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.
Petzval finger jousting, 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 19-th 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 a rented 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 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.

In January 1869, at the age of 62, Petzval married his housekeeper Katarina Schlegl, but she died three 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.



Petzval's camera.
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. His objective was the most widely used portrait objective until the invention of Zeiss Anastigmat in 1889.

After sharp dispute with Voigtländer over the primacy, with whom he separated in 1845, he also cooperated with optics producer Carl Dietzler in continuation of his career. After the successful calculations Dietzler made a camera with double thread and a variable focal length, which was presented by P. at the convention of the German doctors and scientists in Vienna. Petzval-Dietzlers lens patented in the following year had three times the luminous intensity as Voigtländers and it was exported to France and England. The camera with the new landscape objective, produced by Dietzler, possessed a light foldable chamber with double bellows.

Other inventions

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.


Since 1860 Petzval devoted his attention to acoustics. He developed a theory of the oscillations of strained strings as well as his own theory of tone systems. 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.



The Jozef Maximilián Petzval Museum of the History of Photography and Cinematography, 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.


Works by Petzval
  • Bericht über die Ergebnisse einiger dioptrischen Untersuchungen, Vienna, 1843.
  • Eigenschaften einer guten Camera-Obscura, Vienna, 1847.
  • Integration der linearen Differenzialgleichungen mit Constanten und veränderlichen Coefficienten, I–II., Vienna, 1853–1859.
  • 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.
  • Theorie der Tonsysteme, Leipzig, 1904–1905, edited by L. Erményi.
  • Aus den Vorlesungen über Ballistik. Ein Beitr. zur Geschichte der Ballistik, Leipzig, 1908.
Works on Petzval
  • Lajos Erményi, Dr. Joseph Petzval's Leben und wissenschaftliche Verdienste, Halle: Knapp, 1902. (German) / Petzval József élete és érdemei, Budapest: Mathematikai és Physikai Társulat. 1906. (Hungarian)
  • János Seress, Petzval József, 1807–1891. A fényképező optika magyar származású feltalálójának mérnöki, professzori és feltalálói működése, Budapest: Tankönyvkiadó. 1954. (Hungarian)
  • Ivan Rumanovský, Jozef Petzval: Život a dielo, Martin: Osveta, 1957. (Slovak)
  • Ivan Rumanovský, Jozef Petzval, priekopník fotografickej optiky, Bratislava: Čs. štátny film, 1960. (Slovak)
  • Manuela Fellner, Anton Holzer, Elisabeth Limbeck-Linlienau (eds.), Die Schärfung des Blicks: Joseph Petzval: das Licht, die Stadt und die Fotografie, Vienna: Technisches Museum, 2003, 165 pp. ISBN 3902183071 (German)
  • Milan Choma, J.M.Petzval a Otto Baltazár Petzval: Významní matematici zo Spišskej Belej, Kežmarok: Jadro, 2007. ISBN 9788096962211 (Slovak)
  • Margita Valehrachová, Kúzelník spod Kahlenbergu, Bratislava: Perfekt, 2012. (Slovak)

External links