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HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

CHRISTIAN DOPPLER (1803 - 1853)

Christian Doppler was born in Salzburg, Austria in 1803. His parents, Johann and Theresa Doppler, lived in a big house near the river in the centre of town. The Doppler family ran a well-established stone mason business and it was assumed that Christian would also become a stone mason. However, the young Doppler was a frail child and his health was poor. It was clear that he was very unlikely to be able to cope with the strenuous work involved in stone masonry. Doppler was sent to a local primary school in Salzburg and he attended secondary school in Lintz, where he was awarded a medal for his academic excellence.

Doppler’s parents sought out advice about the subject he should study at university. It was eventually decided that it should be mathematics and Doppler entered the Vienna Polytechnic Institute, graduating with honours in 1822. At this point it seems that Doppler took a “gap” year, finding work as a math tutor as well as beginning his scientific writing career. Eventually he returned to university, this time in Salzburg, reading philosophy, followed by Vienna University where he studied mathematics, mechanics and astronomy.

Doppler completed his studies in 1829 and secured a job as assistant mathematics professor at Vienna University. This was only a temporary post and it was not well paid. Doppler subsidized is income by working part-time as a book keeper at a local cotton factory. He continued his writing and, in 1831, his first scientific paper was published; the first of a total of fifty one that were published in his lifetime. At the same time he was busy applying for better paid academic posts. Doppler was very disappointed that so many of his applications were rejected that he considered emigrating to America. He had even started to make arrangements for travel to the USA when, in 1835, he was offered a teaching post at the Technical Secondary School in Prague.

Christian Doppler

Public Domain Image

With a permanent post and a better salary, Doppler settled in Prague, married and began to raise a family. He and his wife, Mathilde Sturmand, had five children, three boys and two girls. Doppler found the work tiring with long hours of teaching and research; his health was badly affected. He was bored teaching elementary mathematics so it must have been a relief for him to have been offered hours of higher math teaching in 1836. This also increased his salary. His election to the Royal Bohemian Society of Sciences in 1840 probably secured him the professorship at the Math and Physics at State Technical Academy of Prague, a post he took up in 1841.

It was in 1842 that Doppler presented his essay “On the Coloured Light of the Double Stars and Certain Other Stars of the Heavens” to Royal Bohemian Society. This paper was the foundation of the famous Doppler Effect. Basically, the Doppler Effect is about they way that waves, such as light and sound waves, apparently change their frequency as the source of the waves moves. A good example of this is when an ambulance, with its siren on, passes you (the observer). The sound changes as the ambulance gets nearer to you and then changes again as the ambulance moves away from you. Although he was unaware of it at the time, Doppler had discovered a phenomenon that would later proove very important in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Doppler’s health was declining in 1844 and he was forced to take a sick leave. He had been upset about official complaints made by his students that he corrected exam papers too severely. Doppler had been found guilty by the Technical Academy and his students were allowed to resit their exam. Although Doppler was eventually exonerated, he did not return to work until 1846 and, at the same time, he started looking for another job.

In 1847 Doppler took up his new post as professor of mathematics, physics, and mechanics at the Academy of Mines and Forests in Schemnitz, a mining town in Slovakia. He could not have known how short his tenure would be! One year after he started his new job the 1848 Revolution broke out. Doppler and his family fled to Vienna where, in 1850, he started work in the new Physical Institute of Vienna. In 1851 he was elected to the Austrian Academy of Sciences and, soon after, he became professor of experimental physics at the Royal Imperial University of Vienna. One of the students he interviewed was Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics, who studied at the physics at the university.

Doppler’s health got worse as his chest problems became more acute. He went to Venice in the hope that the warm climate might improve his condition. When it became clear that his health was deteriorating, his wife travelled to Venice to be with him. Doppler was buried in Venice in “a grave of honour” and his fellow physicists erected a memorial plaque in the cemetery.

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