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HISTORY OF SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
SAMUEL HEINRICH SCHWABE (1789 - 1875)
Born in Dessau, near Berlin in 1789, Samuel Schwabe study pharmacy at Berlin University and, by 1812, he was in charge of the family pharmacy in Dessau. Schwabe had become interested in astronomy and botany while he was at university and he continued his interest in his spare time. He obtained his first telescope in 1825, the result of a lottery win. By the following year he had bought a more powerful telescope. His hobby quickly took over his life and, in 1829, he sold the family pharmacy so that he could devote his time solely in pursuit of his ambition – to find a planet between Mercury and the Sun.
Schwabe aimed his telescope at the Sun, everyday that it was visible, in the attempt to observe his planet transit its surface. The problem was that the Sun had sunspots and these could easily be mistaken for the elusive planet. Schwabe decided to plot these sunspots so that he would not confuse them with the planet he was searching for. In 1843, after seventeen years of daily observations, Schwabe must have been extremely disappointed not to have sighted his, now obviously inexistent, planet. However, he did have thousands of drawings of the surface of the Sun and sunspots.
When Schwabe studied his drawings he realised that the sunspots appeared to have a ten year cycle. This means that every ten years the number of sunspots reaches its maximum, after which they start to gradually decrease in number. Schwabe published his findings but the astronomers of the time did not take much notice of his paper. In 1851, the naturalist Alexandre von Humboldt used Schwabe’s work in the third volume of his publication Kosmos. Astronomers now started to pay attention and, in 1857 Max Wolfe compiled data from various sources, including Schwabe’s, to estimate an eleven year sunspot cycle.
Schwabe’s work was of enormous importance to science. It paved the way for future investigations in the fields of magnetism, weather and organism’s growth rates. Schwabe received recognition for his work from his colleagues in England. The Royal Astronomical Society awarded him the gold medal and he was elected a member of the Royal Society. It is worth noting that, even though his telescope was mostly fixed on the Sun, Schwabe was probably the first person to make a drawing of Jupiter’s red spot.
The table below shows Schwabe’s obervations between 1826 and 1850 as shown in Kosmos: