Joseph Petzval - Life

Life

Petzval attended elementary school in Kežmarok, and began his secondary school studies in Kežmarok and Pudlein. On October 1, 1819, he returned to his family in Leutschau, and entered high school. Both in elementary school and high school he ranked among the best in his class in the subjects of Latin (the official language of the Kingdom of Hungary) and religion; however, he struggled with his Hungarian. Before arriving at Leutschau, he was, interestingly enough, also very weak in mathematics. In Leutschau, however, he clearly improved in this discipline.

One anecdote told about Petzval is as follows: When his family had already decided to make a shoemaker out of Petzval, he read the book Analytic Paper on the Elements of Mathematics by the German mathematician Hauser over the summer holidays, just after completing his fourth class in elementary school. He was preparing to undergo a repeat class in mathematics. After Petzval finished the book, the child who had been a weak math pupil swiftly became a math genius.

After finishing high school, Petzval decided to move to the Institutum Geometricum, the engineering faculty of the Pester University. Before that, he had to complete a two-year Lyceum, which he attended from 1823 to 1825 in Kaschau. When he arrived at Košice in 1823, Petzval was already well-versed in the subjects of Latin, mathematical analysis, classical literature and stylistics. In addition to his Slovak he was able to speak perfectly in Czech, German and Hungarian. With his father's assistance, he also learned French and English.

After completing the Lyceum, Petzval worked for a year as an educator for Count Almássy in the Heves county. In addition to bringing in some urgently needed money, this experience also provided him with important social contacts.

From 1826 to 1828, Petzval studied at the Institutum Geometricum in Prague, and earned an engineering diploma in 1828. In the same year, he joined the graduate degree program of the university, and became the self-appointed adjunct chair for the Physics Department (in 1831). From 1828 to 1835, Petzval simultaneously worked as an urban engineer for the city of Prague—-particularly as a specialist in flood abatement and sewers—-and studied mathematics, mechanics and practical geometry. He authored an unrealized plan to build a navigation channel around Prague. In 1830, his dam computations saved Prague from an inundation caused by the flooding of the Vltava. After he received his Ph.D. in 1832, he taught as an associate professor at the university in Budapest. During this period, he also received a degree in mathematics. In 1835, he was appointed a university professor in higher mathematics.

After being invited to the University of Vienna in 1836, Petzval accepted a position of the chair of mathematics there in 1837, and worked until 1877 as a professor of mathematics. Apart from mathematics, he was also concerned with mechanics, ballistics, optics, and acoustics. His lectures on the theory of algebraic equations, which integrated linear and differential equations with constant and variable coefficients, ballistics, acoustic theory, and other areas were high quality and became well attended.

Petzval moved into a rented abandoned monastery at Kahlenberg mountain (according to some sources after 1859). He founded his own glass-sharpening workshop there. His lenses became world famous because Petzval was also a skillful lens sharpener and precision mechanic.

In 1840, he discovered his famous portrait lens. 1845 brought disputes with the entrepreneur Peter Wilhelm Friedrich von Voigtländer (1812–1878) over who had the right to produce Petzval's lenses. In 1859, Petzval's home was broken into, and his manuscripts — a result of many years of research — were destroyed. Petzval never managed to reconstruct the lost documents. His most refined technical book on optics, lost with his manuscripts, would never appear in print. From then on, he primarily concerned himself with acoustics and began to withdraw from society. His enterprise with Carl Dietzler failed in 1862 (see further below); Dietzler died in 1872.

In 1869, at the age of 62, Petzval married his housekeeper, but she died four years later. In 1877, he stopped lecturing, withdrew to a monastery on Kahlenberg, and became a hermit.

Petzval died in Vienna in 1891, nearly forgotten, embittered, and destitute. His grave is in the Viennese central cemetery. His bitterness at the end of his life can probably be traced, on the one hand, to his continuing controversy with Voigtländer, the loss of his manuscripts, and his business failure; and on the other hand, to the fact that he was never really acknowledged for his lifelong work in the field of optics. Just before his death, Petzval was reported to have said:

"I defeated the light, I have it firmly in hand, because there is much darkness in the world too."

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