Joseph Petzval

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Self-portrait, c1856
Born January 6, 1807(1807-01-06)
Zipser Bela (Spišská Belá), Kingdom of Hungary, Austrian Empire
Died September 19, 1891(1891-09-19) (aged 84)
Vienna, Austria-Hungary
Petzval's genealogy [1].
Joseph Petzval in fencing position, finger jousting, with August Schleicher, c1860-1865. Photo: Ludwig Angerer
Members of the Mathematics & Natural Sciences Class of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in 1853. Doppler, von Littrow, Redtenbacher, Fenzl, Unger, von Ettinghausen, von Baumgartner, Petzval (right, sitting) and others.

Joseph Petzval (Jozef Maximilián Petzval, Josef Maximilian Petzval, Petzvál József Miksa) was a 19th-century mathematician, inventor and physicist. He is one of the founders of geometrical optics, modern photography and cinematography. Among his inventions are the Petzval portrait lens and opera glasses, both still in common use today. He is also credited with the discovery of the Laplace transform and is also known for his extensive work on aberration in optical systems.


Born 1807 in Zipser Bela, Kingdom of Hungary, (today Spišská Belá, Slovakia). In c1810 his family moved to Kežmarok (Kesmark) where Petzval attended elementary school (Hlavná národná škola, c1815-18). He continued with his secondary school studies in Podolínec (Pudlein, Nižšie piaristické gymnázium, c1818-20). In October 1819 his family moved again, to Levoča (Leutschau), where he entered high school (Vyššie katolícke gymnázium, c1820-22). 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, but then clearly improved in it.

In 1822-25 he attended philosophical school at the Royal Academy (Kráľovská akadémia, Academia Regia Cassoviensis) in Košice where the courses by Michael Barlaij (higher mathematics, logic, philosophy) and Jozef Magyar (Latin, history) had the strongest impact upon him.

From 1826, Petzval studied at the Institutum Geometricum in Buda and after two years of study and practice obtained an engineering degree. Initially he remained in Pest, where he designed a plan for navigation channels in the city and executed the necessary measurements. In addition to his practical work he completed his studies with a doctorate in mathematics in 1832. The same year he was appointed associate professor of mathematics, mechanics and practical geometry by the university. In 1835 he was appointed professor of higher mathematics.

In 1837, Petzval accepted an appointment to a chair of mathematics at the University of Vienna. Up to 1877 he held lectures on the theory of linear and differential equations, algebraic equations, intense cable vibrations, a circular movement as well as ballistics and analytical mechanics.

In Vienna, Petzval rented an abandoned Piarist monastery at Kahlenberg mountain, and founded his own glass-sharpening workshop there. In 1840, he designed his famous portrait lens. Later that year he entered disputes with the entrepreneur Voigtländer over who had the right to produce Petzval's lenses.

In later life, he continued to study optics, particularly refraction, until around 1859, when some of his optics manuscripts were destroyed in a burglary. His most refined technical book on optics, lost with his manuscripts, would never appear in print. He turned to the science of acoustics, and finished his long-running series of lectures on dioptrics in 1862. His enterprise with Carl Dietzler failed in 1862.

In January 1869, at the age of 62, Petzval married his housekeeper Katarina Schlegl, but she died three years later. Petval retired his professorship on his seventieth birthday, in 1877.

Petzval died in Vienna in 1891. His grave is in the Viennese central cemetery.



Petzval's camera, Voigtländer [2]
Petzval's portrait objective [3]
Portrait and landscape objective

At the request of Andreas von Ettingshausen, who got acquainted with photographic work of Louis Daguerre in Paris, he began with the calculations for the lenses used for portraits and landscapes in 1839. Ettingshausen, inter alia, introduced him to Vienna optician Friedrich Voigtländer, who made the first prototypes of the new lenses, based on Petzval’s calculations. Petzval’s original contribution to this was a double achromatic lens, which served as the basis for further development of photographic optics. He separated with Voigtländer after sharp dispute over the primacy. Petzval's lens design became a standard lens for portraiture, renowned as Petzval lens [4] [5], most widely used until the introduction of Zeiss Anastigmat in 1889.

Petzval designed a second type of lens, the Orthoscope, a doublet with a smaller aperture than the portrait lens, but a larger area of sharp focus - intended for landscape and architecture photography. The opticians Franz Xaver Waibl and Carl Dietzler were the new partners. The camera possessed a light foldable chamber with double bellows. The lens, made by Dietzler, was patented by Petzval and Dietzler in 1857, under the title Photographischen Dialyten (Orthoscope). Dietzler called the new design Dialyt. Voigtländer made Petzval's nightmares true by copying the patented lens, renaming the lens type to Orthoskop. That infamy was one of the reasons for Dietzel's bankruptcy. And the related wrangle between Voigtländer and Petzval led to the move of Voigtländer from Vienna (Austria) to Braunschweig (Germany) in 1866.

Other work

Among Petzval's other works are the invention of opera glasses, lens system calculations that led to the perfection of a telescope and microscope (1843), theodolite, projection equipment, computations for efficient binoculars, and construction of new electric headlights (1847). He designed a portable reflector with a diameter of 1.3 m, which was able to illuminate objects up to 2.7 km away. His plan for the construction of lighting systems for ships on the Danube could not be carried out, however. His special mirror lamp (Petzval lamp), which made possible a maximum utilization of light energy, was used particularly for the bright projectors developed by Petzval. Petzval can also be regarded as the inventor of the modern unastigmatic lens system, based on records from his estate. About 1860, Petzval conducted photogrammetric measurements using equipment he had designed. He also proved scientifically that glowing solid compounds emit more light than burning gases. Carl Freiherr Auer von Welsbach later applied this principle to the gas lamp he designed.

Petzval's achievements are used today in cinematography, astronomy, and meteorology. The Astro-Petzval-Objektiv lens is used in astronomy. This objective made a distortion-free illustration of a large part of the sky, as well as permitting photographing of galaxies and star fields. German optics companies (Töpfer, Voigtländerkorrigie, Zeiss) produced the Petzval objective lens until the 1940s. Petzval's largest contributions to optics are his theoretical bases for the construction and correction of optical lens systems. He carried out fundamental work for the theory of aberration in optical systems. A few central terms of this field were later named after Petzval:

  • The Petzval surface is the generally curved image plane of an unadjusted optical system.
  • In the case of adherence to the Petzval condition the Petzval surface is even.

To the regret of physicists, Petzval never released a prepared multi-volume optical work.


In mathematics, Petzval stressed practical applicability. He said, "Mankind does not exist for science's sake, but science should be used to improve the conditions of mankind." He worked on applications of the Laplace transformation. Arguably it could be called the "Petzval transformation", since he was the first to study it and its applications in usual linear differential equations systematically. His work was very thorough, but not completely satisfying, since he could not use an edge integration in order to invert the transformation. Petzval wrote a paper in two volumes as well as a long work on this subject. A controversy with the student Simon Spritzer, who accused Petzval of plagiarism of Pierre-Simon Laplace, led the Spritzer-influenced mathematicians George Boole and Jules Henri Poincaré to later name the transformation after Laplace. Petzval tried to represent practically everything in his environment mathematically. Thus he tried to mathematically model fencing or the course of the horse. His obsession with mathematics finally led to the discovery of the portrait objective.


From c1859 Petzval also devoted his attention to acoustics. He developed a theory of the oscillations of strained strings as well as his own theory of tone systems, and dealt with the formation of chords, the rational keyboard and the mathematical principles to form a new harmony. The principle of maintaining the continuance of oscillation led to a polemic with Christian Doppler, which was resolved by Petzval's student Ernst Mach, in such a way that he demonstrated that the principles were not in opposition.

He designed a piano with three key sequences, and harfguitar (Guitharfe, 1862). The harfguitar was built by J. Scherzer, one neck is approximately normal scale and equipped with 31 frets to the octave, the other is a normal 12-fret neck, but in the bass register, with a scale of approximately 36".



The Jozef Maximilián Petzval Museum of the History of Photography and Cinematography [6], part of the Slovak Technical Museum of Košice, is located in Spišská Belá, in the house where Petzval was born. The crater Petzval on the far side of the Moon is named after him, as are roads and statues in modern Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary.

In 1980 a planetoid (3716 Petzval, 1980 TG) was named after Petzval upon the request of the astronomical institute in Tatranská Lomnica and Czech scientists; Petzval's portrait objective lens made possible the discovery of many planetoids at the end of the 19th century. The Austrian Board of Education has bestowed the "Petzval Medal" for special achievements in the area of scientific photography since 1928.


Theorie der Tonsysteme, 1905.


  • Bericht über die Ergebnisse einiger dioptrischen Untersuchungen, Vienna, 1843; repr., Liptovský Mikuláš: SÚT Vysoká vojenská technická škola, 1991, 43 pp.
  • Eigenschaften einer guten Camera-Obscura, Vienna, 1847.
  • Integration der linearen Differenzialgleichungen mit Constanten und veränderlichen Coefficienten, I–II., Vienna, 1853–1859, PDF.
  • Berichte über optische Untersuchungen, Vienna, 1857.
  • Über das neue Landschaft – als Fernobjektiv, Vienna, 1858.
  • Theorie der Störungen der Stützlinien (bei Gewölben und Hängebrücken), Leipzig, 1904–1905. First published in Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik 50:3-4 (1904), Leipzig: Teubner, pp 288-333 and 345-421, IA.
  • Theorie der Tonsysteme, ed. Ludwig Erményi, Leipzig: Teubner, 1905, 122 pp. Contents, [7]. First published in Zeitschrift für Mathematik und Physik 51 (1904), Leipzig: Teubner, pp 281-332 and 341-410, PDF, IA, PDF (full journal volume).
  • Aus den Vorlesungen über Ballistik. Ein Beitr. zur Geschichte der Ballistik, Leipzig, 1908.


  • "On the Camera Obscura", Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol 17 (January-June 1859), pp 1-15. (English)


Ivan Rumanovský, Jozef Petzval: Život a dielo, 1957, PDF. (Slovak)

Monographs, brochures[edit]

  • Erményi, Lajos (1902). Dr. Joseph Petzval's Leben und wissenschaftliche Verdienste. Halle: Knapp (German).
  • Erményi, Lajos (1906). Petzval József élete és érdemei. Budapest: Mathematikai és Physikai Társulat (Hungarian).
  • Seress, János (1954). Petzval József, 1807–1891. A fényképező optika magyar származású feltalálójának mérnöki, professzori és feltalálói működése. Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó (Hungarian).
  • Rumanovský, Ivan (1957). Jozef Petzval: Život a dielo. Martin: Osveta (Slovak). PDF.
  • Rumanovský, Ivan (1960). Jozef Petzval, priekopník fotografickej optiky. Bratislava: Čs. štátny film (Slovak).
  • Butkovič, Štefan, ed. (1973). Múzeum J. M. Petzvala v Spišskej Belej. Východoslovenské vydavateľstvo: Košice. pp. 90 (Slovak).
  • Valehrachová, Margita (2001). Jozef Maximilián Petzval - vplyv jeho prác na rozvoj techniky a optiky. Zborník príspevkov z vedeckej konferencie pri príležitosti 110. výročia úmrtia J. M. Petzvala. Košice: Slovenské technické múzeum (Slovak).
  • Fellner, Manuela; Holzer, Anton; Limbeck-Linlienau, Elisabeth, eds. (2003). Die Schärfung des Blicks: Joseph Petzval: das Licht, die Stadt und die Fotografie. Vienna: Technisches Museum. pp. 165. ISBN 3902183071 (German).
  • Choma, Milan (2007). Jozef Maximilián Petzval a Otto Baltazár Petzval: Významní matematici zo Spišskej Belej. Kežmarok: Jadro. pp. 111. ISBN 9788096962211 (Slovak). PDF.
  • Klíma, Ladislav, ed. (2008). Jozef Maximilián Petzval - 200. výročie narodenia. Košice: Slovenské technické múzeum. pp. 75 (Slovak, German, Hungarian). Contents, Conference programme.
  • Valehrachová, Margita (2012). Kúzelník spod Kahlenbergu. Bratislava: Perfekt (Slovak). [8]
  • Fisterová, Agáta, ed. (2014). Jozef Maximilián Petzval - priekopník modernej optiky a fotografie. Bratislava: CVTI SR. pp. 45 (Slovak). PDF.

Papers and articles[edit]

  • Kingslake, Rudolf (December 1953). "Petzval's Lens and Camera". Image 2 (9): 60-61. PDF.
  • Kingslake, Rudolf (January 1955). "The Orthoscopic Lens". Image 4 (1): 2. PDF.
  • Svoboda, Vladimír (1987). "Jozef Maxmilián Petzval - původ, život a dílo". In Pátý, Libor. Jubilejní almanach Jednoty čs. matematiků a fyziků 1862–1987. pp. 84-96 (Czech). PDF.
  • Pöss, Ondrej (1988). "Jozef Maximilián Petzval". In Tibenský, Ján. Priekopníci vedy a techniky na Slovensku 2. Bratislava: Obzor. pp. 407-412 (Slovak).
  • Pöss, Ondrej (1990). "J. M. Petzval". Ročenka dejín a metodológie fyziky 1. pp. 7-19 (Slovak).
  • Pöss, Ondrej (1990). "Petzvalove oči zastavujú čas. Svetový úspech nášho krajana". Historická revue (3): 21 (Slovak).
  • Javnický, Štefan (1992). "Sympózium k 100. výročiu úmrtia Jozefa Maximiliána Petzvala (Spišská Belá, 17.9.1991)". Múzeum 37 (1): 53 (Slovak).
  • Morovics, Miroslav Tibor (1992). "Seminár k 100. výročiu úmrtia J. M. Petzvala v Spišskej Belej (16.-17.9.1991)". Historický časopis 40 (4): 515-516 (Slovak).
  • Tringli, István (1992). "Petzval József pesti évei". Technikatörténeti szemle 19: 25-34 (Hungarian).
  • Javnický, Štefan (2001). "Konferencia k 110. výročiu úmrtia J. M. Petzvala". Múzeum 47 (4): 25-27 (Slovak).
  • Morovics, Miroslav Tibor (2003). "Matematika v diele Jozefa Maximiliána Petzvala". In Hympánová, Ingrid; Morovics, Miroslav Tibor. Dvadsiaty zborník dejín fyziky. pp. 89-101 (Slovak).


  • Volal sa Petzval, dir. Jozef Zachar, 1961, medaillon.