received the order to build a new observatory and had recommended him for the position of director. Beginning in 1757 Hell started to publish his „Ephemerides astronomicae ad meridianum Vindobonemsem“ (Ephemerides for the meridian of Vienna). These were for several years the only other astronomical tables beside that of the Paris observatory. The last volume edited by him was published in 1793.

Astronomers all over Europe started to prepare their instruments and travelling plans to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun on the 3. June 1769. These observations were very important since the distance of the sun could be calculated using data from the timing of the beginning and end of the transit. Hell was invited by Christian VII., king of Denmark, through his ambassador at the Vienna court, Duke Bachof, to observe this event on the danish island Vardø. All expenses would be paid for by the danish king. Hell was surprised by this invitation for he never had any contact with Danish astronomers and thought his name was unknown in Denmark. As assistant he invited his former collaborator Johannes Gajnovics S.J., to join him on the long journey to a small island off the coast of Lapland, today belonging to Norvay.

The observations from Vardø were successfull and Hell published his data in 1770, a half year after the event. This rather late publication and differences with other observations led some astronomers, including J. Lalande, to suspect that Hell had falsified his data. This suspicion was cleared up by v. Littrow who discovered parts of the original journal that Hell wrote during the event on Vardø. But it was found that Hell had altered the timing slightly. Based on the original data Encke calculated an improved value for the distance between the sun and Earth. S. Newcomb fully rehabilitated Hell in a text titled: „On Hell’s alleged falsification ...“ which was published in the ‘Monthy Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society’, 43 (1883), p. 371-81.

Soon after the expedition Hell was asked to build an observatory in Erlau for the Bishop Duke Carl Eszterhazy. Beside that task he made experiments on magnetism together with Mesmer and edited the astronomical ephemerides for Vienna. A plan by Hell for a building that should house the Academy of Sciences in Vienna was turned down by empress Maria Theresia because Hell had planned to fill most of the vacant positions with Jesuites. Hell was member of several scientific academies in Europe.

He fell ill with pneumonia in March 1792 and died in Vienna on the 14. April 1792. He is buried in the graveyard at Enzersdorf.

This page created by Chris Plicht