Paris Observatory

The Paris Observatory (French: Observatoire de Paris or Observatoire de Paris-Meudon [ɔbsɛʁvatwaʁ də paʁimødɔ̃]), a research institution of PSL Research University, is the foremost astronomical observatory of France, and one of the largest astronomical centres in the world. Its historic building is on the Left Bank of the Seine in central Paris, but most of the staff work on a satellite campus in Meudon, a suburb southwest of Paris.

Paris Observatory
Alternative namesOBS PARIS
Observatory code 005, 007 
LocationMontparnasse, France
Coordinates48°50′11″N 2°20′11″E
East Tower 38 cm (15 in)Equatorial refractor
Location of Paris Observatory
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The Paris Observatory was founded in 1667.[1] Construction was completed by the early 1770s and coincided with a major push for increased science, and the founding of Royal Academy of Sciences.[2] King Louis XIV's minister of finance organized a "scientific powerhouse" to increase understanding of astronomy, maritime navigation, and science in general.[2]

Through the centuries the Paris Observatory has continued in support of astronomical activities, and in the 21st century connects multiple sites and organizations, supporting astronomy and science, past and present.[3]


Administratively, it is a grand établissement of the French Ministry of National Education, with a status close to that of a public university. Its missions include:[4]

  • research in astronomy and astrophysics;
  • education (four graduate programs, Ph.D. studies);
  • diffusion of knowledge to the public.

It maintains a solar observatory at Meudon (48°48′18.32″N 2°13′51.61″E) and a radio astronomy observatory at Nançay.[4] It was also the home to the International Time Bureau until its dissolution in 1987.[5]

The Paris Observatory Library, which was founded in 1785, provides the researchers with documentation and preserves the ancient books, archives, and heritage collections of the institution. Many collections are available online.


The Paris observatory was proposed in 1665-1666 by the French Academy of Sciences, a group that had just been organized by Minister of Finance Jean-Baptiste Colbert. In 1666, Louis XIV of France authorized the building of the Observatory. On Midsummer's Day 1667, members of the Academy of Sciences traced the future building's outline on a plot outside town near the Port Royal abbey, with Paris meridian exactly bisecting the site north-south.[6] The meridian line was used as a basis for navigation and would be used by French cartographers as their prime meridian for more than 200 years. It predates by a few years the Royal Greenwich Observatory in England, which was founded in 1675. The architect of the Paris Observatory was Claude Perrault whose brother, Charles, was secretary to Jean-Baptiste Colbert and superintendent of public works.[7] Optical instruments were supplied by Giuseppe Campani. They completed construction of the observatory in 1671. The buildings were extended in 1730, 1810, 1834, 1850, and 1951.[8] The last extension incorporates the spectacular Meridian Room designed by Jean Prouvé.[9]


In 1671 Saturn's Moon Iaptus was discovered and Rhea in 1672 from Paris Observatory.[10] In 1684 Dione and Tethys were discovered also.[10]

In 1676 the staff concluded that light itself was traveling at a finite speed.[11]

The world's first national almanac, the Connaissance des temps, was published by the observatory in 1679, using eclipses in Jupiter's satellites to aid sea-farers in establishing longitude. In 1863, the observatory published the first modern weather maps. In 1882, a 33 cm (13 in) astrographic lens was constructed, an instrument that catalysed what proved to be the over-ambitious international Carte du Ciel project.

In November 1913, the Paris Observatory, using the Eiffel Tower as an antenna, exchanged sustained wireless (radio) signals with the United States Naval Observatory to determine the exact difference of longitude between the two institutions.[12]


The Paris Observatory library preserves a great number of original works and letters of the Observatory and well known astronomers. The entire collection - archives, instruments, iconography - has been inventoried in an online archive called Alidade - Accès en Ligne aux Instruments, Documents et Archives De l’astronomiE (Online Access to Instruments, Documents and Archives of Astronomy).[13] Some of the work is now digitized on the digital library such as those of Johannes Hevelius, Jérôme Lalande and Joseph-Nicolas Delisle.

Directors & Staff

The title of Director of the Observatory was officially given for the first time to César-François Cassini de Thury by a Royal brevet dated November 12, 1771.[14] However, the important role played by his grandfather and father in this institution during its first century actually gives them somewhat the role of director.

The observatory did not have a director until 1771, before that each member could do as they pleased.[15] Sometimes Giovanni Cassini (1671–1712) and Jacques Cassini (1712–1756) are listed as "directors" retroactively. The same goes for Francois Arago, who also was not actually a director although he did have a de-fact position of leadership and is often credited as such.


The first site was the Paris established in 1667 by King Louis XIV of France. This facility had various work done on it over the centuries, and in 1927 Meudon observatory was added which included a new site and facilities. It was built in 1891.

In addition to these sites, the Marseilles Observatory became a branch of Paris Observatory in 1863.[16] In 1873 Marseilles Observatory detached from Paris Observatory.[17]


King Louis XIV purchased the land for his new observatory March 1667.[18] This provided a site for activities of the Academy of Science nearby to the city of Paris.[18] The original buildings was designed by Claude Perrault.[19] A dome and terrace was added in 1847.[19]


The Meudon site was constructed in the late 19th century by Jules Janssen, one of the discoverers of helium. With a million francs and permission to build on the old royal palace ruins, he constructed one the grandest observatories of its day, with focus on astronomy and solar physics. After World War 1, the observatory was integrated with the nearby Paris Observatory and it became an important campus for that observatory. Even into the 21st century solar observations are conducted at that site, and the preserved Great Refractor (Grande lunette) and astronomical gardens overlooking the city of Paris have delighted visitors for decades.


After the second world war, France astronomers began understanding and building instruments for radio astronomy.[21] A feild station was established in 1953, and by the late 1950s several radio instruments were established.[21]

In 1965 the Nancay decimetric radio telescope was established, a design equivalent to an almost 100 meter dish.[22]


Also known as the Observatoire du Pic de Château Renard, the Observatoire de Saint-Véran was built in 1974 on top of the Pic de Château Renard (2,900 m or 9,500 ft), on the commune of Saint-Véran in the Haut Queyras (Hautes Alpes département). A coronograph was in operation there for ten years; the dome was moved there from the Perrault building of the Observatoire de Paris.

Nowadays, the AstroQueyras amateur astronomy association operates the facility, using a 60 cm (24 in) telescope on loan from the Observatoire de Haute Provence. Numerous asteroids have been discovered there.[23]

Instruments past and present

Early telescopes were supplied by the famed craftsmen Giuseppe Campani.[24] Cassini, an astronomer who worked in the early days of the observatory had used Campani's telescopes in the 1660s, and continued to do so when he moved the Paris Observatory.[25]

The Marly tower, moved to the observatory in 1685 for mounting telescopes, demolished 1705.[26] The Marly tower was originally made for the Versailles water supply system (see Machine de Marly), but was moved to the southern gardens area near Paris Observatory.[27] The tower could hold the objective for extremely long focal length aerial telescopes.[27]

In 1732 a quadrant instrument made by Langlois was established at the observatory.[28]

In 1804 a telescope of 8.4 cm aperture was made by Bellet, was established on the roof of the observatory.[29] In 1807 a Short reflector telescope was acquired, and there were several instruments available including a 9 cm aperture Dollond telescope, and a telescope by Lerebours.[29]

One of the special telescopes in the collection of the observatory, was the Passy telescope of King Louis XV.[29] This telescope was built by Dom Noel in the late 18th century, and was a reflecting telescope with a 61 cm meter aperture bronze mirror.[29] In 1805 the mirror was re-polished, but it was tarnished again within two years; it remained at the observatory until it was dismantled in 1841.[30]

A Lerebours telescope of 24.4 cm aperture was installed in 1823, at a cost of 14,500 Francs.[31] In 1835 Arago used this telescope to observe the apparition of Halley's Comet that year.[31]

In 1837 the Gambey mural circle was installed, and also a transit instrument, also by Gambey.[32]

In 1857 a refracting telescope of 38 centimetres (14.96 in) aperture objective, the Arago equatorial telescope, was completed. Telescope was proposed by director François Arago in 1846.[19] This was installed in the east tower and was made by Lerebours.[32] This instrument is known to have conducted photometry measurements of Jupiter's moons (there was only four known at that time) in the late 1880s.[32]

In 1863 a large transit circle was installed, and in 1878 a meridian instrument.[33] The transit circle of 1863 was made by Secretan and Eichens.[32]

In 1875 a 120 cm aperture silver-on-glass reflecting telescope was built, for 400,000 francs.[34] (the french unit of currency at that time)

This 120 cm diameter aperture telescope was a silvered glass mirror polished by Martin.[35] However when it was mounted it was realized the gravity altered its shape because of the mirror's weight, thus causing an image quality issue.[35]

In 1886 a Henry astrograph with 13 inch objective was acquired.[32]

For the 1907 transit of Mercury, some the telescope used at the Paris Observatory include: [36]

  • Focault-Eichens reflector (40 centimetres (16 in) aperture)
  • Focault-Eichens reflector (20 centimetres (7.9 in) aperture)
  • Martin-Eichens reflector (40 centimetres (16 in) aperture)
  • Several small refractors

The telescopes were mobile and were placed on the terrace for the observations.[36]

Meudon 83-cm Great Refractor

The Meudon great refractor (Meudon 83-cm) is a 83 cm (33 in) aperture refractor, which, with September 20, 1909 observations by E. M. Antoniadi, helped disprove the Mars canals theory. It is a double telescope completed in 1891, with a secondary having 62 cm (24 in) aperture lens for photography. It was of the largest refracting telescopes in Europe, and was active for a century until 1991. In the 21st century it was renovated and supports public education and visitation.

The Meudon refractor was built at Meudon Observatory. It is one of three sites of the Paris Observatory; Meudon Observatory became part of Paris Observatory in 1926.[37] The Meudon Great refractor is the third largest astronomical refractor of this type in the world.[38] The Meudon refractor is located in the Grande Coupole building, which was renovated in the early 2000s.[37]

See also


  1. Brück, Mary (2009-07-25). Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy: Stars and Satellites. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9789048124732.
  2. Narayanan, Anil (2019-03-08). History of Indian Astronomy: The Siamese Manuscript. ISBN 9781483496320.
  3. "Paris Observatory - Observatoire de Paris - PSL Centre de recherche en astronomie et astrophysique". Retrieved 2019-11-19.
  4. "The Paris Observatory". l'Observatoire de Paris. Archived from the original on 2007-08-24. Retrieved 2007-08-27.
  5. Guinot (2000)
  6. Wolf, Charles (1827-1918) Auteur du texte (1902). Histoire de l'Observatoire de Paris, de sa fondation à 1793 / par C. Wolf,... Paris: Gauthier-Villars. pp. 1–12.
  7. [Anon.] (2001) "Perrault, Claude", Encyclopædia Britannica, Deluxe CDROM edition
  8. [Anon.] (2001) "Paris Observatory", Encyclopædia Britannica, Deluxe CDROM edition
  9. [Anon.] (2001) "Prouvé, Jean", Encyclopædia Britannica, Deluxe CDROM edition
  10. Levy, David H. (2010-09-09). Cosmic Discoveries: The Wonders of Astronomy. Prometheus Books. ISBN 9781615925667.
  11. Abbott, Alison (January 2009). "Hidden treasures: the Paris Observatory". Nature. 457 (7225): 33. doi:10.1038/457033a. ISSN 1476-4687.
  12. "Paris Time By Wireless," New York Times, Nov 22, 1913, pg 1.
  13. Alidade (Accès en Ligne aux Instruments, Documents et Archives De l’astronomiE) at
  14. Archives nationales, O1 117, fol. 991-993. See also Charles Wolf, Histoire de l'Observatoire de Paris de sa fondation à 1793, Paris : Gauthier-Villars, 1902, p. 194 and following.
  15. Friedjung, M. (1971). "Cassini and the Paris Observatory". Journal of the British Astronomical Association. 81: 479. Bibcode:1971JBAA...81..479F.
  16. Lequeux, James (2013-03-15). Le Verrier—Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 9781461455653.
  17. Prévot, Marie-Louise; Caplan, James (1998-00-00). "History of the Marseille Observatory". Acta Historica Astronomiae. 3: 78. Bibcode:1998AcHA....3...78P. ISSN 0003-2670. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  18. "1971JBAA...81..479F Page 479". Bibcode:1971JBAA...81..479F. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  19. Lequeux, James (2017-01-00). "The Paris Observatory has 350 years". L'Astronomie. 131: 28. Bibcode:2017LAstr.131a..28L. ISSN 0004-6302. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  20. "Completion and delivery of equipment bay and camera to CNES mark major project milestone" (Press release). Released jointly by Observatoire de Paris, CNES and CNRS-INSU. 2005-06-30. Retrieved 2008-08-03.
  21. Lequeux, James; Steinberg, Jean-Louis; Orchiston, Wayne (2010). "2010JAHH...13...29L Page 29". Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage. 13 (1): 29. Bibcode:2010JAHH...13...29L.
  22. Davis, R. J.; Jackson, N. (1997-01-28). High-Sensitivity Radio Astronomy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-57350-4.
  23. "L'Observatoire du Pic de Château Renard (2900 m)". Histoire (in French). l'Observatoire de Paris. Archived from the original on 2007-09-15. Retrieved 2007-08-27.
  24. Taton, R.; Wilson, C.; Hoskin, Michael (2003-09-18). Planetary Astronomy from the Renaissance to the Rise of Astrophysics, Part A, Tycho Brahe to Newton. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-54205-0.
  25. Morrison-Low, Alison D. (2011-11-11). From Earth-Bound to Satellite: Telescopes, Skills and Networks. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-21150-6.
  26. "A short Story of Paris Observatory - Histoire de l'Observatoire de Paris". Retrieved 2019-11-20.
  27. Orchiston, Wayne; Green, David A.; Strom, Richard (2014-11-24). New Insights From Recent Studies in Historical Astronomy: Following in the Footsteps of F. Richard Stephenson: A Meeting to Honor F. Richard Stephenson on His 70th Birthday. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-07614-0.
  28. King, Henry C. (2003-01-01). The History of the Telescope. Courier Corporation. ISBN 978-0-486-43265-6.
  29. Lequeux, James (2015-09-08). François Arago: A 19th Century French Humanist and Pioneer in Astrophysics. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-20723-0.
  30. Lequeux, James (2013-03-15). Le Verrier—Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-1-4614-5565-3.
  31. Lequeux, James (2015-09-08). François Arago: A 19th Century French Humanist and Pioneer in Astrophysics. Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-20723-0.
  32. Hutchins, Roger (2017-03-02). British University Observatories 1772–1939. Routledge. ISBN 9781351954525.
  33. Lankford, John (2013-03-07). History of Astronomy: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. ISBN 9781136508349.
  34. Observatory, United States Naval (1891). Astronomical and Meteorological Observations Made at the United Statees Naval Observatory During the Year ... U.S. Government Printing Office.
  35. Newcomb, Simon (2011-10-24). Popular Astronomy. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-03773-0.
  36. Lequeux, James (2013-03-15). Le Verrier—Magnificent and Detestable Astronomer. Springer Science & Business Media. ISBN 978-1-4614-5565-3.
  37. "UNESCO Astronomy and World Heritage Webportal - Home". Retrieved 2019-10-21.


  • [Anon.] (2001) "Paris Observatory", Encyclopædia Britannica, Deluxe CDROM edition
  • Aubin, D. (2003). "The fading star of the Paris Observatory in the nineteenth century: astronomers' urban culture of circulation and observation". Osiris. 18: 79–100. doi:10.1086/649378.
  • Guinot, B. (2000). "History of the Bureau International de l'Heure". Polar Motion: Historical and Scientific problems. pp. 175–184. Bibcode:2000ASPC..208..175G.
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