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From the "learned society" to a scientific organisation supporting modern research institutions


In 1713, G. W. von Leibniz suggested to establish an Academy of Sciences in Vienna, taking as examples the Royal Society in England and the Académie des Sciences in France. Under Maria Theresia several further attempts were made to establish an Academy (inter alia by J. C. Gottsched in 1750), but it was not until twelve scholars filed a petition in 1837 that the long negotiations were initiated which finally led to the foundation of the "Kaiserliche Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien" by Imperial Patent on May 14, 1847. In 1857, the Academy, which as the "learned society" represented a stronghold of scientific freedom, was granted the use of the old University in the centre of Vienna, built between 1753 and 1755 by the French architect Jean Nicolas Jadot, as its permanent headquarters.

Initial Achievements in the Humanities and Natural Sciences

The Academy soon began extensive research. In the humanities the Academy started with researching and publishing important historical sources of Austria (e. g. the Archive of Austrian History, the source edition "Fontes rerum Austriacarum" (from 1849 onwards) or the "Biographisches Lexicon des Kaisertums Österreichs" (by C. Wurzbach ). From 1875 on, the Austrian Academy of Sciences edited the "Monumenta Germaniae Historica" in cooperation with the Academies in Munich and Berlin. Research trips were conducted to Asia Minor, Southern Arabia and Nubia. Archaeologists started to investigate the Roman border fortifications (limes) along the Danube in Upper and Lower Austria (Carnuntum, Mautern) and began excavations in Egypt and in Ephesos in Turkey around the turn of the century. It was envolved in the latter, which have become famous, for more than 90 years. In addition, linguistic research was undertaken in the Balkans and the Near East.

Research activities in the field of the natural sciences also covered a wide variety of topics. In 1857, the Academy took over scientific responsibility for the circumnavigation of the globe with the "Novara" and - based on the experiences of the Payer-Weyprecht polar expedition - promoted the project of the "First International Polar Year" as well as the Austrian expedition to Jan Meyen (1882/83). The Academy was also involved in the "Second International Polar Year" in 1932/33. Especially in the first few decades of its existence, the Academy gained renown with pioneering achievements in many fields. For instance, it was responsible for founding the Central Office for Meteorology and Geomagnetism in 1851, the establishment of the observatories on the peaks of the Sonnblick and the Obir mountains and in 1909 founded the Institute for Radium Research in Vienna . It further supported geological expeditions and oceanographic research in the Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmara and the Red Sea and also promoted geophysical observations (earthquakes), the investigation of raw materials (coal) and alpine research. The Academy is among the initial members of the Association of German Academies ("Kartell der deutschen Akademien") (1893) and the International Association of Academies (1899).

Developments in the 20th Century

The federal law from 1921 guaranteed the legal basis of the Academy in the newly founded First Republic of Austria. In the course of the 20th century the Academy took account of new scientific development by its adoption of modern research perspectives. Particularly from the mid-1960s onwards it rapidly became the country's leading institution in the field of non-university basic research. It founded numerous institutes located in nearly all federal states of Austria and participated in many international organisations and research programmes. Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in the fields of the humanities and social sciences lead to internationally renowned contributions to the development of science (e. g. in Byzantine and Iranian studies, in numismatics, in linguistics and literary studies) and produced important basic insights for regional policy and environmental planning as well as for the assessment of the health, family and social policy of the central government (e. g. by the Institute for Demography and the Institute for Urban and Regional Research). The systematic registration of the daily life and material culture of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern Period by the institute in Krems (Lower Austria) explores new perspectives of historical research.

In the Section for Mathematics and the Natural Sciences research was mainly concentrated on physics, biology, medicine and environmental sciences during the 20th century. Among outstanding achievements special mention must be made of the cooperation in the UA1 experiment (detection of W- and Z-bosons), which was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1984, the participation in the DELPHI experiment (detector for the identification of leptons, photons and hadrons), the construction of magnetometers for space flights (Venus, Mars, project VEGA), contributions to the explanation of gene structure and regulation, of Alzheimer's disease, of human cognitive processes with the help of the electroencephalogram, of heavy blood diseases, etc.

As a learned society, the Academy has always included a number of leading scientists among its members and this is still the case today. Many of former members of the Academy have been associated with epoch-making achievements. However, of the many outstanding personalities of the past only a few of them can be mentioned here. The first President of the Academy was the famous orientalist Joseph Frh. v. Hammer-Purgstall, one of its first members the physicist Christian Doppler. The surgeon Theodor Billroth, the geologist Eduard Suess, whom Vienna has to thank for the fact that its water supply comes from local mountain springs, the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann and the chemist Karl Auer v. Welsbach, who developed incandescent gaslight, were all members of the Academy, as were the linguist Paul Kretschmer, the indologist Erich Frauwallner and the national economist and reformer of the Austrian tax system, Eugen v. Böhm-Bawerk . Other members of the Academy include the Nobel Prize winners Julius Wagner-Jauregg (malaria therapy for progressive paralysis), Victor Hess (cosmic radiation research), Erwin Schrödinger (wave mechanics) and Konrad Lorenz (comparative behavioural research).