Wilhelm Struve Seeker Of Parallax

''The barrier has begun to yield.''

John Herschel, 1841, on parallax measurements by Bessel, Struve, and Henderson, which breached the "hitherto impassable barrier'' to a knowledge of the stellar distances.1

Wilhelm Struve, a tall and athletic youth who looked older than his 13 or 14 years, was striding purposefully down a street in the outskirts of Hamburg one day in 1806 or 1807. Suddenly, recruiting officers for Napoleon's army seized him and bundled him off to a nearby house, where they locked him in a room on the upper floor of a two-story house.

Struve did not lack daring or self-reliance, two qualities that would characterize his personal and professional style. He escaped by taking a risky drop out the window, and ran back home to neighboring Altona.

Struve found safety at home, and later at a university campus far from his province, although political upheavals would punctuate his life and career. His escape was surely a turning point in his life and a providential accident for the sciences of astronomy and geodesy. Instead of fighting under the Emperor Bonaparte, he measured the exact size and shape of the Earth and found the distances to the nearer stars — a feat that had eluded astronomers for centuries. Twice he commissioned the largest and finest telescopes of his day. And, late in his career, he made a serious attempt to extend William Herschel's study of the construction of the heavens.

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